The History of the Swingometer 1959 – 2005

Election 1959
The swingometer made it’s first appearance on British television in 1959, following the very successful first ever live transmission of the 1955 General Election on the BBC (the first time a general election had been broadcast live across the United Kingdom). In 1955, the election results set-up was quite small by modern day standards but was still a top class operation which started at 9.30 on Election Night and carried on for a good 17 hours (with only a small break between 4.00am and 8.00am the following day). Following a suggestion by David Butler (one of the presenters who was a don at Oxford), the BBC unveiled a new gadget for the election night coverage, namely the swingometer

The swingometer (seen at the back of the studio) was invented as a method of showing swing (the change in support from one party to another), which is found by simply averaging that change. So for instance (as happened in 1959) the Conservatives polled 49% to Labour’s 45% (which when compared to 1955’s results (Conservatives 47% Labour 47%), showed that the Conservatives had risen two percentage points and that Labour had fallen two percentage points indicating that there was a swing of 2% from Labour to Conservative (and that the pointer would move two marks to the left) Election 1964 By Election 1964, and the polls indicating a shift in support to the Opposition Labour Party, the swingometer was shrunk but had more useful information on it, namely what would happen to the House of Commons on a given swing. As the election wore on, the swing to Labour was averaging about 4% and using the new swingometer the presenter (Robert McKensie) was able to show that if that was the way things carried on Labour would have a majority of 23 over the Conservatives (in the end Labour did indeed have a majority over the Conservatives and all other parties but only by three) Election 1966 So for the 1966 election, another new element was added, the prospect of a hung parliament where neither the Conservatives nor Labour had sufficient parliamentary support to command a majority over the opposition. Thankfully, this didn’t arise as Labour stormed home with a majority of 63 over all parties

Election 1970 On Election Night 1970, the swingometer broke into the realms of colour and just in time as well as Britain swung to the Conservatives not just a little bit, but by a staggering 5% (which whilst

expected by the 1970 swingometer) was not the considered opinion of the pollsters and required the swingometer to be added to referred to by the presenter as “the painting of the Cistene Chapel” as swings were recorded of up to 9% in some constituencies.

Elections 1974 After the 1970 general election, Britain’s fascination with two main parties (Conservative and Labour) was starting to wane and this was illustrated by some spectacular by-election gains by a resurgent Liberal party (Rochdale gained from Lab on a swing of 11%, Sutton and Cheam gained from Con on a swing of 33%). This meant the BBC had a problem, the swingometer could only cope with a two party swing and not three party swings so they decided to have a much smaller swingometer than normal and rely instead on a “battleground” showing what seats would change hands on a swing instead, although that said Robert McKensie launched a stern defence of the swingometer when challenged by the presenter of the computer model that the computer was giving the correct forecast after only fourteen results but the swingometer was now firmly in the British psyche, so much that when Mike Yarwood (an impressionist) was asked to give a comment on the election (as both Prime Minister Ted Heath and leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson) he announced “the swingometer is only for fun!” and unfortunately the BBC took this advice to heart, but decided to give the swingometer one last outing in Election 1979. Election 1979 The last election for the swingometer was in fact one of its crowning moments. As the country swung to the Conservatives (5% from Lab to Con nationally), the swingometer duly showed the national state of the parties before being retired with a song (sung by Richard Stilgoe) but it was not the last time the swingometer would be seen

Elections 1983 and 1987 By 1983, the Liberals were resurgent again rendering the decision of the BBC to retire the swingometer seemed justified, but by 1987 a new weapon had arrived on the scene. Namely the computer and it allowed the BBC to show elections in a new light, namely live on screen declarations and summaries appearing at the speed of light. After the 1987 general election, the BBC began to wonder, could an old election friend be reinvented?

Election 1992 With great fanfare, the BBC unveiled its new weapon in election night coverage (but to old election night fans, it was a welcome return). The swingometer was back (and in a massive way!)

And it was now able to do what had only been an inkling in the BBC’s eye when it was first unveiled. Not only could it show the national trend (shown across the bottom) but could now show individual constituencies as well. As Election 1992 carried on the swingometer started to move in Labour’s direction, but stopped at only a 2% swing. The Conservatives had won their fourth election in a row but little did they know that that six months later the country would rebel against them after the disaster of “Black Wednesday” and when the swingometer returned in 1997, it would need to be even bigger than ever! Election 1997 At 10.00pm BST on May 1st 1997, the BBC carried it’s tradition exit poll. Both Conservative and Labour Party headquarters were anticipating a big news event but even they could not have guessed at what sort of slap the electors of the UK were about to unleash on the Conservatives. After all, the Conservatives thought, Labour only needs to over a Con lead of 8% (Con 42 Lab 34) to gain an overall majority of 1, it can’t be much worse than a Lab lead of 2% surely? Oh dear, how wrong the Conservatives were:

A Labour lead of 18% was worse than anyone was expecting and when the swingometer got to work on it, it ranked on the unbelievable.

Everyone was expecting a swing to Labour, yes, perhaps 6% at most but a Labour lead of 18% compared to a Conservative lead of 8% equalled a swing of a mind bogglingly huge 13% to Labour or in other words:

A Labour Commons majority of nearly 200 seats! But that wasn’t the only problem. Such was the backlash against the Conservatives that if you were a Conservative anywhere in the country, and you had a cloud hanging over you (be it that you had been involved in dodgy dealings, been seen to be asking questions for money, or indeed were just a Conservative candidate in general) people voted for the person most likely to beat you and that meant some new colours joining the political map.

When the electoral dust settled, Britain was a changed nation. A Conservative majority of 27 had been overturned into a Labour majority of 179. Labour looked set for a two or even three term government and the swingometer (once sent to the dustbin) looked onwards and upwards. Election 2001 Election 2001 might not have happened at all, given the changes that occurred. Labour were returned with another stonking majority (167), the Conservative vote only went up by 1% and if anyone gained it was the Liberal Democrats winning 52 seats. But the swingometer was back; only it looked a little different.

It was now very hands on and although it now allowed people to see just which constituencies would change hands (not only from Con to Lab, but also Con to Lib Dem)

Traditionalists were a little concerned, and when the BBC launched a consultation exercise in 2002 after complaints following it’s showing in the 2002 local elections, that version of the swingometer was scrapped and they toyed around with some new ideas before finding the version in 2005 that was to show critics of the swingometer in a three party battleground that it could work. Election 2005

The new improved swingometer could not only hang in mid air (supported by struts) but could also show more than one type of swing. You had the traditional Conservative / Labour swingometer.

The Labour / Liberal Democrat Swingometer and a Conservative / Liberal Democrat Swingometer, but as the night went on it soon became clear that the election would need a new way of showing what was happening. And so the swingometer underwent its most drastic transformation ever. Election 2005 saw the launch of “The Three Party Battleground”

Whilst looking complicated, it’s really very simple. Imagine a triangle split into three sections (Blue for the Conservatives, Red for Labour and Yellow for the Liberal Democrats). Each dividing line is the crossover point for each party so that that yellow person close to the Labour sector is a Liberal Democrat MP vulnerable to Labour. Similarly that red person on the far end of the Labour sector is a rock solid Labour MP and as the election went on several red people changed into gold and blue people so that by the end of the night when all the people were rearranged into their new positions, it became clear that whilst Labour did indeed have an overall majority of 66, the Liberal Democrats were heaving Labour towards them and pose a major challenge at the next election.