Uncontested elections in the UK

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One of my many statistical hobbies is compiling and analysing UK election results from before WW2. I find it fascinating how the British party system changed so dramatically and quickly between 1906 (the last Liberal majority) and 1945 (the first Labour majority).

Yet looking at old elections in the UK can be confusing. Take, for instance, the general election of 1895. The Conservatives defeated the Liberals by a margin of just 3.7pts in the popular vote, yet won a landslide majority of 152 seats. Several years later, in 1910, the Tories won by 3.3pts… and didn’t even win the most seats. How?

A big part of the reason for this is that, prior to 1918, a significant number of seats in UK elections were not contested. In other words, only one person was nominated for the constituency; no election was held, and that single person won by default. This has an enormous impact on the national popular vote. In 1895, for instance, 132 of the 411 Tory MPs were elected unopposed – versus just 11 unopposed Liberal MPs. This means that the national popular vote did not take into account over 500,000 voters who would have backed the Tories in those uncontested seats.

So, to correct this, I’ve put together some estimates for these uncontested seats. There are a number of ways to calculate this, but I’ve chosen to use the following formula:

-> Calculate average vote of the party in contested seats

-> Multiply average vote by number of uncontested seats

-> Add this total to the contested total

In the case of 1895, this produces the following outcome.

As you can see, this adjustment expands the Tory popular vote lead to a far more realistic size (14pts) given the scale of their majority. It also provides us with a far more realistic Irish Nationalist vote (5%), as the vast majority of their MPs were elected unopposed.

The tables below show all elections from 1885-2019 with the above adjustment made for uncontested seats. Note that I categorise the National Liberals and Ulster Unionists as separate parties from the Conservatives, as they were distinct organisations even if they took the Tory whip in Westminster – just as the SDLP today is a separate party that happens to take the Labour whip in Westminster.

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