Safe seats are the biggest foregone conclusion in politics. A footnote in the story of Election Night, most counts don’t even get a mention on the TV coverage. But politics biggest losers are also arguably it’s most important. Liam Fitzpatrick tells the story of safe seats and speaks to those who have fought them.
It is often boasted that the UK possesses ‘the mother of all Parliaments’ but the number of ‘safe seats’ is around 60% of the total 650 constituencies that make up the House of Commons. That means more than half of local races are coronations with no contest, with hundreds of candidates up and down the country appearing to just make up the numbers. But these people matter – without them, there wouldn’t be much of a democracy left. This is the story of politics’ biggest losers.
Under the First Past The Post System (FPTP), each constituency in Parliament is represented by one seat, with voters selecting their local MP as a way of indirectly choosing the Prime Minister and governing party. This creates a system where some MPs possess an overwhelming majority, making a change of MP almost impossible and discouraging people to turn out and vote in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle which breeds apathy in the system, an apathy which plays into the hands of established political dinosaurs. Of course, much like the FA Cup, upsets do happen, they are just increasingly few and far between. In 1997, Tory big beast Michael Portillo fell victim to a giant killing when his 16,000-strong majority in Enfield Southgate was overturned, leaving him red-faced as Labour claimed a seat that previously had been safe as houses for the Conservatives.
One man who knows all too well the feeling of fighting for one of these safe seats is Alex Feakes. A secondary school teacher by day, he is also a glutton for punishment, having flown the flag for the Liberal Democrats at four general elections in the solidly Labour seat of Lewisham West and Penge. It’s a thankless task with little chance of winning which comes at huge financial and personal cost. So why do it?
Alex explains, “I always wanted to be an MP, I think it’s a very interesting thing to do and try to make a difference. I always believed growing up that a lot of the candidates we get are not very good, so I felt I had to put my money where my mouth was”.
He notes that some uber-ambitious friends have moved to other parts of the country in a bid to earn a shot at more winnable, less safe seats, but for him, that was not really an option.
That sense of duty to party and country is echoed by Marina Ahmad, a member of the London Assembly and three-time Labour candidate in Beckenham, at one time the second-safest Tory seat in the country, occupied by military nut and casual racist Bob Stewart MP, a man whose political highlights include voting against gay marriage and telling a man to “go back to Bahrain”.
On what motivated her, she says, “One night in 2013 I was so enraged listening to David Cameron speak that I was shouting at the radio. It was pure rage and I realised I had to get actively involved to channel that anger”.
Marina describes Stewart as an ‘appalling’ MP, and says, “You have to be civil and try to work with other candidates, but you can quote me on this: I’d never go for a drink with [Stewart]!”
For Councillor Colin Ross, Deputy Lord Mayor of Sheffield and 2019 Lib Dem candidate, it was about “flying the flag and giving a good account of myself and the party.” Sheffield Central was incredibly close in 2010 but has evolved into one of Labour’s safe seats in recent years, leaving the Lib Dems to focus on next door Sheffield Hallam.
All three candidates stood in different circumstances but had one thing in common: they knew they would not win. So, how on earth do you approach the political equivalent of taking a non-league side to a Premier League giant?
Cllr Ross makes the point that at least initially, it is about financial viability, and dryly states, “The main target is a financial one – you want to save your deposit!”. All candidates have to put down a £150 deposit when standing, a deterrent against novelty candidates that is returned if you receive 5% of the vote. In some safe seats, even a major party can fail to reach this threshold, an embarrassing and costly outcome. After clearing that hurdle, he says he hoped to sow the seeds and lay the groundwork for future generations.
Marina echoes this sentiment, noting that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a political sea change. She says, “We were never going to overturn a 25,000 majority in 2015, but it’s incremental and I wanted to stand on Labour values and start building support for the future.”
In the two subsequent campaigns she achieved the small victory of improving the Labour share of the vote by running a local campaign away from the national picture, focusing first on education then on housing. “Issues that affect everyone in Beckenham whether you’re Labour or Conservative,” she adds.
Beckenham was one of only 21 seats in the country where the Labour vote increased in 2019 – a small victory on an otherwise torrid night for the party, and a testament to the work done in the constituency.
For Alex, a veteran of local campaigns since 2001, the approach varies for each campaign. Candidates are expected to self-finance their campaigns in seats that are low on the target list and therefore do not get funding from the national party.
He says, “In 2005 the share was simply to increase the share of the vote and get campaigns happening in more areas of the constituency to lay the groundwork for future, maybe more winnable campaigns”.
The 2010 election is described as “the big push” where he invested a lot of time and money at a time when, for a brief moment, all the stars seemed to align, with ‘Cleggmania’ running wild and a deeply unpopular Labour Government.
So, did he dare to dream of a Portillo moment? He pauses, and then with a wry smile says, “I must confess that with the Labour MP (Jim Dowd) being incredibly unpopular, even with his own party, there was a moment where I thought ‘goodness me, this could actually happen’.”
In the end, he came ‘a solid second’ but never really threatened to win.
In a sign of how lonely a task it can be, the Lib Dems nationally lied their way into political obscurity over the next five years and Alex was, in his own words, ‘frankly, thumped’ in the next two general elections before the 2019 campaign. He describes this as a more ‘pleasant experience’ than the ‘dark years’ of 2015 and 2017, albeit another futile effort where he came in at a distant third, lagging behind the Tories and the safe re-election of another Labour MP, this time Ellie Reeves.
There is often a perception that being a so-called ‘paper candidate’ is an easy ride, but the role comes with sacrifice and risk, something perhaps best highlighted by Marina who revealed to me that a week before the calling of the 2019 election she had slipped down the stairs and fractured her spine, leaving her in ‘unbelievable amounts of pain’, but had to put on a smiling and positive face over the course of a long campaign. The reward for her efforts? A resounding defeat by 14,000 votes.
Alex admits to spending more time and money than is probably sensible on his electoral bids, and is in the unusual position of teaching physics at a secondary school in Bromley. He jokes that this would make it a little awkward if he were to ever win, but always reassures his employer that is unlikely to be the case.
He says, “t’s not an easy ride and involves a lot of time away from the family. If you do somehow win it massively upturns your life, which is something you have to prepare for in the back of your mind”.
Cllr Ross has faced abuse on his doorstep from voters tarring all politicians with the same sleaze-riddled brush. With political violence on the worrying rise, even being a local candidate is not all sunshine and rainbows.
All this begs the question: why even bother?
Alex says, “Ideas need to be tested and challenged, and by not standing, candidates’ parties are denying them a chance to stand for the values they think are important and give people a chance to vote for those values, no matter how few in that area hold them.”
Marina echoes this, and says, “To not stand a candidate would be to give up. You have to fight for what you believe in and put up an opposition. That’s what democracy is.”
An interesting wrinkle for Marina comes in the form of new boundaries which will combine the seat of Lewisham and Penge West with Beckenham into a new, marginal seat for 2024. She is hoping to represent Labour and turn seven years of seemingly futile effort into a trip to Westminster. Few could argue it wouldn’t be deserved!
In every election thousands of candidates stand and only 650 win. Most of them, you’ll never hear their names. But without these hardy souls, these pluckiest of underdogs, democracy would not truly exist. Life as a local candidate can be a lonely one, hostage to fortune and the national picture, so here’s to British politics’ biggest and best losers. May their Portillo moment come one day.
Electoral Boundaries: Explained
Every eight years the boundary commission reviews the boundaries that make up the electoral map of the UK. The House of Commons is made up of 650 constituencies of roughly equal size with each constituency electing one MP. The boundary commission take into account population changes to revise the boundaries, merging, scrapping and creating constituencies. While ostensibly bipartisan, these changes almost always end up affecting political parties who hotly contest the terms of them. The consensus is that the proposed changes for the 2024 general election will favour Labour. One seat affected is the newly combined ‘Beckenham and Penge’, a seat likely to be closely contested and a bellwether for Labour’s chances of securing an overall majority.