A major part of the point of a democratic electoral system is that those elected to public office can be held to account by the public for their actions. The anger we often see over the behaviour of MPs – whether on matters of policy (such as the Iraq war) or on matters of probity (such as MPs’ expenses) – is often aggravated by an underlying lack of belief that MPs will in the normal course of events get held accountable for their actions. Hence the paucity of comments along the lines of “I can’t wait to vote that awful MP out at the next election”.
Looking at the evidence as to how our electoral system actually works in practice, it is remarkably ossified. Let’s first look at how many Parliamentary seats have been consistently held by the same party since the end of Second World War, with no gain for another party in either 1945 or any of the sixteen general elections held since then:
So in just a shade under a third of seats, nothing – social change, economic booms and busts, Tory landslides, Labour landslides, nationalist and third party surges and slumps, individual scandals or the impact of Churchill, Thatcher or Blair has been enough to see the seat change hands, even just the once.
You have to be of pensionable age in order to be able to remember when 29% of constituencies last changed hands.
Even for a pensioner, it would be a stretch to remember back to when 11% of seats last changed hands, because in those cases it was before the First World War.
If we look back at the election landscape since 1970, the message about how rarely seats change hands is repeated. The proportion that has stayed with the same party since 1970 is:
So if you are under 40, nearly half the seats in the country have never changed hands since you were born. That doesn’t look like a system which is holding MPs to account for their behaviour.
A note on the figures: the raw data for these figures was kindly supplied by Lewis Baston at the Electoral Reform Society. The figures take into account boundary changes and Parliamentary by-elections. Where Parliamentary boundaries have changed constituencies have been tracked back until a significant part of the constituency was represented by another party. This produces some cases of close judgement, but the overall figures are robust.