How to cover a general election live (with a 20-year delay)

After several months, 777 tweets, and over 3,000 followers, my little media project to cover the General Election 1997, @Election1997, is over and it’s time to do some reviewing and learning some lessons. It was, well, fun. When I started, I could not have forecast its overlapping with a new General Election, but that was just a lucky strike (and I’m not talking about the result). The BBC went into purdah mode and cancelled its coverage of the 1997 election night, leaving my account to do it (well, they probably were not aware, but thank you regardless).

People sometimes ask me how difficult it was to code it. Not much, really. The whole tweeting framework wasn’t more than 10 lines of code. The data came mostly from two sources: Mark Pack’s excellent opinion polls archive, and David Boothroyd’s constituency declaration times page.

What’s more interesting is when people ask me why I did it, especially as many tend to attack me from both left and right. I’ve been asked “Are you a Blairite?” and “Are you a Corbynite?” more or less an equal number of times.

Interestingly, the account’s followers count picked up speed very quickly. By the evening I launched it, it had about 500 followers, which would grow to over 3100 by the time it finished tweeting (curiously, it still receives new followers each week together with people mentioning it thinking it’s about current elections — you haven’t seen the number in the handle, folks?). Many of these were journalists or national politicians.

I ascribe most of the early success to John Elledge, who a few minutes after launch perfectly captured the spirit of the account: “a cruel f***ing joke”.

I actively avoided taking sides, wishing the account to just replicate the events of 1997 without any bias. But I was really happy that some others used the account to make their own political points, including arch-Blairite John Rentoul, subtle as usual.

It was good to see a lot of engagement too. Some of it came from other press and media outlets. Tony Blair’s proposals for the homeless were captured by an interview on the Big Issue magazine which I was unable to find; however, their account replied with a screenshot of the issue.

Other than this, @Election1997 got attention from both sides of the political spectrum, including weird matches like Brexit Central’s editor,

parody accounts,

and even real former MPs.

Some shared their best winning memories (maybe not quite the political ones):

The account tweeted a fair deal of videos, including the so called “Tony Blair biopic”. There wasn’t much reaction to any of them. What really seemed to capture people’s imagination was the opinion polls. In a context were Labour was considered unelectable (as it was commonly described just days before the 2017 election), polls placing it on 55% while Conservatives were under 30% sounded like science fiction to many.

Some people felt their health threatened by the account,

while others displayed a masochistic attitude.

For others, I can’t quite tell if they’re serious or not,

although confusion seemed a common reaction.

After announcing Iain Mills’ death in January 1997, this account tweeted

although to be fair they claim they were just getting into the 1997 mood:

What I found remarkable, while following the unfolding on the election through the account, was how much political language has changed in just 20 years. The language of the 1990s was one based on broadcast media, on thinking social interactions still mostly based around families sitting down the dining table together (sorry if I sound a bit John Major here). The TV broadcasts were slow, with the party leader speaking for 4 minutes (John Major’s broadcasts are famously used by people with sleeping disorders).

Even the very forward-looking TV broadcasts by the Lib Dems look quite not as fast as today’s soundbites announcements. Actually, there are very little soundbites all over the place.

The presence of a Count Tolstoi as UKIP candidate generated a fair bit of attention.

But my favourite reactions were those using 1997 results to make political points about today — which I’m not quite sure it’s a sensible thing to do just for political hooliganism (regardless of the actual politics involved, I mean)

(wasn’t the last one sweet?)

What else could I have done? Some people asked things like swing-o-meters (I did one for the 2017 election, by the way), and things like

With better data available, I could have probably got this a bit more engaging. But the truth is — @Election1997 wanted to be a hands-off project. Not a data obsession, but a media experiment to see how people would relate to an old election with loads of implications on today’s politics. In this sense, it did trigger conversations, discussions, and a bit of trolling. I’ve had fun.

What next?