Voters in Wythenshawe and Sale East are getting an unusual amount of attention as they go to the polls today. In a by-election, the might of parties’ national infrastructure can be concentrated on a single constituency. But as soon as the caravan moves on, voters here will be ritually ignored – just as they usually are.
Our research shows that parties spent just 51p per vote in Wythenshawe and Sale East in the 2010 general election. That’s because it is a safe seat – the incumbent party (Labour) has little incentive to waste resources in campaigning for votes, and the challengers have little incentive to waste resources trying to win. The result? A democratic black hole, where voters turn out – in ever-dwindling numbers – to do what is expected of them, with barely any campaigning or political debate to shape their choice.
Just £15,657 was spent on campaigns in Wythenshawe and Sale East in the 2010 election. No money whatsoever was spent on public meetings, while a mere £616 was spent on advertising. Only £189 was spent on staff and agents fees, suggesting an extremely light campaign infrastructure. The difference between places like Wythenshawe and Sale East and more marginal constituencies is striking. In Luton South, for instance, parties spent around six times more in 2010 than they did here.
Our broken electoral system encourages parties to ignore voters in constituencies where they either cannot lose or cannot win. For voters in these safe seats, it’s a rotten deal.
This has a depressing effect for voter turnout. Wythenshawe and Sale East had the 11th-lowest turnout in the country at the 2010 general election, with just 54.3% casting a ballot. Even this was an improvement from 2001 which saw just 48.6% of the electorate turning out to vote. In Penny for your Vote? we show that the amount of money spent by candidates on campaigning in elections is directly related to voter turnout – the more money spent, the higher the turnout.
Today is an unusual day for Wythenshawe and Sale East politics. Parties are out campaigning and genuinely trying to attract votes. But neglected voters in the safe seats of Britain cannot rely on the occasional by-election to get the attention they deserve. A fairer electoral system would encourage parties to campaign everywhere, no matter their underlying strength. And you can’t say fairer than that.
Figures are drawn from Electoral Reform Society analysis of Electoral Commission data. For a full analysis of UK-wide spending by candidates, see the ERS’s 2013 publication Penny for your Vote?