Election 2015 England

Election 2015: Does every vote matter in a parliament of so many safe seats?

Woman posting her paper into ballot box at polling station
Image caption The Electoral Reform Society has already predicted the outcome in 368 safe seats

The oft-heard cry of "every vote matters" is as prevalent at this general election as it has ever been. Yet the Electoral Reform Society says it has already predicted the outcome of 368 safe seats - over half of parliament. So is the old adage true?

In 1835, King William IV occupied the throne and Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the police, was prime minister.

It is also the date from which the Electoral Reform Society considers North Shropshire to have been a Tory seat.

It is one of 225 constituencies that has not changed hands electorally since before 1950. Thirty of those pre-date 1900.

David Cameron's Witney constituency has been Conservative since 1910. Ed Miliband's seat in Doncaster North has been in Labour hands since 1918.

Changes to constituency boundaries mean some people living in those constituencies may have had MPs of a different leaning during that time frame, while also making some very secure seats a touch more rocky.

But 368 seats are considered so safe by the Electoral Reform Society that it has already called the winners. That number constitutes more than half of the seats in the House of Commons.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption North Shropshire has been a Conservative stronghold since 1835 when Sir Robert Peel was prime minister

The society's chief executive Katie Ghose said it was "a sorry indictment of our outdated voting system".

"The average constituency has not changed hands since the 1960s," she said. "Some have been under the same party's control since the reign of Queen Victoria."

Ms Ghose said the electoral system "actively discourages voters".

Dr Suzanne McDonald-Walker, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Northampton, said safe seats were a result of social inequality and Britain's first past the post voting system.

Safe seats in Parliament

•368 seats are so safe the Electoral Reform Society has already called the result in them

•25.7 million voters live in safe seats

•79.3% of constituencies in North East England are safe seats, with 77.8% in Northern Ireland and 70% in the East of England

•225 constituencies have not changed political hands since before 1950

Source: Electoral Reform Society

"The north south divide is not a new thing," she said. "It has been going on since the Industrial Revolution. As long as you have inequality you will have this.

"People are long term committed voters. They will say because I am working class, a miner or I am a northerner, I vote Labour."

Reader in Government at the Open University, Dr Richard Heffernan, agrees there are a "sizeable amount of partisans who will always vote for the party whoever the candidate."

He said: "The first job for a prime minister is to be located in a safe seat. It is a stepping stone into their political career."

Mr Cameron's Witney seat is considered so safe that when his predecessor Shaun Woodward defected to Labour in 1999, he decided not to re-contest it at the 2001 election, instead opting to move to the safe Labour seat of St Helens South.

Image caption Shaun Woodward decided not to stand in the safe Conservative seat of Witney in 2001 after he defected to Labour in 1999

Dr Heffernan said the current electoral system means candidates can be elected off the back of a few hundred party officials who choose them.

"One way you could make the candidates more representative is by having primaries to select them rather than party picks with party links who can be parachuted in," he said.

It is a point taken up by Dr McDonald-Walker.

She said: "Prospective candidates are selected by parties. We do not get to do that.

"If you are an upcoming candidate and the national executive need to know you are trustworthy then it will put you in an unwinnable seat. If you go off message you will not get another chance.

"It is why the big parties are not in favour of electoral reform.

"They can get a big majority and stay in parliament knowing they can do what they want and go back to their safe seats where it will be business as usual."

Dr Heffernan compared voting for Labour in North Shropshire to "being like a QPR supporter - very depressing but you would keep going".

Dr McDonald-Walker said the first past the post voting system means people "feel distant and disenfranchised, especially if they live in a safe constituency where candidates do not call round or deliver leaflets."

The Electoral Reform Society said the UK needs a fairer voting system to "bring our politics into the 21st century".

Ms Ghose said: "Predicting the winners in a majority of seats should not be possible in a truly dynamic and modern democracy."

But could things ever change?

"Elections are much more volatile now," said Dr Heffernan. "I suspect there will be the same number of safe seats, but perhaps they will be less safe after the election."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon is causing Ed Miliband headaches over previously safe seats in Scotland

"Safe seats can make parties very complacent," said Dr Heffernan.

"I think you see that in Scotland now. There have been safe seats there for years and years.

"Now they do not have the wherewithal on the ground to respond when the seats have become competitive."

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