Safe Seats: Are MPs really at risk?

This page first posted 13 September 2009

An MP stands a risk of losing his or her job at every general election. If their electorate is dissatisfied they can be sacked. But how many MPs are genuinely at risk of losing their seat? This analysis looks at the facts from history and estimates which current MPs are immune from public opinion.

1. The last General Election in 2005

Let's start by looking at the results of the most recent general election in May 2005 and comparing it with the result of the previous election in June 2001. We can see the summary of the result and changes in this table:

 Party Old VotesNew VotesOld SeatsNew Seats Held  Gains Losses
CON32.7%33.2%165198162363
LAB42.0%36.2%403356356047
LIB18.8%22.6%516246165
NAT2.6%2.2%89721
OTH3.8%5.7%13120
Total100%100%6286285725656

There was a swing of 3.2% to the Conservatives from Labour, and 56 seats changed hands. Of the 628 seats in Great Britain, that means only 9% of seats changed hands and 572 (or 91% of seats) did not change.

In other words, more than 9 out 10 MPs were not replaced by the electorate. Though some MPs would have given up their seats due to retirement, death, or deselection by their party.

2. Recent General Elections since 1987

But 2005 was quite a "stable" result with the Labour government re-elected and not much change in the overall political environment. We can look at results over the last 20 years or so to see a broader picture.

ElectionCommentSwing to ConTotal SeatsSeats HeldSeats ChangedChanged %
1987Con re-elected-1.8%633589447%
1992Con re-elected-2.1%633580538%
1997Lab elected-10.3%64146118028%
2001Lab re-elected1.8%641620213%
2005Lab re-elected3.2%628572569%

Apart from Labour's landslide victory in 1997, fewer than one in ten seats changed hands at any election. Even in 1997 when there was a large swing of 10% in favour of Labour, fewer than three in ten seats changed hands. In other words, more than seven out of every ten MPs were not changed by voters.

3. All General Elections since 1906

We can also take a long view of all the general elections in modern times. There have been 27 elections since 1906, including several landslides and major changes in political support. The graph shows, for each of these elections:

The graph tells us about both extremes and typical elections:

4. Predictions for the next General Election

The current predicted swing (as at 9 September 2009) is a swing of 9% towards the Conservatives away from Labour. This is a large swing and could give the Conservatives a sizable majority. Even so, this is within the historical range of swings of up to 15% that we have seen over the last century. The number of seats which are predicted to change is 172, which is 27% of the 632 seats in Great Britain. This is also within the usual limit of 30% which we saw in the historical data.

So, even if the Conservatives win with a large swing, seven out of ten MPs will be safe.

But the political situation could change by the next election. Labour could recover or the Liberal Democrats could have a resurgence in support. In this case, the seats which appear "safe" or "unsafe" could be very different. To allow for this, we have run a number of scenarios to explore various possibilities. Each scenario represents an extreme movement in public support from May 2005 to the next general election. Full details of the scenarios are described here.

Even under all these extreme scenarios, 319 seats never change their party and only 313 seats can change. This means that over half of all MPs are in safe seats no matter what happens to public opinion.

You can see whether any seat is safe or not, by looking in the alphabetical list of seat predictions (England A-B, etc). A seat will have one of the legends:

5. How to "kick the rascals out"

It is sometimes said that the true test of a democracy is not just whether it is possible to elect your favoured candidate, but whether it is possible to get rid of an incumbent that you dislike. For countries around the world, that provides an interesting acid test which separates the true democracy from the sham elections of a one-party state.

But closer to home, it also gives us pause for thought. British democracy clearly lets the people kick out governments which they dislike, such as in 1997, 1979, 1974 and many times before. This is a great strength of the first-past-the-post electoral system, which is lacking in many systems of proportional representation. However, it is difficult to get rid of an individual unpopular MP. If the MP is in a marginal seat, then he or she can be removed. But if the seat is safe, then it is hard for voters to remove an MP. If the MP's party is popular with voters, but the particular MP is not, then voters are deprived of a means to express their preference. Only the party can do that through deselection, which is both uncommon and undemocratic.

One answer to this problem is to encourage parties to hold primary elections to select their candidate for the next general election. A primary election is a pre-election to choose a party's candidate. The candidates in the primary are members of that party who want to be the official party candidate in the general election. The voters in the primary election can be all the voters in that seat (an open primary), though mostly only the supporters of that party will take the trouble to vote in the party's primary.

Primary Elections have long been popular in the United States, and have now begun to be used in the United Kingdom. The first one was a Conservative party primary in Totnes held in August 2009.

Primary Elections give voters in safe seats a real say over who their MP is. That could bring real democratic choice of MP to the 50% of people who currently live in safe seats.

Related Links

Appendix: Technical Notes

The data was prepared using the following assumptions and methodology: