Much laughing and nervous hovering for first results

You could sense the anticipation in Sunderland as the clock ticked down to the 10 o’clock cut-off

Labour’s Bridget Phillipson, the first elected MP for the 2015 general election of Houghton and Sunderland South at the Sunderland Tennis Centre count. Photograph: Paul Kingston/PA

Labour’s Bridget Phillipson, the first elected MP for the 2015 general election of Houghton and Sunderland South at the Sunderland Tennis Centre count. Photograph: Paul Kingston/PA

 

Black ballot boxes, sprinting teenage volunteers sporting white gloves, yellow voting slips, eager counting fingers, nervous hovering candidates: at 22.03 a ripple of applause from some of the 200 primed counters in the swimming and tennis centre in the south of Sunderland set in motion the first declaration of the 2015 UK election.

You could sense the anticipation as the clock ticked down to the 10 o’clock cut-off and then you could hear the excitement in the hall as the first box arrived.

They were off.

That first ballot box was taken immediately to Team 16 of the 25 teams in the hall. At 22.04 came the second, and on it went. There were 121 polling stations across three constituencies and Labour were expected to win all three with comfort. Duly, they did.

That was why, presumably, Labour men in red ties were laughing as they waited for the first box, though there was a visible change after that first national exit poll came in and showed a large Conservative lead.

It was big enough to make even veterans gulp.

At 22.36 there was a five-minute warning given to the reporters gathered on the ‘media balcony’. In 2010 the declaration for Sunderland South was 22.52, but they have been galloping through the process here since 1992, when Sunderland gained city status, and the record was 22.43.

The proverbial military operation, Sunderland council announced their “tried and tested procedures”, which include lightweight ballot papers for more efficient and quicker counting; the use of “sixth-formers to run the ballot boxes into the centre”; the recruitment of “tellers from local banks and building societies who are used to handling paperwork and counting swiftly”; and drivers from the local social housing company – “strictly no speeding” and “no traffic lights are changed”.

Then again, boundary changes meant this was now the constituency of Houghton & Sunderland South and those five minutes came and went. But at 22.48, just 45 minutes after the first box appeared, returning officer Dave Smith climbed on to the little platform and said: “Can I have your attention please.”

The hall, full of such buzz, fell silent.

Smith, chief executive of Sunderland council, announced the Ukip figure first.

It was some moment, perhaps an indication of what the rest of the night could hold. Ukip, who received 1,022 votes here in 2010, had now 8,280. Their 2.7% of the poll had leapt to 21.4%.

The BNP stood here last time around, but not this, and their share had been 5.2%. It does not seem wholly unreasonable to think that many of those voters went to Nigel Farage’s party this time.

The full thump of that Ukip vote was felt seconds later when the Conservative candidate received 7,105. That was not just more than 1,000 less than Ukip, it was 1,000 less than 2010.

If that was ominous for the Tories, they could always console themselves that this constituency, in whatever guise, had been Labour since 1964. As the taxi driver had said: “People vote Labour here because their dad did, and his dad. That’s Sunderland.”

Still, the Conservatives had come behind Ukip in the night’s first declaration.

But for the Liberal Democrats there was no such consolation. Their vote collapsed like a demolished building. In 2010 they gained almost 14% of the vote; now that was 2%. Just 791 votes.

Then came the victor. Bridget Maeve Phillipson was the standing Labour MP and her share of the vote went up by a couple of thousand to 54%.

She made a brief speech in which she said: “The Tories have failed people here and across Britain.”

The Greens, who had not stood in 2010, got 1,095 votes, more than the Liberal Democrats and when at 23.14 the result for Sunderland Central was declared, the Greens had again beaten the Liberal Democrats.

This may have got lost in the bigger picture – another Labour win and another good showing by Ukip – but not to Nick Clegg, who was deputy prime minister a few weeks ago.

Finally, at 23.27 came the third and last result from Sunderland.

Another disaster for the Liberal Democrats, who lost their deposits in all three constituencies.

Again Labour won, again the MP was a woman. Again there was a short speech attacking the Tories.

But the mood in the hall had changed.

It was more subdued, the 2015 UK general election had moved on.