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British Electoral Facts


Colin Rallings & Michael Thrasher


London: Total Politics, 2009

Paperback. xxi+298 p. ISBN 978-1907278037. £18.99 / 25,22€


Reviewed by Trevor Harris

Université François-Rabelais, Tours


Elections can be a demanding business. In the Harlow (Essex) constituency at the 2005 General Election, the returning officer was not able to announce the result until 11.40 a.m. on the Saturday after polling day: “Although there were only three formal recounts”, Rallings and Thrasher tell us, “counting was adjourned between 6 a.m. on the day after polling until 10 a.m. on Saturday because of the exhaustion of the counting staff” [294]... The staff can scarcely have been less exhausted at Brighton Kemptown in 1964, or Peterborough in 1966, which share the record for the highest number of recounts: seven.

This is one of the limited number of little gems adorning a publication which, by the very nature of its objectives, is otherwise characterised by a Gradgrind-ing sobriety: facts, facts, facts. The editors – joint directors of the Local Government Chronicle Elections Centre (University of Plymouth) – are uniquely well placed to produce such a piece of work: because, a wag might suggest, the study of local government has given them the ideal, dry-as-dust training required for the collection and collation of such data. And it is true that approaching this relentless accumulation of statistics can be daunting, at least for the atypical user of the book, working through the whole series of tables: the data for by-elections [141-154], for example, are especially dense. But any charges of tedium-inducing detail soon give way before the sheer usefulness of the information when consulted for specific purposes. The precise explanation in the “Introductory Notes” [xv-xvi], for example, of the various formulae used over the years to calculate the exact size of the electorate for any given point in time seems to epitomise the kind of painstaking attention to detail which some may perhaps find over-precise. But the candidates, counting officers and voters in Harlow, Brighton Kemptown or Peterborough would almost certainly disagree.


Working through the tables one quickly realises that much of the information brought together here confirms what one already knew, or suspected, about British elections: though that in itself is not without value. For example, the return to Parliament of candidates unopposed at election time effectively ceased in 1951. The spoiling of papers is a feature of elections at all times and in all parts of the United Kingdom: but in Northern Ireland it is a central part of the voting process, the total number of spoilt papers usually exceeding the combined total for England, Wales and Scotland [113-115]. Looking through the various tables available, it also becomes strikingly clear just how close the Alliance came to pushing Labour into third place in 1983. Alliance candidates finished second in 313 constituencies and the average vote for an Alliance candidate was 12,292, while the average vote for a Labour candidate was just 13,360.


But there are also details here which stand out much better by virtue of being gathered in the same place: the fact, for example, that over 150 different political parties [listed xix-xxi] have contested British elections over the period covered by the guide – not a figure most people would spontaneously associate with the electoral process in the context of fabled British political stability and the mother of all two-party systems. And bringing further grist to the electoral reform mill is the fact, for example, that 215 of Labour’s 355 seats in 2005 were won on a minority vote. Or again, it is also clear [131] that the number of women candidates at general elections starts to rise steeply from around 5% of candidates in 1970 – a level achieved by numerous, slow gradations from 1918 –, reaching 20% of total candidates in 2005. This is reflected, too, in the number of women elected – 128 in 2005, or just shy of 20%. This seems to suggest, on the surface at least, that if women were still not putting themselves forward, or if constituency parties, by 2005, were still not applying anything like a principle of gender parity when adopting candidates, the electorate at large seemed quite willing to elect women when they were on the ballot paper.


It was around the same time – 1970 – that a marked tendency began to emerge (and one confirmed in the 2010 general election), for more and more candidates to stand for election in each constituency: whereas prior to that date 3, or sometimes 4, candidates had been the rule, between 1970 and 2005 there was a steady and considerable increase, so that anything up to 10 candidates in a constituency becomes far more common –, this being especially true since 1997. In 2005 no fewer than 15 candidates fought the contest at Sedgefield. The tables show that there has been a concomitant rise in the number of lost deposits (possibly augmented, too, by the reduction, in 1985, from 12.5% to 5% of the proportion of votes a candidate is required to poll before forfeiting the money to HM Treasury). In 1997, for example, 43% of the total number of opposed candidates lost their deposit [74]. And among the more ambiguous developments in what is now quite widely perceived as a decline of British political culture, the increase in postal voting also stands out here. The statistics are especially encouraging, or alarming, depending on the view one takes: postal ballots, more or less stable at around 2% of votes cast from 1950 to 1997, rose to just over 5% in 2001, and then jumped to 15% of votes counted (nearly 4 million) in 2005 [123].


The compilers do seem to have covered every conceivable angle. There is a long note [137] which lists the weather conditions on each major polling day, for example, something which throws up what surely must be a record: the weather for the general election of 1970 is described simply as “Fine everywhere”... And by listing the names of the constituencies which have managed to be first to announce their result at election time, the guide proves beyond any reasonable doubt that there must be something in the water north of Watford which improves the ability to count quickly, since Sunderland or Salford have been first to declare on no fewer than 10 occasions out of 24 since 1918.


One minor quibble, or reservation, would relate to the index. This has been provided for the first time in the new edition in order – according to the editors/compilers – to help readers find their way around an “increasingly complex maze” [xii]. This is, of course, a very laudable objective. In practice, however, although the head words in the index do offer some differences of approach, they are often repetitions, in a different order, of the same headings used in the very detailed Table of Contents, headings which simply point the reader back to a single page in the book. The index, one feels, is the place where the compilers have perhaps missed an opportunity to pick out trends, or point up the role played by a particular election, or constituency, by referring the reader to several different tables. The compilers might well argue that that is not their job and that it is the reader, in effect, who has to construct his/her own “index” in the light of the research they are conducting: in which case the role of the index seems rather redundant as it stands.


Index, or no index, there is no arguing with this regularly updated guide*. Its usefulness is very clear. With the results for all general elections since the Great Reform Act, and those of by-elections (for the same period), as well as data on the British dimension of elections to the European Parliament, on British referendums and devolution elections, the guide combines a very wide range of information with considerable ease of reference. Indeed, however counter-intuitive it may sound in our “connected” age, flitting to and fro between the pages of this book is infinitely more convenient (and less wasteful), it seems to the present reviewer, than the online equivalent, with its non-stop clicking, resizing and inevitable, ream-devouring print runs. This is still a format to rival, and indeed outstrip, many online collections of data where user-friendliness is concerned. It is a veritable treasure trove or, as the saying goes, a “mine of information”. But the work has been laid out in such a way that the digging is not too difficult.

* Since this review was written a new updated edition has appeared (December 2012), covering the period 1832-2012. ISBN 978-1849541343.


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