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Published: 09 November 2019

CBE UK Election Watch 2: Do marginal seats really matter?

As the 2019 campaign gets underway, I’m Dr Alia Middleton and I’m back for my second of my Election 2019 blogs….

Do marginal seats really matter?

As the 2019 campaign gets underway, I’m Dr Alia Middleton and I’m back for my second of my Election 2019 blogs….

You’ll see the phrase ‘marginal constituency’ being bandied about the place over the course of the campaign. News reporters will inevitably pop up in these marginal seats to try and get to grips with what the local population think about this wintry campaign and who they may vote for in December. But let’s stop and consider what a marginal constituency really is and whether we (and the parties) should spend quite so much time poring over them in the coming weeks.

Constituency marginality is based on the distance between the parties in first and second place at the last election. The distinction between being marginal and being safe kicks in at the 10 percent mark. Further to this, seats where the incumbent party is defending a majority of 4.99 percentage points and below is the most marginal of marginals – ultra marginal. Stephen Gethins in North East Fife held his seat in 2017 by just two votes (and after multiple recounts to make sure) – but he is in good company – there are 89 constituencies in this most vulnerable of categories. By contrast, any seat with a majority of 10 percentage points and above is officially ‘safe’, with those above twenty percentage points being ultra-safe. Dan Carden in Liverpool Walton is sitting on a majority of 32,551, with little immediate electoral need to tramp the streets in the dark winter evenings. In reality, it is very few of us who live in a marginal seat = 25.7% of the population of England, Wales and Scotland to be precise, which equates to roughly 11.2m members of the electorate. Contrast that with the 33.8m members of the electorate in safe seats.

If we look at the seats that changed hands in 2017, the reasons behind the focus of parties and the media on marginal seats becomes pretty obvious. Far higher proportions of marginal seats (51%) than safe seats (2%) change hands. It is the marginal seats therefore where the parties in first and second place are going to expend a great deal of time and energy (and cash).

But it this a) wise; or b) a good thing in 2019?

If any party is going to win a clear majority in December, they need to capture seats that are safe. I know it is a word I keep using, but this election is tremendously volatile and may mean that greater numbers of safer seats change hands this time around. There are three key reasons behind this. Firstly, by-elections tend to destabilise constituency majorities, particularly where MPs have stepped down due to scandalous behaviour (I have an as-yet unpublished paper on this languishing in my filing cabinet). The new MPs elected via by-election have less opportunity to root themselves into familiarity with the electorate. Five by-elections have taken place since 2017, with the last two (Peterborough and Brecon and Radnorshire) not only occurring in the last six months, but also because of recall petitions. Despite managing to overturn a Conservative majority of just over 8,000, can Jane Dodds hang onto Brecon and Radnorshire and her ultra-marginal majority? Secondly, the pact between the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Plaid Cymru in sixty seats across England and Wales is likely to unbalance the safety of many of the targeted seats. Thirdly, there are a large number of MPs not standing again. Those of you who read last week’s blog will know that parties underperform electorally where their MP has stepped down. There are five such constituencies where the majority is less than one percent: as such I’d expect Dudley North, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Barrow and Furness, Hastings and Rye and Ashfield to be changing hands in December.

In a volatile election, there may be more constituencies than you might think up for grabs. So, let’s not fall into the trap of just concentrating on a select few seats.