I ate cranberries while Sir Christopher Bland said he feared it had been a bad night for swingometers

<em>Election Night - the parties</em>

I remember my uncle Edwin's election-night parties in Northwich in Cheshire. There was bright blue Bols, the Dutch liqueur, for those who voted Conservative; negronis, a mixture of gin, Campari and red vermouth, for Labour; and yellow chartreuse for the Liberals - as they were then. And that's about all I remember.

But on this election night I was very sober. That was the word that Tony Blair used and that was the way it was at all the parties I went to. The media couple Sarah and Nick Ross have held an election night party for the past 20 years or so. "Everyone's usually excited," Nick told me, "but this year there's utter indifference. We've got two televisions tuned into the result here and virtually no one's watching." I tackled a group of five of the non-viewers, who included two hospital consultants, and was staggered to hear that three of them hadn't bothered to vote. I reached out for the basil and lavender ice-cream that came past, and turned my attention to Peter Bazalgette.

This is the man who brought Big Brother to our screens. He was wearing tartan trousers in which red, blue and yellow were cunningly mingled. For him, the high point of the evening so far was to see Esther Rantzen at the Shaun Woodward count. "It makes me think," he said, "that every parliamentary candidate in future should have a celebrity sponsor." In the hall, I found a film mogul terrified by the thought that sterling will plunge, on the assumption that Labour will now steam full ahead to embrace the euro. And there was Anthony Neuberger, of the London Business School, disappointed by the fickleness of politics: "If there's a swing to Hague, then he's a wonderful fellow - if there's a swing away and the Conservative drop more seats, then get rid of him."

I peered into the television room. Howell James, former political secretary to John Major, was sitting on the floor with his ear pressed to the speaker. Here at last was a man gripped by the election, it seemed. I sat beside him. "We're all polled out," he said. Howell remembered being at John Major's home, in 1997. "We knew what the result would be. It was like being in a home with someone very ill; but when the end comes it's very final. We know what the result is going to be this time, but there's no edge to it because everyone's voted not for change, but for continuity."

At the BBC party at the Television Centre studios, they clamped an identity bracelet around our wrists, like handcuffs, before we were allowed in to meet the director-general. But Greg Dyke was perky and predictably proud of the professional operation the BBC was putting on. His chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, already with one foot in BT, regretted that there was so little change in support for the main parties, as it meant Peter Snow's electronic swingometer couldn't really come into its own. We were offered jelly - little glasses of it made with vodka. It came in three colours: red with cranberries; yellow with cumquat; blue with elderflower. I settled for cranberries - it was more interesting than what was happening on the huge television screens around us.

I met the New Zealand high commissioner. "Where were the car streamers or bells at this election?" he asked. "Perhaps the lack of interest and the low turnout is because you hold your general elections on a Thursday. In New Zealand, they're on a Saturday, when more people are about - I think it makes for a livelier atmosphere." He also let slip that his prime minister was one New Zealander who subscribed to the New Statesman. The BBC was certainly full of very smart guests, including Lord Eatwell, the dashing president of Queens' College, Cambridge, and former economic adviser to Neil Kinnock: "The right-wing character of today's Conservative Party," he said, "has condemned it to be in opposition for the foreseeable future. They need their own Neil Kinnock with the political ability to bring the Conservative Party back to the centre."

On to the ITN party at Millbank - still wearing our BBC handcuffs. We walked into a buzzing atmosphere - was it just the acoustics? - and met Stephen Sherbourne, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher: "Think how Labour people must have felt in 1983." he said. "Would they ever have believed that in 14 years' time they'd have one massive landslide followed by another? Of course not. The Tory party must come to terms with what the country's like today and connect with people - not view the world through the Daily Telegraph's eyes and think that's how the world is. It's not a matter of giving up principles, but understanding how people live today."

One of our hosts, the ITN boss Stuart Purvis, reflected - soberly again - on how much these elections programmes cost and how relatively few people really want to watch them. The TGWU leader Bill Morris was watching the TV screen with a wary satisfaction: "Now the government is on trust for another four or five years," he said. Tony Robinson, the actor and member of the Labour Party NEC, caught my eye - he, too, was watching the TV screen in a sober sort of way: "But we must be allowed to cheer and yell Yes!!! for a couple of days," he said.

Time to go home. We cut off our BBC handcuffs and went to bed.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, There are years of fun to come