The General Election


David Butler tells Radio Times readers what to look for in tonight’s election results

Cover of Radio Times
From the Radio Times for week commencing 10 October 1964

Never before has there been such comprehensive coverage of an election. It will be the most complex combined operation in the history of the BBC. For the first time all three radio services are involved, and broadcasting will continue throughout the night. Says Stephen Bonarjee, editor of Current Affairs, Sound: ‘By grouping our resources we can offer a wide choice. For example — an election-night party on the Light, a fast service of key results on the Home, a methodical reporting of full results in the Third Network. But all will be complementary so that listeners can switch from one to another.’

The radio master plan embraces all the BBC regional studios as well as five studios in Broadcasting House, London, each with a specialised purpose in feeding the main operation with such ingredients as news of key results, outside broadcasts from constituencies — there will be over thirty outside-broadcast points all over the country — and expert comment.

BBC-tv will have over fifty cameras in strategic positions such as the vital constituencies and those which traditionally declare early; in Trafalgar Square, in clubs and pubs, and university meeting places. Explains Paul Fox, Head of Public Affairs, Television: ‘We plan to bring in the results swiftly, underline their significance as they happen, and provide the best possible comment not only from our own team of commentators but from people who have actually taken part in the day’s events. The engineering problem alone is a staggering one. Even with studios as modern as those at TV Centre the control room has had to be extended to handle all the incoming traffic from outside broadcast units, regional studios, and a host of special telephones.’

A recent complete dummy-run of the election programme as it will happen during the night was based on the 1959 election for timing purposes, but the results that came through were those predicted, as far as possible, for 1964. What were they? That is strictly off the record. See and view for yourself this week — as it happens.

A view of the election studio
Preparing for Election Night – a dummy run in the central TV studio

A PLAIN MAN’S GUIDE compiled by David Butler

A PLAIN MAN’S GUIDE compiled by David Butler

1: Terms those commentators use

There are 630 constituencies in the United Kingdom and more than 1,700 candidates.

DEPOSIT Any candidate who fails to secure one eighth (12.5%) of the valid votes in his constituency forfeits to the Exchequer a deposit of £150.

STRAIGHT FIGHT This term is used when only two candidates are standing in a constituency.

MARGINAL SEATS There is no precise definition of a marginal seat. It is a seat where there was a small majority at the last election or a seat that is likely to change hands. Sometimes people call seats with majorities of under 5,000, or under 10%, ‘marginals.’ But one can only decide when all the results are in what seats really were marginal. However, it is easy to list the thirty, or the fifty, or the 100 most marginal Conservative and Labour seats on the basis of the 1959 results and to discuss them.

SWING This word is used to describe in a single figure the change in the position of the Conservative and Labour parties since the last election. Swing is normally defined as the average of the change in the Conservative and Labour share of the vote. Here is an example of what might happen in one constituency:

1959 1964 Change
Con. 53% 48% -5%
Lab. 47% 52% +5%

The Conservatives won in 1959 by a majority of 6%. In 1964, if five out of every 100 of the Conservatives’ supporters vote Labour, the result could be a win for Labour by 4%, equal to a swing of 5%. Thus a national swing of 5% to one party puts in danger all seats held by majorities of under 10%.

Where there is a third party the picture is more complicated. Swing, it must be remembered, is only a crude measure of the net change between the two biggest parties—in calculating it the other parties have to be ignored. Here is an example:

1959 1964 Change
Con. 53% 48% -5%
Lab. 47% 38% -19%
Lib. no candidate 14% +14%

This shows a swing to the Conservatives of 2%. Both Conservatives and Labour lost votes but Labour lost more. To get the swing to the Conservatives, halve the difference (4%) and you get 2% (see Section 2).

PERCENTAGE SHARE OF THE VOTE Constituencies vary greatly in number of electors and in the proportion of electors actually voting. Therefore a direct comparison between changes in majority (‘X’s fell by 5,000 while Y’s only fell by 2,000′) can be very misleading. Much more intelligible contrasts can be made if all votes are thought of as percentages of the total vote cast so that we can say ‘the Labour share of the vote rose by 3% in Barsetshire but fell by 1% in neighbouring Blanktown.’

ELECTORATE This is, almost, the same as the adult population: nearly 37-million. Electoral registers were compiled in every constituency on October 10, 1963, and every British citizen over twenty-one by June 1964 is technically entitled to vote. Errors in the register may affect 3% or 4% of the population: a further 12% have moved house in the last year and can only vote by post or by returning to their old polling district.

THE BIAS IN THE ELECTORAL SYSTEM The electoral system is slightly biased in favour of the Conservative party — not deliberately but because the population happens to be distributed in a way that produces extreme concentrations of Labour strength in some areas so that Labour ‘wastes’ more votes than the Conservatives in piling up huge majorities. To win a majority in Parliament the Conservatives have hitherto needed about 1½% less of the national vote than the Labour party.

2: The swing and what it means in votes

The number of seats won by a major party is fairly exactly related to the proportion of the vote which it wins. If the number of seats won by Liberals and minor parties does not change substantially the following table should give a fair guide of how the 1964 Parliament will differ from the 1959 Parliament. (In 1959 Conservative’s won 49.4% of the vote and 365 seats; Labour 43.6% of the vote and 258 seats — a Conservative majority over Labour of 107).

If the swing in 1964 is:

To Labour   To Conservatives  
Swing Likely Con. majority over Lab. Swing Likely Con. majority over Lab.
1% 79 1% 153
2% 57 2% 181
3% 23 3% 217
  Likely Lab. majority over Con. 4% 263
4% 23 5% 301
5% 55 6% 319
6% 71 7% 341
7% 111 8% 369
8% 155 9% 385
9% 193 10% 395
10% 235  

3: Seats to watch in the early results

Among the results expected by midnight on Thursday, Labour must win at least six of the following seats if they are to form the next Government. The Conservatives must hold some of them if they are to stay in power.

Likely time of result (approx.) Con. majority 1959 Swing needed for Labour win
Acton 11.15 p.m. 920 1.0%
London, Barons Ct. 11.45 p.m. 913 1.2%
London, Battersea S. 11.15 p.m. 1,752 3.0%
Billericay 10.0 p.m. 4,822 3.9%
Bury & Radcliffe 11.30 p.m. 3,908 3.7%
Glasgow, Kelvingrove 12.0 midnight 1,101 2.3%
London, Holborn & St. Pancras S. 11.0 p.m. 656 1.0%
Keighley 11.15 p.m. 170 0.2%
Liverpool, Kirkdale 11.30 p.m. 2,747 3.3%
Liverpool, W. Derby 12.0 midnight 3,333 4.0%
Manchester, Wythenshawe 11.45 p.m. 1,309 1.2%
Stockport South 12.0 midnight 2,540 3.3%
Swansea West 12.0 midnight 403 0.4%
Watford 11.30 p.m. 2,901 3.2%

If the Conservatives were to win any seats from Labour in the first results these are the likeliest possibilities:

Likely time of result (approx.) Lab. majority 1959
Accrington 10.45 p.m. 600
Eton and Slough 11.45 p.m. 88
Smethwick 11.45 p.m. 3,544
Luton* 11.30 p.m. 3,749

* (1963 By-Election)

The Liberals will face two tests in the early results:

Likely time of result (approx.) Lib. majority 1959
Bolton West* 11.45 p.m. 3,988
Devon North 11.45 p.m. 362

* (The Conservatives did not stand here in 1959 but are standing now)

Two men check figures at a desk
David Butler in action with Robert McKenzie in the TV studio during the Greater London elections

4: Forecasting the winner

Around 10 o’clock next Thursday evening the first constituency will give its verdict in the 1964 General Election. Instantly the figures will be computed and analysed and everyone will start guessing what the final majority will be.

The TV and radio commentators will say: ‘The —- party will win with a majority of —- if the whole country behaves like Billericay (or Cheltenham, or Salford, or whoever wins the counting race).’ They will hastily add ‘but we can’t be certain that the country is behaving like this until we’ve had a few more results.’ The commentator who is too precise too early may look a bit silly before the night is over. After the experience of 1955, partisans may think it wise to wait a while before starting their celebrations — or drowning their sorrows.

How soon will it, in fact, be clear who has won? This naturally depends on how close the outcome is going to be.

If, in the early results, the swing from 1959 is between 2½% and 4½% to Labour, the tension will last quite a long time.

But, if the swing is outside those margins, the commentators will be committing themselves before very many results are in. Just how many will also depend on how much the swing varies between constituencies.

In the 1950s, in the great majority of constituencies, the swing was surprisingly close to the national average. If you took a dozen seats at random, their result would mirror the national result. Britain is a united, not to say a uniform, nation politically.

While the swing in the constituencies that report early will probably mirror the swing in the rest of the country, the actual party strength may be a bit misleading. Borough constituencies tend to count the votes quicker than county constituencies and Labour is stronger in the towns. Therefore Labour is likely to get more seats in the early results than in the later ones. In the very close elections of 1950 and 1951, Labour was 50 to 60 seats ahead on the results declared overnight. But by the early afternoon of Friday the Conservatives had pulled level as the county returns came in.

If the Labour party is going to win the 1964 election, it will have to lie clearly in the lead by the time 100 results are in. And those 100 results should be in by midnight on Thursday.

BBCtv results programme information

The main interest in the election naturally lies in knowing who has won and by how much. But there will also be the fascinating question: Why? Why is it turning out like this? Is it the Liberal vote? Or the new towns? Is there any sign of people abstaining from voting? Is Scotland behaving like London? A host of such questions are stirred up by the results.

Sometimes final answers may have to wait for weeks — or for ever. But many can be answered within minutes. Computers and experienced statisticians will be working for BBC-tv and Radio through the night. By the time each result is broadcast, the computers (National Elliott 803 for TV and IBM 7094 for radio) will have worked out swing and the turnout. They will keep a running tally of all the votes cast and calculate up-to-date percentages for each party.

They will analyse the results in each big city and each region and they will check whether rural or suburban or other types of constituency are out of line with the rest of the country. A British election, however, presents, in computer terms, a very simple problem; the election results programme must not, therefore, be seen as a great test of the studio computers. They will merely provide accurate information rather more quickly and more exhaustively than slide rules and adding machines. However, with subtle analysis, the fuller data from the computer will make it possible to give more exact forecasts rather earlier than ever before and at the same time to tell you what lies behind the figures.

5: Three golden rules

  1. The crucial swing to Labour is 3½%. If the swing in the early results is much over 4%, the Labour party is heading for victory. If the swing is much under 3%, the Conservatives are home again.
  2. Labour need at least to gain 5 Conservative seats in the first 100 results to have a good chance of winning.
  3. The more the swing varies in different parts of the country, the longer it will be before anyone can go nap on the final majority.

Covering the Election: tonight and tomorrow

The BBC’s team for the most complex combined operation in its history includes television and radio’s most experienced commentators and reporters. They will provide you with an up-to-the-minute and comprehensive service of election results together with expert comment and analysis, vivid reports, and telling interviews from all over the country

About the author

Sir David Edgeworth Butler CBE FBA (1924–2022) was a professor of political science and psephology

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