Council leader tells of frustration and anger over election count process and slams 'abrasive' attitude of Thurrock Council's senior officer

By Nub News Reporter

10th Jul 2024 | Local News

Cllr Gavin Callaghan (left) levied strong criticism at Thurrock Council CEO Dr David Smith after the delayed election count.
Cllr Gavin Callaghan (left) levied strong criticism at Thurrock Council CEO Dr David Smith after the delayed election count.

BASILDON Council's Labour leader has criticised the organisational capability of neighbouring Thurrock Council and included a bitter personal attack on Thurrock's senior officer, CEO and commissioner Dr Dave Smith.

Basildon leader Gavin Callaghan was speaking to the Local Government Chronicle in the wake of the protracted general election for South Basildon and East Thurrock constituency which stretched late into a second day.

The count was the second last in the country to be declared, outlasted only by the Inverness, Skye, and West Ross-shire declaration in the northern Highlands of Scotland.

Cllr Callaghan said he hoped he would never witness anything like it again in his political career.

The Basildon leader spoke after the count which saw his Labour fellow Basildon councillor Jack Ferguson ultimately pipped by Reform candidate James McMurdock by 98 votes.

That figure came after the initial count, which took place at Tilbury Cruise terminal, was adjourned and continued later on Friday, 5 July at the council chambers, with a result eventually declared around 5pm.

During the counting process three different sets of figures were given by Dr Smith to candidates. After the first count he reported a 127 vote win for Mr McMurdock, prompting Labout to ask for a recount.

Initially Dr Smith declined, saying he was happy with the result, but further pressure brought to bear by Conservatives, in support of Labour, prompted him to sanction a 'bundle check'.

After a lengthy period of time, during much of which which nothing appeared to be happening other than Dr Smith consulting with senior officer colleagues including Thurrock Council's Legal and Monitoring Officer Dan Fenwick, and then counting staff being sent home, Dr Smith advised candidates and agents the winning margin was 84 and that was close enough for him to sanction a recount.

However, as it was long past 5am and staff had been released, he said the count would be moved to the civic offices because the cruise terminal was not available during Friday daytime and he had released staff because they were tired and likely to be prone to further counting errors.

The count resumed in Grays around 2pm and took three hours to reach a conclusion.

Cllr Callaghan accused Dr Smith of "creating tension" and "causing frustrations" by speaking to candidates and agents in a "very abrasive" way when "emotions are running high" at the closely-contested seat.

As well as the South Basildon and East Thurrock count, Thurrock Council also managed the counting at the same venue for the Thurrock constituency, which took around five hours to successfully complete.

Cllr Callaghan believes Thurrock may not have been prepared for counting two constituencies in one night for the first time as he described finding incorrect ballot papers, "confusing" instructions from the monitoring officers and counting staff leaving before the result was declared.

He said: "I think some of us have PTSD after witnessing a count like that and then again the next day.

"You can accept losing and you can accept things happening but you can't accept having to question the integrity of the process time and time again and the parties were scratching our heads about some of the decisions that we were seeing and then some of the mistakes."

Cllr Callaghan also described how the counting process and concern with Thurrock's management of it had brought his party and Conservatives together in concern, saying he does not think the Tories and his team "have ever been so united in the last 15 years" and "I hope if I'm in politics in the next 30 years I'll never see a count like that ever again".

Cllr Callaghan accused the council of an "inconsistent approach" to verifying votes and suggested that "it wasn't as friendly as it could have been on both sides" so "there should be some learning about how the count was conducted".

In a response statement a spokesperson for Thurrock Council said it had "planned meticulously and prepared tirelessly for these elections".

The statement said its officers "took the decision to carry out first a bundle check, and then a recount given the closeness of the result", which is "in line with Electoral Commission advice and not an unusual scenario – similar checks and recounts were carried out in other parts of the country".

And added the council appreciates how the candidates and supporters "feel passionately about the accuracy of the result" and the returning officer was in "regular contact" with the teams "listening to and responding to their comments and feedback".

Though not acknowledging the different figures returned at three stages in the process, the statement concluded: "The recount provided complete assurance that the result was correct, and that the process was robust. At all three stages: the original count; the bundle check; and the recount, the result remained the same.

"We are proud of how our elections staff rose to the challenge of an extremely tight count under great scrutiny, and played their part in the general election."

Somewhat ironically, Dr Smith was previously CEO and returning officer at Sunderland Council which regularly produces the fastest election counts in the UK, sometimes with counts in one of its two constituencies declared before midnight. It's now probable that he holds the record for the fastest and slowest counts in England.


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