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Published: 04 November 2019

CBE UK Election Watch

It is not just Brexit that parties need to worry about

Well, it has been coming for a while, but now we have an election date confirmed: Thursday 12th December. I’m Dr Alia Middleton, the resident psephologist and co-director of the Centre for Britain and Europe, and I will be giving you some expert insights into the campaign over the next six weeks…

It is not just Brexit that parties need to worry about

Well, it has been coming for a while, but now we have an election date confirmed: Thursday 12th December. I’m Dr Alia Middleton, the resident psephologist and co-director of the Centre for Britain and Europe, and I will be giving you some expert insights into the campaign over the next six weeks…

At the last count, almost sixty MPs have decided not to stand again in December’s snap election. They range from Ken Clarke, Father of the House, and (along with Dennis Skinner) one of the final two members from the 1970 cohort, to Jared O’Mara, who won his Sheffield Hallam constituency in 2017, defeating Nick Clegg. Their reasons have been various – from the political, typically cantered around Brexit, to the personal.  Looking back at historical elections, standing down is most commonly attributed to personal reasons, usually as a result of an MP wishing to retire after a long career, or perhaps ill-health. There are also cases, particularly at the 2010 general election of MPs not standing as a result of the 2009 MPs expenses scandal. However, what is unique already to the 2019 election is the number of MPs standing down because of the abuse they received from the public, particularly female MPs.

In a potentially volatile election, there are sixty constituencies where there will be an additional electoral hurdle for the defending party to get over. Historically a retiring MP’s party get less of the vote than in seats where the MP has remined in situ. In 2015 for example, Conservative seats where the incumbent had retired saw a drop of 1.6 percentage points compared to other Conservative seats. The story was worse for Labour, who saw a drop of 2.7 where an MP had retired. In 2017 the pattern is repeated (on a slightly smaller scale), with seats formerly occupied by incumbents performing 0.3 and 0.2 percentage points worse than other seats for the Conservatives and Labour respectively. Similar patterns will be seen in December, with the number of MPs stepping down more than double that in 2017. And broadly speaking, the longer the MP has been in office and the more active they have been in Westminster, the worse the impact on their former constituency. This could have some serious implications for the parties. Paul Farrelly, stepping down from Newcastle-under-Lyme after eighteen years and leaving behind a majority of just 30 may be gifting his constituency to the Conservatives – but he did announce his retirement in September, so the local party have had more time than others to find a replacement.

Parties can usually try to mediate this underperformance though, by carefully choosing the candidate who replaces the retiring MP. Part of the issue in respect of the current election though is the flurry of MP announcing they are standing down in the last week. Their constituency associations now face a race to get a candidate in place for the election happening in just six weeks’ time. In a normal election cycle, new candidates will have a year or two to bed into the local constituency and get themselves known. In 2019, with six weeks to go, many constituencies have had little notice to prepare for an impending retirement. It is possible that party HQs are at moment bussing their centrally preferred candidates to the seats, but this is a risky strategy, particularly if they have few connections with the local area; they need not only to quickly understand local issues and key personnel but jump straight into an election campaign. In these instances, the other parties in the constituency can capitalise on their respective expertise on the local area in their campaign. The other option that local parties have is to select someone from within their ranks. There is a clear advantage here in that they have local connections and contacts; but they may lack electoral experience.

Over the next few weeks I will be giving you insights into the performance of the party leaders, looking at where they go geographically, exploring political advertising and responding to any fast-moving events in this most volatile of elections.