Safe Seats: Why single-party domination means burning your ballot can be more satisfying than using it.

The term ‘safe seats’ is one of that confusing collection of political jargon that floats up around every election like excrement in a swimming pool. It refers to a constituency that votes for the same party or person every election, to the point where the winner is secure enough for other parties to barely bother campaigning. Whilst this is lovely for whichever lucky candidate gets picked to run in that area, it’s slightly more irritating for those of us who like their vote to actually count for something, even if it is to make election night more exciting.

By Matt Smith

Safe seats: BoJo’s coming to a town near you! (Photo: The Times)

I live in the Ribble Valley, a constituency that is about as certain to vote conservative as Ukip are to say something embarrassing. Every five years, a few thousand residents head down to the local polling station and cast their vote, the votes are counted, and every election since the constituency’s formation in 1983, barring one by-election, a Conservative has won the seat. What this means is that the Conservative party can be absolutely sure that they will win the seat; in 2010 they had 50.3% of the vote, more than double that of any of the other parties. This confidence in the seat’s security allows the party to divert their campaigning efforts to seats that are less uniform in their voting pattern.

This leads to a complete lack of effort from all parties in campaigning for these seats. The closest we’ve ever got to canvassing is having a few leaflets through the door, showing some candidate none of us have ever heard of, standing with a local resident looking shocked at the state of the roads or smiling in a manner halfway between creepy and bemused. As you can imagine this does not particularly motivate many to vote, seeing the same parties beaten year after year by the same candidate is not particularly inspiring, especially if you feel that candidate is not someone who particularly represents your views.

Some would argue that this continuity is good. It prevents a constant back and forth of policy created by constantly swapping parties, but this is a problem more commonly associated with national governments as opposed to parliamentary representatives, and when used to defend one party holding a seat for almost 31 years, I feel it is a little outmatched. What outmatches it is the way in which it creates a lack of engagement from the other parties. This lack of interaction between the public and the political parties manifests itself in a lack of campaigning, and a lack of interest from the public, who feel voting and taking interest in the parties and candidates is an exercise in futility. This particularly impacts on young people, at a time when only 50% of young people who are registered to vote do so, anything that diminishes youth engagement in politics is extremely harmful.

Many parties are dissuaded from having a candidate in many safe seats, thus reducing the choice presented to voters, and further alienating those who feel their vote is worthless. However as much as I dislike this inevitable by-product of our electoral system, I can see why some are reluctant to remove them. Safe seats are extremely useful to parties, whilst simultaneously very frustrating. They do allow parties to strategically place important candidates in safe seats, ensuring that they have the best chance of being elected. For instance, the Conservatives recently parachuted Boris Johnson into the decidedly safe seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where he will no doubt win the vote and become a credible challenge when the Conservative party leadership opens up.

What’s that Nigel?
You’re running again?
I’m totally surprised…

The security safe seats offer to parties, especially for their PM hopefuls, is something that I’m sure they welcome, however the fact that parties can simply drop any candidate into an area and know that they’ll win is something I find worrying. MPs are supposed to be elected by the people, however as safe seats almost guarantee parties a victory for whichever candidate they choose to run there, this moves the choice of candidates, and therefore who is elected, more towards the party and away from the electorate, further increasing voter apathy. Depending on your point of view this might not be a bad thing, after all, the party members who choose candidates probably know them better than the electorate who vote for them. On the other hand taking the choice away from voters undermines half the point of constituency based elections, which is to establish a link between the constituents and their MP.

This constant alienation has a particular impact on young people. Many feel under-represented by the political system as it is, and the demoralising effect of knowing that your vote is unlikely to have any effect creates an intense feeling of apathy among many who have never voted before. This makes for an unfortunate cycle where young people don’t bother to vote, further increasing the security of a seat, and guaranteeing that their MP is less likely to pay attention to their interests. This has been made all too clear by the coalition’s introduction of tuition fees; a lack of youth participation, contributed to by safe seats, allowed the government to feel secure in the knowledge that they (at least the Tories) wouldn’t lose much support over it. If young people don’t vote, they become the target of cuts, and anything that dissuades them from voting is disastrous.

Whilst safe seats may be useful if you’re a member of party leadership or that lucky candidate who gets the prized seat full of their typical voter, they present an uncomfortable situation for me, one that could be easily avoided by a simple adjustment of constituency boundaries, but one that results in hundreds of wasted votes, a reduction in young people’s participation, and the alienation of those who support the parties whose chances of success can be likened to that of a rat surviving hell, in the Ribble Valley’s case, one wearing a red rosette.

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