Safe seat

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A safe seat is a seat (constituency) in a legislative body (e.g. Congress, Parliament, City Council) which is regarded as fully secure, for either a certain political party, or the incumbent representative personally or a combination of both. In such seats, there is very little chance of a seat changing hands because of the political leanings of the electorate in the constituency concerned and/or the popularity of the incumbent member. The opposite (i.e. more competitive) type of seat is a marginal seat.

In countries with parliamentary government, parties often try to ensure that their most talented or influential politicians are selected to contest these seats — in part to ensure that these politicians can stay in parliament, regardless of the specific election result, and that they can concentrate on ministerial roles without needing to spend too much effort on managing electorate-specific issues.

Unsurprisingly, candidate selection for a party's safe seats is usually keenly contested, although many parties restrict or forbid challenges to the nomination of sitting members. Other parties will often be compelled to nominate much less well-known individuals (such as backroom workers or youth activists in the party), who will sometimes do little more than serve as paper candidates who do little or no campaigning, or will use the contest to gain experience so that they become more likely to be selected for a more winnable seat.

Safe seats can become marginal seats (and vice versa) gradually as voter allegiances shift over time. However, this shift can happen more rapidly for a variety of reasons. The retirement or death of a popular sitting member may make a seat more competitive, as the accrued personal vote of a long-serving parliamentarian will sometimes have resisted countervailing demographic trends. An independent or third party candidate with an ideology close to that of the incumbent party may also be able to make a more credible challenge than more established parties. Also, traditionally safe seats can be more vulnerable in by-elections, especially for governing parties.

Voters in safe seats usually have little chance to affect election outcomes - and thus parties can theoretically decide to ignore those voters' concerns, as they have no effect on the election result. This is often regarded as undemocratic, and is a major argument in favour of various multi-member proportional representation election methods. Safe seats may receive far less political funding than marginal seats, as the parties will attempt to "buy" marginal seats with funding (a process known in America and Australia as "Pork Barrelling") while ignoring safe seats which can reliably fall to the same party every time.

In countries that do not apply the first past the post rule, the seats of some candidates can still be safe due to lists being representative of national subdivisions. If a party is strong enough nationwide to gather representations in all subdivisions, the top candidate(s) on each list tend to be very safely elected to parliament. This is seen in the extremely proportional election systems of the Nordic countries for example.

Hong Kong[edit]

There is no formal definition in Hong Kong, yet there are some functional constituency seats which are regarded as fully secured by a political party or a political camp.

Fully secured by the Pan-Democracy Camp:

Fully secured by the Pro-Beijing Camp:


The Australian Electoral Commission defines seat margins as follows:[1][2]

Winning 2PP vote Margin Classification
50 to 56% 0 to 6% Marginal
56 to 60% 6 to 10% Fairly safe
60 to 68% 10 to 18% Safe
Over 68% Over 18% Very safe

In his election analysis, psephologist Antony Green puts the cutoff between "safe" and "very safe" at 12%.[3]

In Australia's federal system, most rural seats are safe seats for either the National Party or Liberal Party. Conversely, inner-city and poorer suburban seats are typically safe Australian Labor Party seats, and a few of the most affluent inner-middle urban seats are held by the Liberal Party. Marginals are generally concentrated in the middle-class outer-suburban areas of Australia's larger state capitals, which therefore decide most Australian federal elections.

At the 2007 federal election, the governing Australian Labor Party's safest seat was the seat of Division of Batman in Melbourne's inner-northern suburbs, with a two-party-preferred margin of 26.0%. The safest seat for the opposition Liberal Party was the rural Victorian electorate of Murray, with a margin of 18.3%. The Liberal Party's junior coalition partner, the National Party's safest seat was the division of Mallee, also located in rural Victoria, with a margin of 21.3%.[4]


Examples include:


see also: Constituencies of Fiji

In Fiji, prior to the December 2006 military coup, elections were held under the 1997 Constitution, which allotted 46 of the House of Representatives' 71 seats on an ethnic basis. 23 were reserved for the indigenous majority, 19 for Indo-Fijians, 1 for Rotumans, and 3 for members of all other ethnic minorities. There was a strong tendency towards voting on ethnic lines. Thus, in the 1999 general election, although the indigenous seats were split between several parties, all 19 Indo-Fijian seats were won by the Fiji Labour Party - which won none of the indigenous seats. In the 2001 general election, the conservative indigenous nationalist Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua party won 18 of the indigenous seats, with the other 5 going to the ultra-nationalist Conservative Alliance - which later merged into the SDL. All 19 "Indian" seats were retained by the Labour Party. In the 2006 general election, all Indo-Fijian seats remained safely Labour, while the SDL won all 23 indigenous seats. Among other minorities, only the communal seat of West Central was a safe seat for the ethnic United Peoples Party.[15][16][17][18]

New Zealand[edit]

In New Zealand, many rural electorates, and those based in wealthy suburban areas, notably the North Shore and eastern suburbs of Auckland, are considered safe seats for the National Party. An example of a safe National seat is Taranaki-King Country, currently held by Shane Ardern, who gained 66% of votes in the 2005 election, with only 24.5% of votes going to his Labour rival.

By contrast, inner-city and poorer suburban electorates are safe Labour seats. For example, in 2005, the seat of Mangere was won by incumbent Labour MP Taito Phillip Field with 67.7% of the vote, his National rival getting only 12.5% of the vote. (Ironically, from the resignation of Field from the Labour Party early in 2007 to the general election in 2008, this safest of Labour seats was represented by an independent MP.)

Historically, some seats thought to be safe have witnessed surprise upsets. Perhaps the most dramatic recent case was the 1996 election, in which the Maori seats, safe Labour seats for the previous 60 years, were all won by the New Zealand First Party.

The adoption of proportional representation by New Zealand, beginning in 1996, has decreased the importance of winning votes in geographical electorates. It remains to be seen what long-term effect proportional representation will have on the safety of individual electorate seats.

United Kingdom[edit]

On 6 April 2010, the Electoral Reform Society estimated that of the 650 constituencies, 382 (59%) were safe seats:[19]

Party Safe Seats  % safe seats
Conservatives 172 45.03%
Labour 165 43.19%
Lib Dems 29 7.59%
SNP 3 0.79%
Plaid Cymru 2 0.52%
Northern Irish parties 11 2.88%
TOTAL 382 100%

Examples of safe seats for the Labour Party are in major urban areas and industrial heartlands such as the North West (Liverpool, Manchester); the North East (Newcastle, Sunderland); South and West Yorkshire; the Valleys of South Wales; the West Midlands county and parts of Inner London (e.g. Hackney and Newham).

Many areas of the Central Belt of Scotland such as Glasgow and Edinburgh were seen as safe seats until the 2015 election, when the Scottish National Party took all but one Labour seat in Scotland: Edinburgh South.

Safe seats for the Conservative Party are in rural areas, the Home Counties (e.g. Surrey, Buckinghamshire), the shires and affluent areas of London, (e.g. Kensington).

An example of a safe Labour seat is Bootle, where in the 2010 general election Labour received 66% of the vote, giving them a 51% majority over the second-placed Liberal Democrats (at 15%). Beaconsfield is a safe Conservative seat; in 2010 the party gathered 61% of the vote there, giving it a 41.5% majority. Since the 2015 general election, all eight of the Liberal Democrats' remaining seats are marginal, with their leader Tim Farron's seat of Westmorland and Lonsdale being their strongest. Orkney and Shetland has been held by the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor party, the Liberal Party, continuously since the 1950 general election, but was almost lost to Scottish National Party in the latter's national landslide.

The Electoral Reform Society identifies what it calls "super safe seats", which have been held continuously by one party since the 19th century. In so doing, it equates seats with their rough equivalents under previous boundaries. For example, following the 2010 general election, it identifies the seat of Haltemprice and Howden as having been held by the Conservative Party since the 1837 general election, although the seat's current boundaries were only set in 1997. Similarly, it considers that Wokingham (and a few others) have been held by the Conservative Party since 1885, Devon East, Fylde and Arundel and South Downs since 1868, Hampshire North East since 1857, Rutland and Melton, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and East Worthing and Shoreham since 1841, and Shropshire North since 1835, making it historically the safest seat of all, having been held without interruption by the Conservatives since the time of the Tamworth Manifesto, and since before Queen Victoria's accession to the throne. (For historical reasons, the Conservative Party being older than the other current main parties, it holds all the oldest safe seats.)[20]

Even the safest of seats can be - and sometimes are - upset. Whilst it is rare for the opposition to take such seats, outside candidates may be able to. Recent examples include the election of Peter Law and George Galloway in very safe Labour seats in 2005, Jim Murphy in the Eastwood constituency in Scotland in 1997 and held by Murphy until 2015, and Martin Bell in the safe Conservative seat of Tatton in 1997. The loss of safe seats can go down in history. The loss by Michael Portillo of his safe Conservative seat in 1997 created the "Portillo moment". That expression has since been used to describe huge voting swings that generally usher in a new government, as occurred in 1997. The 2015 SNP landslide saw the loss of 48 Scottish Labour seats, including ultra-safe constituencies such as Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, the former seat of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with a swing of 34.6%.

United States[edit]

Many American commentators[who?] have decried the tendency of most House seats to become safe seats, decreasing the number of contested seats in every cycle. This is due in part to the fact that most congressional districts are drawn by state legislatures to be all but unwinnable for the district's minority party. Specific U.S. States, congressional districts, and senate seats since the 1990s are sometimes referred to as "solid blue" (Democratic Party) or "solid red" (Republican Party) after the use of these colors in television maps on election night.

The Cook Partisan Voting Index rates congressional districts on how strongly they lean towards either major party. Currently New York's 15th (Upper Manhattan, northwestern Queens) and 16th (South Bronx) districts are the most Democratic at D+41, while Alabama's 6th (suburbs of Birmingham) and Texas's 13th (far northern Texas including the Texas Panhandle) are the most Republican at R+29.

Other examples of a safe seat for the Democrats is California's 12th congressional district in San Francisco. This district and its predecessors have been in Democratic hands without interruption since 1949. Its current representative, Nancy Pelosi, was most recently reelected with 80 percent of the vote.

Republican safe seat examples include Tennessee's 1st congressional district and Tennessee's 2nd congressional district, which combined have been held by Republicans or their predecessors (except for two terms in the 1st) since 1859, despite the switch between the Republican and Democratic parties in the South.

Because American representatives are generally residents of the constituency which they represent, it is much less common for aspiring politicians to select safe sets to represent. In fact, an aspiring politician may instead want to prove oneself by winning a swing seat and thus show they have the capability of winning a close-fought election, thus making the candidate more attractive for a state or national candidacy where those skills will be of greater importance. A candidate elected to a safe seat, on the other hand, can take greater risks in appealing to the base of the political party and totally disregard the miniscule opposition, thus leaving the candidate vulnerable to opposition attacks if they seek higher office; such a politician also does not have to focus as much on fundraising or networking, which further puts the candidate at a disadvantage in broader elections.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Elections – Frequently Asked Questions". Australian Electoral Commission. 
  2. ^ "Submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters: The Conduct of the 1998 Federal Election" (PDF). Australian Electoral Commission. 12 March 1999. 
  3. ^ "Election Q&A". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2010. 
  4. ^ Adam Carr. "2007 Australian federal election electoral pendulum". Retrieved 2008-10-18. 
  5. ^ Tower, Katie (2008-10-14). "Economy, environment will be key factors in next week's election". Sackville Tribune Post. Retrieved 2009-08-17. 
  6. ^ "Canada Votes 2008: Beauséjour". 2008-11-07. Retrieved 2009-08-17. [dead link]
  7. ^ Davis, Jeff (2008-07-07). "Swing voters could make anything happen next time in Central Nova". The Hill Times. Retrieved 2009-08-17. 
  8. ^ Arnold, Dan (2009-07-21). "Canada's most competitive ridings". National Post. Retrieved 2009-08-17. 
  9. ^ "Canada Votes 2006: Mount Royal". Retrieved 2009-08-17. 
  10. ^ Bryden, Joan (2007-04-12). "Grits and Greens make a deal". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2009-08-18. 
  11. ^ "History of Federal Ridings since 1867: Saint-Laurent--Cartierville". Retrieved 2009-08-18. 
  12. ^ "Canada Votes 2004: Saint-Laurent-Cartierville". 2004-06-29. Retrieved 2009-08-18. 
  13. ^ "York Centre". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2009-08-18. 
  14. ^ "Tories struggle in Toronto's Liberal strongholds". CTV News. Retrieved 2010-02-26. 
  15. ^ "Elections 1999 Results Summary", Fiji Elections Office
  16. ^ "2001 election: summary by open seats and type of communal seats", iji Elections Office
  17. ^ "2006 election: Fijian communal constituencies"
  18. ^ "2006 election: Indian communal constituencies"
  19. ^ "Election already over in nearly 400 seats". Electoral Reform Society. Retrieved 13 January 2012. 
  20. ^ "Safe seats", Electoral Reform Society