29% of seats have not changed hands since 1945

Cross-posted from The Wardman Wire:

A major part of the point of a democratic electoral system is that those elected to public office can be held to account by the public for their actions. The anger we often see over the behaviour of MPs – whether on matters of policy (such as the Iraq war) or on matters of probity (such as MPs’ expenses) – is often aggravated by an underlying lack of belief that MPs will in the normal course of events get held accountable for their actions. Hence the paucity of comments along the lines of “I can’t wait to vote that awful MP out at the next election”.

Looking at the evidence as to how our electoral system actually works in practice, it is remarkably ossified. Let’s first look at how many Parliamentary seats have been  consistently held by the same party since the end of Second World War, with no gain for another party in either 1945 or any of the sixteen general elections held since then:

England 30%
Scotland 19%
Wales 33%
Overall 29%

So in just a shade under a third of seats, nothing – social change, economic booms and busts, Tory landslides, Labour landslides, nationalist and third party surges and slumps, individual scandals or the impact of Churchill, Thatcher or Blair has been enough to see the seat change hands, even just the once.

You have to be of pensionable age in order to be able to remember when 29% of constituencies last changed hands.

Even for a pensioner, it would be a stretch to remember back to when 11% of seats last changed hands, because in those cases it was before the First World War.

If we look back at the election landscape since 1970, the message about how rarely seats change hands is repeated. The proportion that has stayed with the same party since 1970 is:

England 50%
Scotland 42%
Wales 43%
Overall 49%

So if you are under 40, nearly half the seats in the country have never changed hands since you were born. That doesn’t look like a system which is holding MPs to account for their behaviour.

A note on the figures: the raw data for these figures was kindly supplied by Lewis Baston at the Electoral Reform Society. The figures take into account boundary changes and Parliamentary by-elections. Where Parliamentary boundaries have changed constituencies have been tracked back until a significant part of the constituency was represented by another party. This produces some cases of close judgement, but the overall figures are robust.

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17 Comments

  • Is this particularly indicative or are my calculations competely flawed?

    Over that time:
    The Tories have polled between 30 and 49%
    Labour have polled between 28 and 48%

    So on a straight PR system at least 58% of all seats would have remained in Labour or Tory hands throughout that period – OK they would almost certainly not be the same ones (at the very least the breakdown of religious tory voting in Glasgow and Liverpool has had an effect) but these figures could be just as indicative of a very high base level of support for each of the two largest parties.

  • Let’s say you have STV on six seat constituencies. Whatever the election I’d put a pound to a penny that in 90% of those seats Labour could always win one, the Tories one and the Libs one. In a large chunk of them Labour would always win two or the Tories two – no matter how bad the election the Tories would always scrape up 30% of the vote (or whatever the benchmark is for two out of six) in most of the Home Counties, Labour the same in the Valleys, inner London and the industrial cities, and the Liberals in the South West. I’d bank that as 50% of seats never changing hands.

    So every system has safe seats. What’s your point?

  • Wrigglesworth 10th Sep '09 - 4:16pm

    There’s one problem with this argument, which is this: why have so many seats not changed hands? Believe it or not, the reason is because voters decided they didn’t want them to change hands. Safe seats CAN change hands if voters want them to: look at Tatton in 1997 or Nottingham North in 1983 or Solihull in 2005.

  • Elizabeth Charlton 10th Sep '09 - 9:36pm

    I live in Canterbury which has to be one of the safest seats in the country. It’s gone Conservative at every election since 1874. Deeply scary and frustrating stuff :(

  • “I live in Canterbury which has to be one of the safest seats in the country. It’s gone Conservative at every election since 1874. Deeply scary and frustrating stuff”

    Why scary? More people in Canterbury have voted Conservative in each of those elections and it’s probably been above 50% most of that time (it was even in 1997).

  • Elizabeth Charlton 11th Sep '09 - 6:34pm

    Hywel,

    Because it suggests that no matter what the MP does, he will still be elected and relected in Canterbury so long as he’s wearing the right rosette.

  • Maybe but consider:

    1) Neil Hamilton and the guy in Wyre Forest suggest otherwise.
    2) Plenty of MPs have been deselected by their constituency party for various indiscretions (i’m not suggesting that it is a good solution but there certainly isn’t a “seat for life” arrangement)
    3) If Canterbury was a 6 seat STV constituency it would have returned at least 3 Conservatives at every election (certainly recently). If one of those consistently got the party support to be the “prioritised” candidate it would be very hard to vote them out – arguably harder than under FPTP.

  • Wrigglesworth: “Safe seats CAN change hands if voters want them to: look at Tatton in 1997 or Nottingham North in 1983 or Solihull in 2005.”

    Nottingham North 1983 is a bad example. A popular Communist Party candidate scored 2,000-ish votes, slightly less than he scored in the City Council elections held in the same time frame as I recall. The Tory won by less than the unimaginable Communist vote.

    The popular Communist, John Peck, won the City Council seat in 1987, eventually joining the Green Party.

  • Wrigglesworth 11th Sep '09 - 8:55pm

    A bad candidate is usually either deselected or turns a safe seat into a marginal. If a seat, like Canterbury, remains with one party it may be because most voters want it to be that way.

3 Trackbacks

  • By The LDV Friday Five (ish) on Fri 11th September 2009 at 6:54 pm.

    [...] Gavin Webb quits Lib Dems, joins Libertarian Party (113) by Stephen Tall 2. 29% of seats have not changed hands since 1945 (11) by Mark Pack 3. Video: Don’t let the Tories airbrush history (6) by The Voice 4. Save [...]

  • By Imagine having a well-paid job for life | Mark Pack on Fri 6th November 2009 at 10:47 pm.

    [...] may find the opening contains an electoral statistic which sounds rather familiar. I wonder if this post will make it to national TV [...]

  • By The 2010 general election: it’s a game of three halves on Sun 21st February 2010 at 7:56 pm.

    [...] since 1970 49% of Parliamentary seats have not changed hands at any of the general elections which have taken place. For half of the country’s constituencies [...]

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