Know Your Limits

In the UK, the size and number of  constituencies is determined by the Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  The number of constituencies is currently under review and it was planned to reduce the 650 constituencies to just 600.  The review will be implemented with Parliamentary approval by the General Election of 2022.

The aim of the commission is for each constituency to consist of roughly 70k people.  The largest of these is Isle of Wight at 108,804.  The smallest is Na h-Eileanan an Iar at 21,769.  The largest constituency in the UK, geographically, is Ross, Skye and Lochaber – which is about 12,000 sq km. The smallest is Islington North, whose area is just 727 hectares (Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency).  

Most constituencies have undergone substantial changes over the years.  Lincoln however has remained unchanged since 1265.  It won the title of oldest constituency when the city of York was split in two in 2010.  



Scotland the Brave 

Billy Connelly once said that there are two seasons in Scotland, June and Winter.  It has been winter in Scotland for the Conservative Party for a very long time.  At the last election I wrote a similar election countdown.  Last time on day minus 25 I stayed “The last time the Conservative had a majority of MPs in Scotland was 1955. They lost all their Seats in 1997 including the then Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind’s seat. They regained 1 seat by 2001 and that was sustained through 2010 (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale). I predict they hold this seat by about 1000 votes. This will continue to be their only constituency in Scotland.”  Well I was nearly right.  The Conservatives did only win one seat, but their margin of victory was cut by over 3000.  David Mundell’s victory was just two votes short of a majority of 800 with the SNP hot on his heals.

2015 was significant for Scotland because that year the Conservatives were joined by the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats as one MP parties.  This was the year that the SNP dominated Scottish parliamentary elections.  They won 56 out of 59 on a turnout of 76%.  Now why is this important?  Will the SNP be able to replicate or improve upon their 2015 performance.  The short answer is probably not.  This is certainly part of the calculation of choosing now to call a general election.  You can’t fight a war on two fronts.  The hope will be that the SNP cannot perform as well as they did and therefore any loss of seats or votes will be the death knell of any hopes of a second referendum.

Even though the polls are suggesting a resurgence for the Conservatives in Scotland and a possibly a Tory revival in the handful of constituencies that have Brexit sympathies.  Chris Hanretty points out that there were a handful of 49% leave constituencies as well as the only “leave” majority constituency of Banff and Buchan.

The SNP are likely to lose a number of seats but not to any one party.  Swing won’t be uniform to the Conservatives.  The LDs will pick up a few and even Labour is likely to gain.  In fact I will stick my neck on the line now and say the Conservatives will win less than either the LDs or Labour.

 The Biggest Loser

Today I want to tell you about 4 losers.  You can decided who the biggest loser was for yourself.  The first loser is Bill Boaks.  Bill was a former Navy man, born in 1904.  He stood first in 1951 in Walthamstow East, mistaking it for the then Prime Ministers constituency.  Clem Atlee was actually the MP for Walthamstow West.  Boaks eventually got the right constituency when he stood in 56.  This however was a by-election triggered by the stepping down of Atlee.  In total Boaks stood in 40 elections.  That however is not where his record lies.  His record lies in the lowest number of voters gained at a Parliamentary election.  In 1982 he received just 5 votes in the Glasgow Hillhead by-election.  He died four years later as the result of a traffic accident.  Ironically road safety was something he campaign on in every election he stood in as well as bringing a private prosecution against Atlee’s wife, a notoriously poor driver.

Maybe you think Screaming Lord Sutch’s 41 loses constitutes the biggest loser.  From 1963 to 1997 Sutch stood in some of the most high profile election races.  Maybe he isn’t such a loser, after all around 7 manifesto pledges made it into law.

The world record for most election loses goes to John C. Turmel a Canadian and according to the Guinness Book of Records holds the records for the most elections contested.  Some are disputed but it is around 90.

Whilst not a parliamentary election there has been an election where the candidate received no votes despite both he and his family voting for him.  Paul Dennis, Trade Union and Socialist Coalition in Rainham North ward in the local elections in Kent received zero votes despite insisting he actually voted for himself.

the choice is yours… well sometimes 

This is the story of uncontested elections.  We previously saw that in Sedgefield in 2005, 15 candidates stood, the most in any single contest.  Now hopefully most of you understand what is meant by the term safe seat but what is the safest seat? It is one which is uncontested.  It is fortunate for democracy that you have to go relatively far back to find a seat where only one candidate stood in a general election.  You need to cross the sea to Northern Ireland and go back to 1954 where you will find C.W. Armstrong standing unopposed in Armagh.  The by-election was triggered after James Harden MP resigned to develop some farm land he had inherited in Wales.  Harden himself had also won the seat unopposed in 50 and 51.  In 51 there were 3 other constituencies that were uncontested, all in Northen Ireland.  The last uncontested seats on the mainland were in 1945, one is Liverpool and one in Rhondda.  

There is a convention among the main political parties that they will not contest the speakers seat.  In 2010 Speaker Bercow’s constituency of Buckingham saw 10 other cadindates challenge him.  This did not include the main 3 parties.  One of the highest profile candidates was UKIP leader Nigel Farrage who placed third.  Second place, with just over 10000 votes went to ‘Buckingham Campaign for Democracy’.  5 years later only the Greens and UKIP contested the seat.  

After the tragic death of Jo Cox there were calls that the seat go uncontested to Labour as a sign of respect. The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens chose not to field candidates however due to the high profile nature of the by-election a larger than usual number of candidates stood including the BNP and the National Front.  

Finally a word in the local elections.

In advance of last week there were just short of 100 council seats that were already won before a single ballot was marked. Wales had a staggering 92 seats that were uncontested and England had just 4.  In one ward in Wales the political parties were not able to field a single candidates. So now in Powys in the ward of Yscir no one represents the local people there.

Most Candidates

Most of us are used to a ballot paper with 4 perhaps, 5 candidates but every now and again some constituencies have a high-profile.  This tends to happen in the constituencies of party leaders.  In the 2015 election David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency of Whitney saw 13 candidates including Reduce VAT in sport party and Give me back Elmo.  This constituency saw a by-election in the following year after Cameron stepped down and with it a 14 candidate race.  This time as well as a few old favourites standing Bus Pass Elvis stood as well as the One Love Party.

I’m lucky enough to have a ballot paper from the 2003 California Gubernatorial recall election.  On the ballot appear 135 candidates.  Now I’m not sure if this is a record but I would imagine it is up there.  This election saw the recall of Democratic Incumbant Gray Davis and the Election of Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger.

Now the party with the largest number of candidates in the UK, each of whom paid a 500 pound deposit was Sedgfield, during the 2005 election.  This of course was Tony Blair’s old constituency.  Unusually there were far less stunt candidate that year.  Sure the monster raving looney party ran, Kilroy’s short-lived Veritas ran and a little known ‘Blair must Go’ party received just over 100, but there was a higher than usual number of independents who ran.  5 to be exact with the highest profile one being Reg Keys.

Reg Key’s son was a military policeman who lost his life in Iraq in 2003.  That year Key’s came in 4th not far behind the Liberal Democrat candidate.   One BBC journalist reported it thus… ”  Independent Reg Keys polled 10% of the vote in Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency on an anti-war ticket. But it was his moving lament for the son he lost in Iraq that will linger in the memory – not for Mr Keys’ words necessarily, although these were powerful enough, but for Tony Blair’s expression as he listened to them. ‘I hope in my heart that one day the prime minister will be able to say sorry, that one day he will say sorry to the families of the bereaved,’ said Mr Keys. Mr Blair’s attempt to look impassive and expressionless will, inevitably, be replayed time and again whenever the story of his premiership is told on television.”

close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades…oh and elections

This is the story of the most marginal constituencies.  There is not official definition of a marginal.  Many people place it at a 5000 vote difference between first and second place, or less.  There have been 32 constituencies where the winner won by 30 votes or less.  In 1997 Mark Oaten, Liberal Democrat beat his Conservative rival by just 2 votes.  The election was marked by controversy as another candidate ran under the banner “liberal democrat top choice for Parliament”.  This guy, Richard Huggard had also ran as a candidate in a European election back in ’94 as a literal democrat (no typo), garnering over 10000 votes.  This practice of choosing a similar or confusing name was outlawed a few years later.

There are 146 marginal constituencies this election with the most marginal being Gower.  A switch of 27 votes would swing the election from Conservative to Labour.  That is of course assuming the same people voted in the same way.  We know this doesn’t happen and this phenomenon is called churn.

Have you ever wondered what happens if there is a dead heat?  Firstly there will be a recount.  Then probably another one.  If there is still an equal number of votes between first and second then it is up to the acting returning officer to decide how the winner is chosen.  A coin toss is one suggested method.

In the 1886 election, there was a tie between John Edmund Wentworth Addison MP and the Liberal candidate. The rules at the time stated that the presiding officer had a casting vote, and this was given in due course to the incumbent.  Addison was reelected.

My First Vote

May 1st 20 years ago saw the historic landslide of New Labour after 18 years in the wilderness.  It was a few weeks prior to my A level exams and as a politics student I was excited.  I had been 18 since the previous October and now I could finally vote in an election.  The constituency I lived in was North East Derbyshire.  This had been a safe labour seat since 1935, when it previous and rather unexpectedly fell to the Conservatives the election before.  Veteran left winger Harry Barnes had been the MP since 1987 and would win the seat one more time 2001.

My polling station was the civic centre and I made my way there after school with Zoe, one of my friends and fellow politics students.  I stayed up for most of the night, the coverage was electric.  Who would lose their seat next? Would there even be an opposition.  I remember Anthony King saying landslide was not a strong enough word to describe what was happening.  Mellor was out, Portillo and then Rifkind.  Cabinet ministers, junior minister even those in some of the safest seats in the country were falling victim to the “not strong enough a word landslide”. The map below makes it look close but it wasn’t.  It was nowhere near.

The Conservative party, dogged by scandal and fatigue, lost 178 seats.  It was an electoral blood bath.  Tony Blair gained a majority of 179 seats.  The Conservatives had been completely wiped out in Scotland and Wales.  It was the electoral equivalent of a Holywood blockbuster.  Now I won’t say how I voted.  To be honest that doesn’t really matter but the important thing was that I did vote and it was amazing.

 MP for a Day

Sometimes people ask me ‘if you were an MP for a day what would you do?’  There has been one person who was an MP for just one day.  He holds the unofficial title as the ‘MP with the shortest service’.  7 MPs have been elected to parliament and were never able to take the oath of office.  Henry Compton was elected in a by-election in 1905 but shortly after the Tory government fell and he lost his seat 46 days later (there were other who never wanted to also).  Joseph Bell, Harry Wrightson, Bobby Sands, James Annand and Alfred Dobbs all died before being sworn in.  Sands died as a result of Hungerstrike 25 days after being elected from his prison cell.  Alfred Dobbs was run over by a car in 1945, 1 day after winning a seat in the Labour landslide of the year.

There is one other person to mention but he will get his own trivia slot and that is Thomas Higgins.  One of a handful of politicians  world-wide to be elected after they had died.

Methuselah MP

The longest serving MP of modern times was Winston Churchill who was first elected on 1 October 1900 and left the House of Commons in 1965.  His service as an MP was not continuous however.  Charles Pelham Villiers was the longest continuously serving MP. He was elected in 1835 and remained an MP continuously for over 62 years until his death on 16 January 1898, aged 96 years 13 days.

The outgoing father of the house is Ken Clarke, who recently received the title at the death of Gerald Kaufman. This largely ceremonial title is given to the longest serving MP in the house and is only really important during the election of the speaker. Bolsover MP Dennis Skinner was also elected at the same time as Clarke in 1970 but Clarke was sworn in first.  Skinner said he would not take up the title if it fell to him.  It is likely it won’t although both men are standing again in 2017.

Sometimes there are losers and more losers 

Now because it happened relatively recently a hung parliament is seared into the minds of most of the British people.  Whilst it was predicted again in 2015 and failed to materialise it was a reality in 2010.  The Conservatives were the largest party but they didn’t have more than everyone else put together.  The Liberal Democrats propped up the Conservative Party in an official coalition agreement, something they were punished for in the 2015 election.

We are not particularly used to coalition governments in this country but the rest of Europe are.  Currently there are over 30 governments in Europe that have a coalition of some form or another.  This includes Germany where Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats created a grand coalition with the second largest party, the Social Democrats.

In the UK there have been 5 formal coalitions stretching back as far as 1852.  Understandably there were coalitions during both world wars and of course most recently in 2010.

As well as coalition governments there have been minority’s governments where the largest party with no overall majority take the decision to have a go at governing without a majority. Harold Wilson led a minority Labour government for seven months in 1974. He called an election and later won a slender majority.  In 1996 and 1997 John Major’s government became a minority government because of defections and losses at by-elections.  He was propped up by the Ulster Unionist during the dying days of his government.

Some people confuse the Lib-Lab pact of 77/78 as a coalition.  Whilst it was formally agreed upon it was not binding in the same way the 2010 coalition was.  The Liberal’s agreed to protect the government from motions of no confidence in exchange for a number of liberal policies being introduced.  After the Lib-Lab pact fell apart, Callaghan soldiered on into 1979 until he lost a vote of no confidence by one vote. (Watch “the night the government fell” for a detailed account of that event)

Amateur Psephology and Ballot Paper Collector