Pt. 3/3 – Looking at the Conservatives and the concept of a ‘safe seat’

The first two parts of this entry outline the impact that safe seats for parties might have in shaping their election strategies. The Lib Dems may still feel comfortable putting resources into Conservative held seats, as they are not in danger of being wiped off the map, and Labour seem to have a strong enough base to counter even a large drop in their polling and still be able to target key marginals.

However, in this third and final part, we will look to see what happens when there is a large enough shift to put even the safest seats at risk – and how it is not impossible that it could happen again at the next election.

The Conservatives 4th consecutive win in 1992 made them feel invincible – against all the odds, and after an effective Cabinet coup + resultant leadership election, against a more moderate Labour party – they had still won. It wasn’t a very big majority, but it was certainly better for them than the idea of a hung parliament and a potential minority government. John Major had managed to get out his vote in an extraordinarily effective way. 

Five years later, and the Tories were on the end of an electoral pummelling. 336 seats reduced to 165 in just one night. The frightening thing for the Conservatives at the moment, is that they actually had a stronger defence in 1992 than they do now.

Currently, 221 of the Conservatives 306 seats have majorities of 5000 or more. This is equivalent to 72% of their seats. In 1992, 77% of their seats had majorities of 5000 or more, yet they still fell to a landslide defeat.  1997 was a freak in terms of an election result – all of the stars seemed to align in Labour’s favour, and it was actually a much bigger achievement than they were given credit for that they managed to consolidate this result so well in 2001. What we should take from this is that no matter how ‘safe’ a seat can seem on paper, there can occasionally be results that completely go against any sense of logic. 

As well as a uniform swing away from a party and to another, there can also be individual results that complete defy a seat’s ‘safeness’. Tatton had a Conservative majority of 15860 in the 1992 election – however the unpopularity of Neil Hamilton after the cash-for-questions scandal, coupled with Labour and the Liberal Democrats choosing to not fight the seat, saw the seat change to an independent majority of 11,077 for Martin Bell. It could also be argued that the fact that the seat reverted back to the Tories at the next election (now of course George Osborne’s seat) actually underlines that it is a safe seat – as you can see, it all comes down to definition.

It is also hard to call a seat ‘safe’ when it changes party hands regularly. Putney, represented by Justine Greening, currently has a Conservative majority of over 10000. Yet it was won by Labour as recently as 2001. 

There is also the need to look at the overall picture with a degree of realism. Could Labour win a 1997-level majority on current polling? Of course. Do many people seriously believe that they will? Unlikely. It’s possible that the Labour vote could rise in all the correct areas, the Tory vote collapses where it’s most needed, Lib Dems switch to Labour and so on and so forth. The fact is that the next election will probably be a close one, with different battles fought up and down the country – possible a 2010-style election but with Labour making the gains. It is unlikely that there will be a uniform swing across the country next time around – 2010 showed that generalisations like this simply do not work. The concept of a seat being ‘safe’ is also a generalisation – and hopefully we have shown that the term can be used to make all of the three parties situations seem stronger – but in reality, something unexpected could happen nationally, or locally in a constituency, at any time, that suddenly turns a safe seat into one that is very much in play.

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