The general election in Hertsmere

Voters are often called upon to solve problems for the political class

Group photo of every Labour MP elected to Parliament in the 2024 general election
What a Labour landslide actually looks like

Especially in Britain, where governments can call elections whenever they fancy it within a five-year term (Fixed Term Parliament Act RIP), we’ll usually be asked to go to the polls when a government is in crisis or has an urgent problem to deal with. In 2017 we were called upon to help Theresa May break her Brexit impasse by giving her a big enough Parliamentary majority to push through a deal (nice work, Theresa). In 2019 we were asked to resolve Boris Johnson’s even more intractable Brexit dilemma (guess he did get Brexit done). But what problem was Rishi Sunak asking us to solve for him by calling an election six months before he had to, in the teeth of the lowest popularity ratings and the worst polling for decades?

We’ve updated our free spreadsheet of results from every general election in Hertsmere all the way back to the first one, in 1983.

It looks like Sunak was desperately hoping that the electorate would rescue him from the Reform insurgency, that Richard Tice wouldn’t have time to organise a national campaign, that Nigel Farage wouldn’t dream of giving up the glamour and the gilded corridors of Trump Tower and that, when forced to choose, unhappy Conservative voters would snap back to the Mother Party and send Reform packing. No such luck.

So who won?

Well, to state the obvious, here in Hertsmere the Conservative Party won, with a majority of 7,992 votes – not bad considering the national picture but almost two-thirds smaller than in 2019, when Oliver Dowden won by 21,313 (it’s the smallest majority he’s won in four general elections). This much-reduced majority compares pretty well with the other seats where Tories held on too. In fact Hertsmere is now the tenth safest Conservative seat in the UK – up from 43rd before the election (even allowing for the fact that there are now so few of them this is still a big improvement).

Polling isn’t recorded at the council-ward level so we can’t tell how different parts of the constituency voted. We’re going to go out on a limb, though, and guess that the issues that motivated prosperous parts of the constituency like ours were VAT on private school fees, capital gains tax and the risk of an update to the 1991 valuations used to calculate council tax. The investment managers among us might also have been worried about Labour’s plans for carried interest.

The average Tory majority at this election was 4,086, which is a number that must put the fear of God into the strategists at CCHQ. The median was 3,572 and the largest in the country was – guess where – Rishi Sunak’s Richmond and Northallerton, where the majority was 12,185.

Lay your bets

Let’s get the succession out of the way. Who will take over the dry husk of the Conservative Party? Who will be its William Hague? Its Michael Howard? The person to rebuild it after the earthquake? We’d assumed the jockeying for leadership of the soundly defeated Conservative Party – reduced to the smallest number of MPs in its history – was well under way before Thursday’s epic collapse but we were a bit surprised to learn that Oliver Dowden might well be supporting outsider Victoria Atkins for leader when the contest comes.

The fear for mainstream political parties in chaotic periods like this is that an ordinary electoral set-back might turn out to be a realignment, a permanent break – like the Tory catastrophe after the Great Reform Act or when the Liberals disappeared as a party of government in the twenties. Is it possible this is what just happened to the Conservative Party?

The Telegraph got excited about this two days before the election but on actually reading the source of their scoop – an article in The Independent – it seems that Dowden was really just buttering up a guest at a Xmas drinks party back in December. Atkins herself, on hearing Dowden say “…there’s only two people from my generation that I could see leading the Conservative Party: Rishi Sunak or Vicky Atkins…” is recorded as saying only ‘wow’.

We wouldn’t mention this bit of Tory Party gossip here if it weren’t for the fact that Dowden has a record of picking winners. If you’d like to make this a little more interesting you’ll currently get between 10-1 and 25-1 on Victoria Atkins for leader (with favourite Kemi Badenoch on 2-1 or even 6-4). We urge caution while things are so fluid, of course, but we’re wondering about a couple of quid on a wildly implausible come-back for Nadhim “Unsecured Loan” Zahawi at 66-1 (Dowden himself is presently at around 50-1 – although we’re about 90% sure that it’s once-a-bagman-always-a-bagman for our MP and that he wouldn’t dream of standing. Prove us wrong, Sir Oliver!).

Composite of official photos of Conservative MPs Rishi Sunak, Robert Jenrick and Oliver Dowden, all smiling broadly in dark blue suits
The gang of three – all, remarkably, still in their seats

And when we say ‘picking winners’, we mean really picking them. Dowden was part of the ‘gang of three’ thrusting young MPs, along with Robert Jenrick and a junior Minister called Rishi Sunak who were first to endorse Boris Johson for leader in June 2019 (look at their happy little faces! Seems so long ago). Anyway, you know how that went.

But canny Dowden was also ‘first to wield the knife‘ when Johnson’s time had come in July 2022 and the letters of resignation started to pour in (do you remember there were so many of them we made a spreadsheet to keep track of them?). We wrote about this back then.

Official three-quarter length portrait of Oliver Dowden MP, smiling broadly. Text overlaid reads: 'Rishi is the best person to lead our country and unquestionably the best person to beat Labour. That's wht I'm backing him to be our next Prime Minister.' Ready for Rishi

Dowden was then among the very first to join #TeamRishi, although it was an idea whose time hadn’t quite come because we had to get through that weird Liz Truss bit before Sunak could assume power as some sort of saviour. “Unquestionably the best person to beat Labour…” you say?

(although there was a bit of a scare in the small hours, Dowden’s favourite for Tory Party leader Victoria Atkins was re-elected, so it’s still on…).

The two biggest parties – one of them two hundred years old (well over 300 if you count from the origin of the Tories) and the most successful political party in modern world history; and one of them well over a hundred years old and the most durable party of the working class anywhere in the world – are both

The voting

Labour. Of course, as we should have expected, the result here in Hertsmere was another win for incumbent Oliver Dowden. The swing against him was huge – over 20% – and the swing to Labour pretty good too but nowhere near enough. Josh Tapper’s share of the vote, 28%, is the fourth highest ever polled for Labour in Hertsmere, also the fourth largest number of votes, 13,459. But to win he’d have to have done better than Beth Kelly in 1997, whose 19,230 votes and 38.2% brought her to within 3,000 votes of a win. Even if Reform had not existed and every one of Darren Selkus’s 6,584 votes had gone to Tapper, we’d still have a Tory MP today.

General election results for Hertsmere in July 2024 - a screenshot from the BBC web site

This must have been an absolute rollercoaster for Josh Tapper. When selected by his local party back in March he’d presumably have had very limited expectations, in Britain’s 43rd safest Tory seat, but as Rishi’s catastrophic campaign ground on and the polls (so many polls!) began to pile up, he must have allowed himself to think the unthinkable once or twice. We noted some polls here that put Tapper over the line but they were very much outliers. It must be heartbreaking for him to watch the many new, young Labour MPs turning up at Parliament over the last few days. Better luck next time, Josh!

Of course, one of the more remarkable things about this Labour landslide is that it is the product of one of the lowest vote shares in recent political history – 34%. Commentators are calling this result ‘wide but shallow‘ or ‘distorted‘. Fraser Nelson in the Spectator calls it a Potemkin landslide, which is clever. Activists, of course, will say things like ‘that’s how politics works’, or ‘a win is a win’ but will be privately conscious of the fact that Starmer won three million votes fewer than Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 and, startlingly, over half a million fewer than the same bloke in the catastrophic 2019 election. Labour must govern – and quickly make a real impression on the lives of Britons – in the knowledge that Keir Starmer is less popular in electoral terms than the hated predecessor he has expended so much energy to delete from the national memory.

The counter-argument is that where the Labour win is wide but shallow – a ‘sandcastle landslide‘ that could be swept away when the tide comes back in – the Tory position now is narrow and shallow. It has to be a fear for the remains of the Tory leadership that a Parliamentary party with 122 MPs and an average majority of about 4,000 looks very fragile indeed and essentially only one more defeat from total irrelevance – especially when its next leader might well be from an extreme wing of the party and ready to essentially abandon the party’s historic base.

The Liberals. In Hertsmere, Labour remains the only viable opposition. The Liberals fell apart here – again – and there was a 3.2% swing against Emma Matanle. The ruthlessly effective Lib Dem campaign – which has produced 71 seats nationally – focused on harnessing the ‘efficiency’ of the electoral process by investing everything in winnable seats. It was always going to leave Matanle on the outside. In the 1980s the party – before the SDP merger – was the second-largest in the constituency. Matanle’s vote was less than a third of the party’s best performance here in 1983. It will be a long road back.

Table showing all the Liberal and Lib Dem results in the Hertsmere constituency between 1983 and 2024
This list of Liberal and Lib Dem candidates, incidentally, includes Zerbanoo Gifford, the only Zoroastrian (we think) ever to have stood for election in Hertsmere; Laurence Brass, founder of an important Jewish-Palestinian peace settlement who is still serving as a Hertfordshire county councillor almost forty years on and Sophie Bowler, the Lib Dem candidate who won some press coverage in 2015 for being ‘too busy to do any campaigning and consequently won the smallest number of votes for her party in the history of the constituency.

Reform’s performance in Hertsmere was, in national terms, not remarkable. An outer-London green-belt settlement was never going to be a good prospect for the party so their investment here was probably small. Darren Selkus was essentially on his own (at least he was actually visible) and the fact that he was able to bring in 6,584 votes – more even than UKIP at their 2015 high-point (and, remarkably, more than UKIP’s entire national vote at this election) – probably bodes well if he wants to stand again (he stood for the Brexit Party in Epping Forest in 2019 too). His vote here was the largest for a populist party in the history of the constituency (easily enough to get his deposit back). The party took lumps out of the Tory vote this time round but all the parties are conscious that Reform UK will be the primary source of chaos in UK politics for some time yet – and the party really won’t want to stop at humiliating the Tories. Like UKIP before it, the party’s presence in the political landscape is going to focus minds and all parties will be thinking hard about how to make sure Reform can’t come for them in subsequent elections. Labour’s concern will be that Reform came second in 98 UK seats and in 89 of them Labour was the winner.

Huge Union flag draped across a hedge outside a house in the Hertsmere constituency. A sign in the middle of the flag reads: 'SOS Vote Reform. Vote Selkus. He can help us'
From Darren Selkus’s Twitter account

During the campaign Selkus promised to give the whole of his MP’s salary to charity, which suggests that his business – which sells wood veneers – is probably doing well. He’ll be able to give it 100% of his focus again now.

The Greens must be wondering what they have to do to have an impact in British politics. If any party should be disrupting UK politics from the margins then surely it ought to be the party of the climate crisis and of protecting the environment? But no, once again, the disruptive force – here as across Europe – is a reactionary populist party. A party, in fact, that explicitly opposes Net Zero and advances a kind of ‘la-la-la-not-listening’ approach to global warming. Reform UK Chairman Richard Tice explains that, because the UK’s economy is relatively small, cutting emissions here would “make zero difference to climate change”, so we should focus on adaptation (taller sea walls, flood-resistant crops, factor-50 and so on) rather than participating in the worldwide energy transition.

The Green Party put up a candidate in every seat in England and Wales this time and now has four MPs, one fewer than Reform – a big breakthrough. In Hertsmere, John Humphries, a veteran campaigner who stood here in 2019, continued the party’s steady growth in share. Where the party took seats this time they came from the major parties but it will be a long time before the Greens represent a threat to the Tories here.

One of the party’s challenges is that, once elected, Green MPs will be subject to the same local political pressures as everyone else. It’s already started: this Telegraph story is from two days after the election:

Would a Hertsmere Green MP be brave enough to support the construction of a thousand PassivHaus homes on the green belt? Or a big solar farm on agricultural land in the constituency?

The Independents. The other group that’s really boomed in the 2024 general election is the broad church of candidates with no party affiliation. We counted 487 candidates in the general election with the word ‘independent’ in their party name, the largest number ever in a UK election – most constituencies in Britain had five or six candidates, which is more than usual. Six Independents were elected to Parliament this time. One of them was Jeremy Corbyn, of course. Four of them were so-called ‘Gaza candidates’, standing against Labour in seats that have larger Muslim populations (and one is an independent Unionist in Northern Ireland). The press have been quick to suggest that these one-issue candidates are the thin end of an Islamist wedge or ‘a failure of integration’ but a quick look at their biographies suggests otherwise: one Lib Dem barrister, one solicitor, one IT consultant (and school governor) and the chair of a Muslim advocacy group. We’d suggest that standing for Parliament is about the best evidence of integration you’ll find.

Hertsmere’s Independent is Ray Bolster. Bolster kept us guessing by remaining entirely invisible for the first five weeks of the campaign – no web site, no social media, no leaflets. But in the few days before the poll he put his head above the parapet and put out a leaflet. We learnt that Bolster is a local man, an RAF veteran and a life-long peacenik. His 536 votes doesn’t look at all bad when you consider how elusive he was during the campaign.

A quote from Ray Bolster's election leaflet from the Hertsmere general election in July 2024 - "I am in my eighties and recently widowed. This is my final call. Join me as I stand for politics from the heart. Join me to fight for a better Britain… and a fairer world.
No concerns about age here

The only other Independent in the history of Hertsmere was Ronald Parkinson, who stood as an Independent Communist in 1983 and polled a remarkable 1,116 votes (although the fact that he had the same surname as the winning Tory may have contributed to this total).

Table showing results in 1983 general election in the Hertsmere constituency.

  • Detailed results for Hertsmere from the BBC (with nice charts) or from Wikipedia (with a simpler table of results).
  • We’ve updated our spreadsheet of results from every general election in Hertsmere all the way back to the first one, in 1983 (you’ll also find council and PCC results).
  • Since Oliver Dowden remains our MP we can continue keeping an eye on him. Follow the #DowdenLog tag here.

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