‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Monday, 15 July 2013

Are ‘Safe Seats’ only safe because no-one attacks them?

In election campaigns parties don’t ‘waste’ their efforts attacking other parties’ ‘safe seats’. At first sight this seems entirely logical – surely it is easier to capture a seat from an opponent with only a small majority?

However, in marginal seats MPs are alert to the danger of defeat, they campaign effectively and receive extra support from head office. They are well-defended.

On the other hand, safe seats often have less active MPs and the constituency party machines will not be geared up for intensive campaigning. Complacency often sets in. The expenses scandal affected established MPs in safer seats much more than newer MPs in marginal seats. Safe seats are not well-defended. Voter loyalty and party membership are declining.

When they have come under attack, safe Labour seats at Bradford West and Blaenau Gwent (Labour majority over 30,000 in 1992) have fallen. The Conservatives lost Tatton to the Independent MP, Martin Bell in 1997 and at the last election the Lib Dems lost their most reliably-held seat at Montgomeryshire, while capturing Redcar which had had a Labour majority of over 21,000 in 1997.

So, is it a self-fulfilling prophecy that safe seats won’t change hands? Are safe seats only safe because no-one bothers to attack?


  1. Bradford West, Blaenau Gwent and Tatton were fought under very special circumstances and are poor examples.

    Redcar was allegedly down to New Labour's failing to save the Tees-side Steel Works.

    Montgomeryshire? Surely the two words 'Lembit Opik' are all you need to explain that one....

  2. Many of them are indeed one-off examples, as there has not really be a general campaign by the other parties to win these seats, so they have fallen under unusual circumstances. The fact that they were lost by the incumbent party suggests that they were not as safe as many thought.

  3. You do on occasion get a negative incumbency effect for the likes of Hamilton and Opik.

    The ERS report on 2010 states fairly emphatically that almost all safe seats stayed safe:

    'The marginal seats were once again the
    decisive element of the general election. The
    result in most ‘safe’ seats was that which
    could be easily predicted from the size of their
    majorities in 2005 and a knowledge of national
    trends. There were very few exceptions.....

    The Conservatives in Hampstead & Kilburn also deserve an honourable mention for falling only 42 votes short of gaining the seat from third place, despite its lowly 226th place on their target list, as do the Lib Dems in Hull
    North, where a swing of 12.2 per cent was not
    quite enough to overturn Labour’s majority in
    the Lib Dems’ 180th target.

    Only three seats in Great Britain that changed
    hands required a swing of more than 10 per
    cent – Cannock Chase, Montgomeryshire and
    Redcar. In Cannock, Harrogate, Winchester
    and the special circumstances of Norwich
    North, the high swing accompanied the
    retirement of an incumbent MP. This suggests
    that even in an election such as 2010 where
    there was wide variation in the size of the
    swing, parties could take the bulk of seats
    for granted – there are 207 Labour seats
    outside the 8 per cent swing range, of which
    three were lost, a mortality of around 1.5 per
    cent even in an election when the Labour
    vote dropped sharply. Of the 210 notionally
    Conservative seats, the mortality rate was
    only slightly higher, with two genuine losses
    to the Lib Dems in seats with small majorities
    (Eastbourne and Wells) and one seat won by the Lib Dems in 2005 but had a tiny notional Tory majority after boundary changes (Solihull)'.

  4. The copy and pasting did not go well and there was also a table of the 10 "most ‘Non-marginal’ seats changing hands in 2010, in rough order of implausibility":

    Belfast East DUP to Alliance

    Redcar Lab to LD

    Montgomeryshire LD to Con

    Chesterfield LD to Lab

    Cannock Chase Lab to Con

    Harrogate & Knaresborough LD to Con

    Oxford West & Abingdon LD to Con

    Norwich North* Lab to Con

    Winchester LD to Con

    Brent Central* Lab to LD

    What is interesting about that list is that if you knock off the Ulster seat and the two * that flipped in a by-election and stayed flipped at the GE , 5 out of 7 of those safest seats that changed hands were Lib Dem held.

    And if we could set a reasonable definition of a safe seat in 2005 that was lost in 2010 you'd probably find a far higher proportion of Lib Dem-held seats fall into that category than Tory or Lab seats.

    The obvious conclusion to be drawn from which (and of course from the last 3 years opinion polls and local elections) is that Lib Dem support is - or rather was - wide but not at all deep and that the threshold of 'safe' for a Lib Dem has to be set considerably higher than for other parties.