The 12 Op-Eds of Christmas (Day 8)

Throughout the festive season, LDV is offering our readers a load of repeats another chance to read the 12 most popular opinion articles which have appeared on the blog since 1st January, 2009. The fifth most-read LDV op-ed of 2009 was by LDV co-editor Mark Pack, and originally appeared on 8th September …

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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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • NoOffenceAlan 1st Jan '10 - 2:29pm

    ‘Safe’ seats are not the problem with the FPTP system – the voters of, say, Bootle are very happy to always have a Labour MP represent them.
    The problem is the 3-or-4-way marginals where only a small minority of voters get the representative they prefer.

  • Malcolm Todd 2nd Jan '10 - 10:45am

    @NoOffenceAlan – you’re completely wrong! Safe seats are indeed a problem, because 30-50% of the voters are completely unrepresented and have no chance of ever being represented, or to put it another way – they may as well not vote. Even swing voters may as well not vote. For example, not only will my turning out to vote LibDem (or indeed Green or Labour) in the spring make no difference to the result of the election, since Ken Clarke is my MP and that ain’t about to change; but even if I were to decide, in some drug-befuddled confusion, that the Tories had all the right answers, that it was essential that Dave Camewrong plant his arse in Downing St to save us all – well, that still wouldn’t make any difference, because it doesn’t matter whether Clarke wins by 5,000 votes or 20,000. The chief problem with FPTP is that most people are effectively wasting their time by turning out to vote.

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