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Study Notes

Safe Seats

Level:
AS, A-Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 31 Aug 2017

A safe seat is one in which the incumbent has a considerable majority over the closest rival and which is largely immune from swings in voting choice. The same political party retains the seat from election to election.

A majority of seats in UK Westminster constituencies are safe seats, due to the requirement for only a simple majority, and the ability of larger parties to concentrate support in defined geographical areas. According to Electoral Calculus, the safest Labour seat in the UK is Liverpool Walton, and the safest Conservative seat is Buckingham. The existence of safe seats partly explains the relatively low turnout seen in many UK General Elections.

In the 2005 General Election only 219 constituencies, or around one third of contested seats, saw a candidate win with over 50 per cent of the vote.  The smallest percentage of the electorate voting for the winning candidate came in Poplar & Canning Town, where only 18.36% of eligible voters backed Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick (he won 40.1% of the vote, from a turnout of 61.8%; an 11.4% swing went against him but he still held the seat comfortably). The lowest turnout also came in a safe seat, Staffordshire South, held without interruption by the Conservative Party since being formed as a new seat in 1983. This constituency saw a turnout of only 37.21%, although this election was postponed to June 2005 due to the death of a candidate. The lowest figure on election day was 41.51%, in the safe Labour seat of Liverpool Riverside, another new seat in 1983. Liverpool Riverside has only ever had two MPs: the current incumbent, Louise Ellman, has been in post from 1997, taking over from Robert Parry.

The number of safe seats increased significantly in the 2017 general election. Seats won with a margin of over 50% rose from 21 seats in 2015 to 35 in 2017. Seats won with a margin between 45% and 50% also increased from 18 in 2015 to 29 in 2017.

The phrase ‘electoral desert’ denotes a region of the country, such as certain large areas within the south of England (excluding London) that contain many ‘safe’ Conservative seats, where there is effectively ‘no contest’ on polling day, given the ability of the dominant party to concentrate its electoral support in that particular geographical area. The area then becomes a ‘desert’ for rival political parties, whose supporters can have little realistic hope of representation. Ambitious politicians in such regions are forced to seek election in other parts of the country, which again denies local people representation but which also unfairly perpetuates the negative stereotype of opportunistic politicians seeking power regardless of a lack of connection to a local area.

Moreover, whereas Nigel Farage failed to win election in the traditional Labour-Conservative marginal of South Thanet in 2015 due to the plethora of candidates (10) who stood alongside him, a ‘safe seat’ is unlikely to offer voters such a choice; this is bad for pluralist democracy and clearly undermines any attempt to develop a genuine multi-party culture. One could point to the rising popularity of parties such as the SNP and UKIP as evidence that the old two-party certainties are being overcome, yet the SNP itself created an ‘electoral desert’ for Labour and the Conservatives in Scotland, winning 95% of the seats available in spite of polling just over half of the popular vote in 2015, and UKIP of course is barely represented at all, in spite of winning almost 4million votes in 2015 and until recently polling as the UK’s third party. That said, the SNP’s performance in the 2017 General Election declined, and they retained just 35 of their 56 seats, losing 13 of them to the Conservatives.

Safe seats not only effectively disenfranchise and demotivate voters, they also reduce the political importance of the areas concerned when it comes to allocating resources and framing policy. In addition, critics of FPTP argue that safe seats create complacent MPs with ‘jobs for life’ who are free to take voters for granted. It was even suggested by the 'Yes to fairer votes' campaign in 2011 that the prevalence of safe seats had a bearing on the scale of the MPs' expenses scandal exposed by the Daily Telegraph in 2009; most would say this goes too far both in its dismissive attitude toward MPs and in the methodological error it makes in confusing correlation with causation, but it is nevertheless a good example of the frustration felt in relation to this issue.

The Safest Seats in the 2017 (June) General Election: Source: House of Commons Research Library

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