Safe seat

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A safe seat is an electoral district (constituency) in a legislative body (e.g. congress, parliament, city council) which is regarded as fully secure, for either a certain political party, or the incumbent representative personally or a combination of both. With such seats, there is very little chance of a seat changing hands because of the political leanings of the electorate in the constituency concerned or the popularity of the incumbent member. The opposite (i.e. more competitive) type of seat is a marginal seat. The phrase "tantamount to election" is often used to describe winning the dominant party's nomination for a safe seat.

Contents

Definition

There is a spectrum between safe and marginal seats. Safe seats can still change hands in a landslide election, such as Enfield Southgate being lost by the Conservatives (and potential future party leader Michael Portillo) to Labour at the 1997 UK general election, whilst other seats may remain marginal despite large national swings, such as Gedling, which Labour narrowly won in every election for twenty years until the 2019 general election, despite having both major victories and defeats during this time. Gedling would still be seen as a marginal seat, even though it had been held by Labour for a long time. Safe seats are usually seats that have been held by one party for a long time, but the two concepts are not interchangeable.

In countries with parliamentary government, parties often try to ensure that their most talented or influential politicians are selected to contest these seats – in part to ensure that these politicians can stay in parliament, regardless of the specific election result, and that they can concentrate on ministerial roles without needing to spend too much effort on managing electorate-specific issues.

Candidate selection for a party's safe seats is usually keenly contested, although many parties restrict or forbid challenges to the nomination of sitting members. The selection process can see the incumbent party, untroubled by the need to have a representative that must appeal to a broader electorate, take the opportunity to choose a candidate from the more ideological reaches of the membership. Opposing parties will often be compelled to nominate much less well-known individuals (such as backroom workers or youth activists in the party), who will sometimes do little more than serve as paper candidates who do little or no campaigning, or will use the contest to gain experience so that they become more likely to be selected for a more winnable seat. In some cases (especially in the United States), these seats may go uncontested by other major parties.

Safe seats can become marginal seats (and vice versa) gradually as voter allegiances shift over time. This shift can happen more rapidly for a variety of reasons. The retirement or death of a popular sitting member may make a seat more competitive, as the accrued personal vote of a long-serving parliamentarian will sometimes have resisted countervailing demographic trends. An independent or third-party candidate with an ideology close to that of the incumbent party may also be able to make a more credible challenge than more established parties, but these factors can combine: a retiring third-party member may turn a safe seat for that party into a marginal seat. For instance, in Berwick-upon-Tweed, with the retirement of the popular incumbent Alan Beith, the seat was no longer safe for the Liberal Democrats.

Traditionally safe seats can also be more vulnerable in by-elections, especially for governing parties. Safe seats may also become marginal if the sitting member is involved in scandal: in 1997, Tatton was gained from the Conservatives by an anti-sleaze independent candidate, despite the majority previously being that of a very safe seat for the Conservatives. The incumbent, Neil Hamilton, had been mired in controversy, and was defeated by the veteran BBC journalist Martin Bell, who was aided by the decision of the main opposition parties (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) not to field candidates. Without such pacts, a split vote is more likely under a first past the post electoral system, as in the UK.

Opposition supporters in safe seats have restricted means to affect election outcomes, and thus the incumbent parties can, in theory, decide to ignore those supporters' concerns, as they have no direct effect on the election result. Even those voters who are moderate supporters of the incumbent party may be disenfranchised by having a representative whose views may be more extreme than their own. Political objectors in such areas may experience marginalisation from wider democratic processes and political apathy. This is often regarded as undemocratic, and is a major argument in favour of various multi-member proportional representation election methods. Safe seats may receive far less political funding than marginal seats, as the parties will attempt to "buy" marginal seats with funding (a process known in North America and Australia as "pork barrelling"), while ignoring safe seats which will reliably fall to the same party every time; this is especially true in cases where the safe seat is held by the minority party.

In countries that do not apply the first past the post system, many of which equally operate a geographic division-based system, selected or party sub-nominated candidates can be allocated a safer or more tenuous list position. If a party is strong enough nationwide to gather representations in all subdivisions, the top candidate(s) on each list tend to be very safely elected to parliament. This is seen in the extremely proportional election systems of the Nordic countries, for example. Safe seats and candidates can be avoided altogether by a purposefully marginal-preference allocation of all divisions, ensuring all divisions are near-identically demographically diverse which may be achieved by pairing non-adjoining areas.

Australia

The Australian Electoral Commission defines seat margins as follows: [1] [2]

Winning 2PP vote MarginClassification
50 to 56%0 to 6%Marginal
56 to 60%6 to 10%Fairly safe
60 to 68%10 to 18%Safe
Over 68%Over 18%Very safe

In his election analysis, psephologist Antony Green puts the cutoff between "safe" and "very safe" at 12%. [3]

In Australia's federal system, most rural seats are safe seats for either the National Party or Liberal Party. Conversely, inner-city and poorer suburban seats are typically safe Australian Labor Party seats, and a few of the most affluent inner-middle urban seats are held by the Liberal Party. Marginals are generally concentrated in the middle-class outer-suburban areas of Australia's larger state capitals, which therefore decide most Australian federal elections.

At the 2007 federal election, the governing Australian Labor Party's safest seat was the seat of Division of Batman in Melbourne's inner-northern suburbs, with a two-party-preferred margin of 26.0%. The safest seat for the opposition Liberal Party was the rural Victorian electorate of Murray, with a margin of 18.3%. The Liberal Party's junior coalition partner, the National Party's safest seat was the division of Mallee, also located in rural Victoria, with a margin of 21.3%. [4]

Canada

Examples include:

Fiji

In Fiji, prior to the December 2006 military coup, elections were held under the 1997 Constitution, which allotted 46 of the House of Representatives' 71 seats on an ethnic basis. 23 were reserved for the indigenous majority, 19 for Indo-Fijians, 1 for Rotumans, and 3 for members of all other ethnic minorities. There was a strong tendency toward voting on ethnic lines. Thus, in the 1999 general election, although the indigenous seats were split between several parties, all 19 Indo-Fijian seats were won by the Fiji Labour Party – which won none of the indigenous seats. In the 2001 general election, the conservative indigenous nationalist Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua party won 18 of the indigenous seats, with the other 5 going to the ultra-nationalist Conservative Alliance – which later merged into the SDL. All 19 "Indian" seats were retained by the Labour Party. In the 2006 general election, all Indo-Fijian seats remained safely Labour, while the SDL won all 23 indigenous seats. Among other minorities, only the communal seat of West Central was a safe seat for the ethnic United Peoples Party. [18] [19] [20] [21]

The new Constitution adopted in 2013 abolished constituency representation altogether, in favour of party list seat allocation based on nationwide results. The 2014 general election was held on that basis, thus putting an end to all safe seats. The Labour Party suffered a near wipe-out.

Hong Kong

There is no formal definition in Hong Kong, yet there are some functional constituency seats which are regarded as fully secured by a political party or a political camp.[ when? ]

Fully secured by the pan-democracy camp:

Fully secured by the pro-Beijing camp:

Malaysia

In Malaysia, the percentage of votes secured by a winning candidate defines the seat margin. In this case:

The northern, east coast, and rural constituencies have been safe seats for the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and Perikatan Nasional (PN). Especially in Kelantan, PAS has been in government since 1990 (7 consecutive terms).

Pakatan Harapan, the senior coalition in the current government has been a dominant coalition in highly industrialized states, namely Penang, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. Even prior to the 2008 elections which ended Barisan Nasional dominant over the country, PH and its predecessors performed well in these states despite never having a chance to rule over the states before. For Barisan Nasional, another major partner in the government, the southern states and Sabah are the safe seats for the coalition. During its dominant period, it also controlled Sarawak and west coast states.

Sabah and Sarawak are safe states for their local parties, with Gabungan Rakyat Sabah and Gabungan Parti Sarawak governing the states with supermajority. For Sabah, despite being described as a swing state in the past, it has been consistently ruled by parties that once a part in BN. Prior to the 2018 elections, these states were described as 'fixed deposits' for BN as they won almost all seats there with a landslide.

New Zealand

In New Zealand, many rural electorates, and those based in wealthy suburban areas, notably the North Shore and eastern suburbs of Auckland, are considered safe seats for the National Party. An example of a safe National seat is East Coast Bays, currently held by Erica Stanford, who gained 54% of votes in the 2020 election, with only 31% of votes going to her Labour rival, even despite the Labour landslide victory that year. By contrast, inner-city and poorer suburban electorates typically are safe Labour seats. For example, in 2020, the seat of Māngere was won by incumbent Labour MP William Sio with just under 74% of the vote, while his National rival won just under 12% of the vote.

Historically, some seats thought to be safe have witnessed surprise upsets. Perhaps the most dramatic recent case was the 1996 election, in which the Maori seats, safe Labour seats for the previous 60 years, were all won by New Zealand First.

The adoption of proportional representation by New Zealand, beginning in 1996, has decreased the importance of winning votes in geographical electorates. It remains to be seen what long-term effect proportional representation will have on the safety of individual electorate seats.

Examples of safe seats in New Zealand
PartyCurrent seatsFormer seats
Labour
National

Philippines

While party-switching in the Philippines is rampant, certain congressional districts have been held by political families for generations. These are:

Under the usual definition, Capiz–1st has been held by the Liberal Party since 1946, except from 1953 to 1957. Bohol's 3rd district has been held by the Nacionalista Party from 1946 to 1972.

South Korea

From the 1960s, parliamentary constituencies in Gyeongsang region, especially Northern Gyeongbuk and Western Gyeongnam, are considered as safe seats for People Power Party.

City centres in Southeastern Gyeongnam, Southern Gyeogbuk and parliamentary constituencies in rural Gangwon, Chungbuk, Chungnam and Gyeonggi and affluent villages in such as Gangnam-gu, Seocho-gu, Songpa-gu and Yongsan-gu of Seoul, Haeundae-gu, Nam-gu, Dongnae-gu and Suyeong-gu of Busan are also considered as safe seats for People Power Party.

Parliamentary constituencies in industrial areas and built-up residential areas in Gyeonggi, Southeastern Gyeongnam, CheongjuDaejeonSejong City and Jeolla regions such as Jeonbuk and Jeonnam are considered as safe seats for the Democratic Party.

United Kingdom

On 6 April 2010, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) estimated that going into the 2010 general election, of the 650 constituencies, 382 (59%) were safe seats. Some of these seats have since been lost by the parties that held them at the time, notably most of the Liberal Democrat seats and some Labour seats, meaning they can no longer be considered "safe". [26]

PartySafe seats % safe seats
Conservatives 17245.03%
Labour 16543.19%
Lib Dems 297.59%
SNP 30.79%
Plaid Cymru 20.52%
Northern Ireland parties 112.88%
Total382100%

Examples of safe seats for the Labour Party are in major urban areas and the industrial centres, such as the North West (Liverpool, Manchester); the North East (Newcastle, Sunderland); South and West Yorkshire, the Valleys of South Wales; the West Midlands county and parts of Inner London (e.g. Hackney and Newham).

Many areas of the Central Belt of Scotland, such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, were seen as safe Labour seats until the 2015 election, when the Scottish National Party took all but one Labour seat in Scotland (Edinburgh South).

Safe seats for the Conservative Party tend to be in rural areas: the Home Counties (e.g. Surrey, Buckinghamshire), the shires (e.g. North Yorkshire and Cheshire) and affluent areas of London (e.g. Chelsea and Fulham).

The safest seat in the 2017 general election was Liverpool Walton, where Labour received 86% of the vote, giving them a 77% majority over the second-placed Conservatives (at 9%). [27] Christchurch is a safe Conservative seat; in 2017 the party gathered 69.6% of the vote there, giving it a near-50% majority over Labour. [28]

At the 2015 general election, seven out of eight of the Liberal Democrats' remaining seats were marginal, with their soon-to-be leader Tim Farron's seat of Westmorland and Lonsdale being the only one considered safe. Orkney and Shetland has been held by the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor party, the Liberal Party, continuously since the 1950 general election, but was almost lost to the Scottish National Party in the latter's national landslide. The seat of Sheffield Hallam was notable in the run up to the 2015 general election, when opinion polls were forecasting a Labour gain despite the incumbent MP, Nick Clegg, being the party leader and Deputy Prime Minister. Clegg held the seat, albeit with a much reduced majority of just 2,353 (4.2%). In 2017, several Lib Dem MPs either regained their seat, such as Vince Cable and Ed Davey, or won new ones. Despite the net gain in seats, several were still lost, such as Clegg's, whilst Farron's majority was reduced to less than 1,000.

The ERS identifies what it calls "super safe seats", which have been held continuously by one party since the 19th century. In so doing, it equates seats with their rough equivalents under previous boundaries. For example, following the 2010 general election, it identifies the national representative of the area forming Haltemprice and Howden (drawn as a constituency in 1997) as having been a Conservative since the 1837 general election. Similarly, it considers that Wokingham (and a few others) have been held by the Conservative Party since 1885, Devon East, Fylde and Arundel and South Downs since 1868, Hampshire North East since 1857, and Rutland and Melton, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, and East Worthing and Shoreham all since 1841. (For historical reasons, the Conservative Party being older than the other current main parties, it holds all the oldest safe seats.) [29]

Even the safest of seats can be – and sometimes are – upset. Whilst it is rare for the opposition to take such seats, outside candidates may be able to. Examples include the election of Peter Law and George Galloway in very safe Labour seats in 2005, Jim Murphy in the Eastwood constituency in Scotland in 1997, Martin Bell in the safe Conservative seat of Tatton in 1997, and most recently, Helen Morgan in the Conservatives' historically safest seat, North Shropshire, in a by-election in 2021.

The loss of safe seats can become historic moments: the defeat of Michael Portillo in his "safe" Conservative seat in 1997 created the "Portillo moment". That expression has since been used to describe huge voting swings that generally usher in a new government, as occurred in 1997. Similarly, in 2015, the Labour Party lost many formerly safe seats in Scotland, including Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, which had previously been held by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and Paisley and Renfrewshire South, the seat of shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander. In both cases, swings of over 25% to the SNP were recorded. [30] [31] In the 2019 general election, Labour lost many formerly safe seats that were part of its 'Red Wall' in northern England. These defeats represented about 20% of the party's overall 2017 vote in such seats. [32]

United States

The Cook Partisan Voting Index rates congressional districts on how strongly they lean toward either major party. As of the 2022 redistricting, California's 12th district is the most Democratic at D+40, while Alabama's 4th district is the most Republican at R+33. [33]

Other examples of a safe seat for the Democrats is California's 11th congressional district, which currently covers most of the city of San Francisco. This district and its predecessors have been in Democratic hands without interruption since 1949. Its current representative, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was most recently reelected with 77.6 percent of the vote. [34] [ failed verification ]

Safe Republican seats include Tennessee's 1st congressional district and Tennessee's 2nd congressional district, which are located in the eastern part of the state. Both districts have been held by Republicans or their predecessors (except for two terms in the 1st) since 1859. These districts elected some of the few truly senior Southern Republican Congressmen before the 1950s.

See also

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