One of the most intriguing – and unexpected - features of Thursday’s election was the relative success of local, incumbent, MPs. The BBC/ITN/Sky exit poll found that in Labour held seats with new candidates, the Con-Lab swing was 7.5%. But in seats with incumbents, the swing was just 4%. The former would have been enough to win a majority for the Conservatives.
The latter was not. In other words, all the work put in by the much maligned incumbent members of the Parliamentary Labour Party over the last few years in their constituencies – holding surgeries, answering letters, dealing with constituents’ problems and so on – may have been enough to prevent a Conservative majority.
Of the top 100 Conservative targets, there were just nine Labour-held seats which the Conservatives did not take. Of these nine, eight were held by incumbent MPs.
You can see this in seats close to the University of Nottingham, where one popular hardworking local MP, Vernon Coaker, survived, despite holding exactly the sort of seat that the Conservatives were winning elsewhere. And in Broxtowe, right next door to the University, another equally hard working and popular local MP, Nick Palmer, almost hung on, limiting the Lab-Con swing to just 2.6%, and losing by a mere 389 votes.
Of course, there can be other factors involved. Lots of these target seats had relatively large non-white populations, for example, and there is some evidence that those types of seats also performed better for Labour.
What’s surprising, though, is that there is any effect at all. A growing incumbency factor has been building up in recent elections, but most people suspected that the expenses scandal would counter-act that this time – that this may be the very worst election to be an incumbent, and the best to be a challenger. Not so. It may be that with many of the ‘worst’ expenses offenders gone, expenses was nullified as an issue – and that those remaining MPs were able to dig in.
Professor Philip Cowley