Safe seats, stale seats – whatever we call them, we need them gone

Did you know that nearly 200 parliamentary seats have not changed party hands since WWII? Conservative East Devon hasn’t changed hands since 1835! West Dorset has been Tory since 1857.

That’s 200 seats where the incumbent MPs (or their successors) have felt pretty relaxed about retaining their jobs. No need to panic, come election time! Let the effort go elsewhere – the swing seats, the tail that wags the electoral dog.

How can this possibly be a good thing for democracy? Whilst one may well not want seats yo-yo-ing around, the stale seat, the safe seat has a disastrous impact on the electorate. It fosters disengagement. Why bother to vote when the outcome looks to be a done deal and where the outcome is indeed the same every time?

Apathy, passivity and despair are the cankers that eat away at a so-called democratic process that favours only Labour and the Conservatives. We have written many times about our dreadful first past the post system and the need for electoral reform and I don’t intend to rehearse the argument for much needed reform again now.

I find it worrying that swing seats determine the overall outcome, because safe/stale seats have no impact. Every seat should have the potential to change hands and not to ‘swing’ but to adapt to reflect a changing world and changing challenges. Unfortunately, first past the post means that ‘swing’ means just that… left to right to left to right – binary choice. In fact, see-saw might be a better word. Long- term policies and investment strategies? Who cares about those! It’s all about election promises and press headlines written to appeal to those who swing. Who cares what the safe seat constituents think! They’re in the bag!

The recent by-election results in Somerton and Frome and Selby and Ainsty showed that it is possible to overturn massive, allegedly ‘safe’ majorities. Now, it’s true that by-elections are not like general elections. The smaller parties, in particular, are able to mobilise resources behind one constituency to really make a difference. Come the general election, those same resources are spread thinly or focused on a handful of target seats. Significant upheaval just doesn’t happen very often.

Add to this that in this country, unfortunately, we are pretty good at resigned acceptance and look where it’s got us! Brexit! Massive inequality. Bare-faced corruption. Profiteering.

But I am hoping there’s a glimmer of hope and it’s coming from the grassroots. It’s coming from people who, after years of stoicism and stiff upper lips, are beginning to stand up and say ‘enough is enough.’

It’s important, though, that fatalism is not replaced by complacency about the message from the national polls. Many in south west constituencies look at the polls and assume that they will no longer have a Conservative MP post the general election. Sadly, many are set to survive and win on a minority, thanks to first past the post! People need to get off their backsides and DO something if they want a different outcome!

Initiatives like the Political Primary, of which the South Devon Primary is the creator and pioneer, offer real hope for a process which galvanises the disaffected and disenfranchised to ‘bother’ to vote for their ‘people’s champion’ in the very real hope that, for the first time in decades, it will actually make a difference. It will help enormously if progressive candidates in safe seats get creative about the way they engage with the electorate and with the primary process, if the initiative is being implemented in their target seat.

Here at WCV, we do not advocate for any one progressive party, whilst openly and vehemently opposing this corrupt, cruel and incompetent Conservative government. However, it is encouraging to see that the energy and determination generated by by-election shocks is beginning to be translated into defiant action in hitherto Tory strongholds. Witness Caroline Voaden of the Lib Dems (Totnes/South Devon), setting up camp in Brixham – a town massively screwed over by Brexit (and home to an annual pirate festival!) – and bringing some humour as well as political acuity to the fight:

The hub, at 59 Fore Street, will give the Liberal Democrats a permanent, visible presence in Brixham.

Let’s see some energy and vision from all the progressive parties in those Conservative sinecures which have kept the south west blue ( in oh-so many ways!) for years.

At the grassroots level, if enough of us can be bothered to vote tactically or support a primary process, we can end the safe/stale seat atrophy. It won’t fix our broken politics, but it will be a step in the right direction and set us on the path to electoral reform.

PS It is. of course, the case that some seats do not change hands for several terms because the MP does a great job…’safety’ in these cases usually depends on the individual, not the party.