It's 1:30 in the morning and there's no sign of Hazel Blears in the hall of Buile Hill High School, where the count is taking place for the two Salford constituencies of Salford and Eccles, and Worsley and Eccles South. All the other candidates are walking round and round the tables where huge piles of ballot papers are being sorted, trying to figure out the final score. But it's already obvious that both Hazel Blears for Salford and Barbara Keeley for Worsely are going to win.
Every major tv station has a crew here, waiting for Hazel's downfall – they obviously haven't read the Salford script. That Salford is a Labour city and people are voting for Labour's social policies of child tax credits and stuff like that. Voters' hearts might be screaming `Expenses!' but their financial deprivation is screaming `Help!' And the Tories ain't going to deliver that.
It's 1:40am in the `media room' where a BBC crew sit watching the national results, and on the big screen a `political commentator' is losing it… "There's various swings all over the place" he yelps. The on screen scene switches to Ed Miliband – can he tell what's going on all over the country? "I've no idea" he smiles… "It's hugely complicated" says Paxman…
It's 1:50am – there's been 57 declarations. David Dimbleby asks another BBC political commentator "Can you make sense of this chaos?" The cameras flick to Fallowfield in Manchester where there's more chaos at the unpolling booths… "We've been disenfranchised!" screams an exasperated woman…And back to David Dimbleby… "It's a very mysterious election" he offers…
It's 2:16am – out in the counting hall there is no mystery – it's business as usual for Salford politics. Hazel's votes are piling up, frantically being tallied by, what look like students with Labour rosettes. People begin drifting home, aware that the 3am result isn't going to be expected until 4am.
At some point Hazel Blears arrives, flanked by police, husband and lackies keeping photographers at bay. She smiles. She already knows she's won. After ten minutes of walking around inspecting the votes and greeting party workers, she sits down, then she goes to the toilet. The media have already lost interest.
3am comes and goes. 4am comes and goes with the obvious announcement that Barbara Keeley has won in Worsely (see here). No mystery here. No wild swings. No chaos.
Over on the counting tables, the votes are now being pegged into groups of 50, with different colour pegs for each party. Red for Labour, yellow for Lib Dem, blue for Tory, green for Hazel Must Go!, an appropriate grey for the BNP and various other shades for various other fringe candidates. Heaps of red pegged ballot papers are spread all over the tables, and there's a metaphor there about enough red pegs to hang Hazel's dirty washing in public or something, but it's too early in the morning to even think about it.
Somebody mentions Broughton – now part of the new Blackley and Broughton constituency. Salford's voting papers have been taken to Manchester Town Hall to be counted and no-one knows what the hell's going on over there, except there's no result announced. It's 5am and here in Salford they're finally announcing the result…
Hazel Blears – loads of votes. Norman Owen – not enough votes. David Henry/Hazel Must Go! – only a small amount of votes. Other parties – some votes (see here for result).
Hazel makes a speech. And suddenly something very weird happens. She thanks the counting staff. She thanks the police. And then, she thanks the Tory candidate. And only the Tory candidate…"I'd also like to thank Matthew Sephton for being an extremely good candidate and I wish him well for the future". Wishing a Tory well for the future? Isn't that why Hazel got re-elected – to fight for Salford people against everything the Tories stand for – the vicious cuts in benefits and all that? And there she is, wishing them well for the future?
How strange. How very, very strange… In the next breath Hazel adds… "The issues that are important to the people of this city are about jobs, about making sure we have an economy and are going to be able to prosper in the future. It's about looking after our National Health Service, making sure our education and schools are the best for the people of this city – these are the important issues – things like policing, making sure we are safe on the streets, making sure that the people of Salford get a fair deal - these are the issues that I intend to focus on relentlessly over the next few years…
"I make my promise now" she adds "I will make sure that everyone in this city gets a fair deal, and that we will look after the most vulnerable and the people who really need our help."
And the first act after being elected is wishing the Tories well? A point noted by Steven North of the Hazel Must Go! campaign, who is not downbeat at all about the 730 votes David Henry pulled…
"I think we've done really well" he says "For the length of time we've been in existence and the lack of coverage we've received in the mainstream media. We've had limited resources compared to the other parties, but we've had a good turnout in the areas that we've canvassed in and knocked on doors and talked to people. It gives us confidence to build on that and that's what we intend to do because we know what's coming in Salford.
"And we know that no-one else is going to stand up to those cuts" he adds "We will get more involved in campaigns and against job losses in social care and hospitals. So I think this is a really good base for us to continue."
And neither is Norman Owen, the Lib Dem candidate, downbeat…
"I think we've chipped away at the Labour majority even further, and for the first time I can see that the Lib Dems both in the general election and local votes are making inroads into Labour domination.
"I think the people of Salford have to start to question the way they continue to vote for Labour" he adds "You cannot complain week in week out that you get poor service, that your MP is not delivering or found wanting over expenses, and then you return the same people by voting for them again.
"The reason that Hazel has got in" he decides "is about the amount of money that was spent on leafleting and expenses in other areas, and that will be looked at by the Lib Dem team.
"For twelve years this lady did nothing, let's make that clear" he concludes "And she's turned up late this evening with an air of arrogance. To me that is a questionable attitude and behaviour…"
It's 5:30am. Outside, the birds are singing, and the Salford morning is breaking with a bad splutter of rain…Around the country there might be mad swings, complications and chaos. But here in Salford it's political business as usual.
See photos from the count here
Update here - The Country Slags Salford 10th May 2010
Photos by Albert Spiby
See previous Hazel article