Boris fever highlights the undemocratic nature of ‘safe seats’

As the case of Boris Johnson demonstrates, safe seats are treated like aristocratic estates.

Boris Johnson ncrj

As the case of Boris Johnson demonstrates, safe seats are treated like aristocratic estates

Boris Johnson yesterday admitted something that most of us already suspected: he is looking around for a suitable seat so as to enter Parliament after next year’s General Election.

When I say a suitable seat, I really mean a safe seat: the Mayor is looking for the sort of seat that will parachute him into Parliament unopposed before he (presumably) contests the Tory leadership at some point.

There has of course been much speculation as to when Boris might try and usurp Dave, but thus far no one has batted an eyelid at the assumption that boris will become an MP simply because he wants to become an MP.

Good to know we live in a robust democracy.

More seriously, though, ‘Boris fever’, as the Mail described it, highlights a larger problem – that of so-called ‘safe’ seats. As the Electoral Reform Society puts it, safe seats are the 21 century’s rotten boroughs. They are one-party states in miniature, with most firmly in the control of the same party since the 1960s.

This means that, when a General Election comes around, one part of the British electorate matters and one doesn’t.

The media has automatically assumed that Boris will enter Parliament as an MP next year because, wherever he chooses to stand, there won’t be a genuine contest. That’s the plan, anyway, and appears to be one of the reasons he is spending so much time deliberating.

There are of course many seats where Boris could stand and no doubt get elected, and not all of those are ‘safe’ in the conventional sense – he’s a popular politician with a quality that’s so often missing from public life.

But that’s hardly the point. The point is that there are almost 400 safe seats in Britain where your domestic pet could probably get elected so long as it were wearing the correct rosette.

And what about Boris’s future constituents? Are they likely to benefit more from the Mayor’s ‘profile’ more than they would from someone who was ‘born and bred’ in the area in question? As we’ve learned from George Galloway’s tenure in Bradford, having a celebrity MP is fine – until you actually want someone to deal with local concerns like anti-social behaviour and car park charges.

Safe seats are too often treated like aristocratic estates by the major parties, passed down to their offspring or to flavour of the moment politicians. The assumption that Boris is already an MP makes a mockery of our democracy, and highlights once again the urgent need for democratic reform.

Follow James Bloodworth on Twitter

31 Responses to “Boris fever highlights the undemocratic nature of ‘safe seats’”

  1. Chilbaldi

    I doubt getting rid of safe seats would get rid of nepotism or favouritism. No electoral system cuts this out.

  2. Dave Roberts

    So Labour don’t have dynasties and don’t get involved in this sort of thing?

  3. Cole

    LFF isn’t a Labour blog. But it’s not the point. The system stinks, and safe seats, where a candidate is selected by a small group of hacks, is deeply undemocratic. We need open primaries or PR.

  4. leftfootfwd

    This is in no way a defence of any particular party.

  5. melipone

    I agree. I can’t think of a proposed system which would prevent being able to parachute preferred candidates into easy elections. PR – stick him near the top of the list, STV, put him in an electoral ward with less appealing tory candidates and lots of tory voters.

    But what we can do is change the system so that there are less safe seats available, meaning that fewer politicians get access to them. Doubt any system would keep Boris from doing this, he’s quite a big hitter.

  6. glynbeddau

    In the same way Stephen Kinnock son of Neil was parachuted into Aneravon. Sauce for the goose etc Or are Labour dynastys a special case?

  7. Chilbaldi

    PR would be far worse for favouritism. It’s difficult to imagine a PR candidates list without a lot of control from either the central party or other interested groups like the unions or big business. The order of the list would always have the favourites at the top.

    See for example the recent European candidate selections. The candidates need to a) get through the initial interviewing to get on the shortlist – party control. and b) when they are on that shortlist need to spend lots of money canvassing thousands of members across a large area. Who provides that money – either the party, unions or business backers.

    Open primaries pose the same problem – well funded candidates would do best. Unless you severely limit selection spending. Then you’d still have the party fixing the shortlist.

  8. swatnan

    I have no respect for any MP in a safe seat. Its a job for life.
    All 650 MPs need to be MOT tested every 5 years and if each of those 650 seats were marginals then it would be a true test of public opinion.

  9. littleoddsandpieces

    There is a party that could change the political landscape, because 70 per cent of the population do not vote, and as Gandhi observed, People’s Politics Are Their Daily bread.

    There are 23 million over 50s in the UK today. The Pension Bill deprived the bulk that are not well off at all, of state pension payout since 2013, with even worse to come with the Flat Rate Pension in 2016 (to all women born since 1953 and men born since 1951) that leaves a great many women and a lot of men with nil state pension for life:

    https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/state-pension-at-60-now

    Oxfam tell us there are 13 million who struggle to make ends meet each day.

    The Greens offered in 2015 manifesto:

    – universal non-means tested (‘unconditional’) Citizen Income
    to cover basic needs, non-withdrawable, in or out of work.

    The socialists back in 1997 offered:

    – state pension at 55 for men and women at £320 per week
    – 50 per cent increase for current receivers of state pension and pensioner benefits.

    (State pension is payable if remain in work or choose to retire).

    This ‘new’ party already exists and could form a mass party by merging together,
    made up of:

    -The Greens
    – Labour Left think tank within Labour
    – all the little socialists parties

    and campaigned now for the May 2015 general election, they would win a landslide victory and form a majority government, that the Tories in opposition would find well nigh impossible to oppose a fair and just society.

    The trade unions could assist by not hoarding their donations just to Labour.

    Anybody?

  10. Kay

    Living in a Rotten Borough made my heart sink come election time. Invariably, the opponents to the incumbent were ineffectual, inexperienced chancers who were completely hopeless. It was a wonder that anyone turned out to the polling stations. Moving to a Labour marginal, I was wooed and wowed by Prime Ministers, chancellors and party leaders. Today, I’m a voter in a Conservative marginal. I doubt that I would be half as engaged and interested in the general election 2015 if I had continued to live in the Rotten Borough.

  11. Jack

    Surely the better example is Ed Milliband and Doncaster North? Or do we think Boris is more likely to become PM than Ed?

  12. robertcp

    STV does not use lists.

  13. robertcp

    Yes, moving to a seat where the result is in doubt makes a big difference.

  14. Cole

    Open primaries in California don’t have short lists. And you can stop the problem of wealthy candidates by spending limits. Can’t we accept that the current system stinks, is corrupt and undemocratic – and try to find an alternative?

  15. Leon Wolfeson

    Labour seem to be pushing that way, yes.

  16. Leon Wolfeson

    The problem is and remains FPTP.

    We need PR, voting reform. (Not AV, which is not PR and is worse in many ways than FPTP!)

  17. Leon Wolfeson

    STV is not proportional.

  18. Leon Wolfeson

    Under a system of PR, parties are far closer to their voter’s views.

    Moreover, you are looking at a pretty poorly designed system for European elections. I argue for MMP, where you still have constituencies, but neither do you effectively disenfranchise tens of millions.

  19. robertcp

    No system is totally proportional but STV is broadly proportional.

  20. Leon Wolfeson

    Well, if you use broad multi-member constituencies, perhaps. But even then.
    (It can also be used for single-member constituencies…where it’s identical to AV)

    I strongly prefer that the proportional element be country-wide, i.e. MMP.

  21. robertcp

    STV, MMP, AV and just about any other system would be better than first past the post.

  22. Leon Wolfeson

    …I completely disagree on AV.

  23. robertcp

    The electorate agreed with you and voted to keep first past the post.

  24. Leon Wolfeson

    Yes, and I’m not at all upset or discouraged by that.

    When polling allowed MMP as an option, it polled twice as well as AV.

  25. robertcp

    Let’s hope that there will be a referendum on MMP one day.

  26. Leon Wolfeson

    Less hope more campaigning please 😛

  27. robertcp

    I campaigned during the AV campaign and was surprised and depressed by the lack of interest. My impression is that many people thought that they were rejecting PR.

  28. Leon Wolfeson


    Again, where polls allowed the option, MMP polled *twice* as well as AV!

    I too campaigned – against AV, because that was the right thing to do.

  29. robertcp

    So you campaigned to retain first past the post.

  30. Leon Wolfeson

    No, I campaigned against AV. There’s a sharp difference.

    At the same time I was pointing out we needed PR, not a non-proportional, and indeed worse system than FPTP.

  31. jobacon

    He’s not the only one. What about the Benn dynasty?

Leave a Reply