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Political Betting in Historical Context

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The cartoon above is the fifth in a series created by Steve Way exclusively for H&P. We will be publishing more of them over the coming days as part of our election coverage If posting them on social media please acknowledge Steve Way and H&P. For permission to reproduce in books or articles please contact Steve at: stevewayuk@yahoo.co.uk


On June 12, the Guardian first reported that prime minister Rishi Sunak’s parliamentary private secretary Craig Williams, MP and candidate for Montgomeryshire, was under investigation by the Gambling Commission because he had placed a £100 bet with the bookmaker Ladbrokes on a July general election at 5/1 odds three days before Sunak announced that the election would be held on July 4.  A week later the paper revealed that the Gambling Commission was investigating Laura Saunders, the Tory candidate for Bristol Northwest, for placing a similar wager. Saunders’ husband Tony Lee, the Conservative Party Director of Campaigns, was also reported to be under investigation.

These three individuals and a growing host of others have rightly been denounced by colleagues on both sides of the political aisle for their apparent efforts to illegally profit from insider information on the prime minister’s plans to which the general population was not privy.  Such activity by politicians is not only morally suspect, but illegal, and last week the Met revealed that Williams could come under the scope of a criminal investigation into misconduct in public office.

But while trading on insider information cannot be justified, over the past several weeks the elections betting scandal has expanded to encompass a number of politicians who simply placed wagers on the election outcome, including bets against their own victories.  Punters caught up in this broader web of scandal include the Tory Philip Davies, who bet a whopping £8,000 pounds that he would lose his marginal seat of Shipley in West Yorkshire in the upcoming election, and the Labour candidate for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich Kevin Craig who made a similar, albeit more modest, bet against his own chances. At the point of writing, the Labour party has suspended Kevin Craig, while Davies remains a Tory candidate. While such bets may have been in poor taste, neither of them were illegal. (No one has suggested that, like a crooked footballer, either man bet against himself with the aim of throwing the election.)   Neither were they historical anomalies.

Politicians have long been known to wager on politics. In 1994, then Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy made news when he won £2,500 after placing a £50 bet at 50/1 odds on the Liberals winning only two seats in the European parliamentary elections. Earlier recorded examples of politicians wagering on politics include Tom Jones (then Conservative PM Stanley Baldwin’s Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet) betting with Beatrice and Sidney Webb on the 1929 general election outcome.  Several other politicians made wagers on that election, including the Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hix, who bet the press baron Lord Rothermere that the Tories would maintain their majority, and Chancellor Winston Churchill, who placed a bet with his Treasury colleague, Walter Guinness, on the number of MPs the Tories would return. Churchill regularly bet on politics, with archival records of his bets including a 1909 wager of £25 made with the Duke of Marlborough over the fate of the People’s Budget in the House of Lords. (Churchill wagered that the Lords would not veto the budget. He lost and paid up, although Marlborough never cashed the cheque.)

The historic bets mentioned above differ from Kennedy’s 1994 wager and the wagers at the centre of the current election scandal in that they were “gentleman’s wagers,” not commercial contracts, but such contracts were by no means absent in the early twentieth century.  From the 1910s through the 1930s, political gambling took place not only at the bookmakers, but on the London Stock Exchange, where a “futures market” on the general election that effectively amounted to spread betting around the size of each party’s representation reached dizzying heights.  The futures contracts were colloquially known as “Majorities,” as they began as bets on the size of the Liberal-Radical-Irish Coalition majority in 1910. The Labour MP Josiah Wedgwood (a distant cousin of Tony Benn) confessed to netting £820 (equivalent to over £40,000 today) on a Majorities contract in 1929.  As he recorded in his memoirs:

“I wandered around speaking for friends all over the country, and felt I knew more about it than the Stock Exchange. I bought Labour at 246, and . . . I netted 41 at £20 apiece! My election expenses were £300, I could have sold Labour with equal success at the next election had not old-fashioned scruples about selling your own side interfered with my business acumen.”

Such “old-fashioned scruples” were clearly not shared by Davies or Craig this time around!

The strange history of the Stock Exchange political futures markets that operated between 1910 and 1931 sheds light on both the enduring allure of political betting in Britain, and the challenges and risks inherent in betting on politics.  For a brief period at the start of the twentieth century, the Stock Exchange markets captured the imagination not only of brokers and regular punters but also of politicians and political commentators who looked to the markets as a guide to fluctuating public opinion on the opposing parties, much as twenty-first century commentators frequently look to high street and online betting odds as a clue to the parties’ political fortunes. During the 1929 election campaign not only the financial press but the major broadsheet newspapers reported daily on the electoral futures markets’ fluctuations, and the Liberal Party leader David Lloyd George even made reference to the state of the betting market in his Party Election Broadcast.

But the Stock Exchange markets proved to be poor guides to public opinion, underestimating the swing against Labour in 1924, overestimating the number of seats the Tories would win in 1929, and again underestimating the swing against Labour in 1931. The market’s predictive failures ultimately led to its downfall: one punter lost so much in 1931 that he took his broker to court in an attempt to avoid payment, claiming that his Majorities contract was not indeed a binding contract but an unenforceable wager.  The judge agreed, with the result that the Stock Exchange Council formally proscribed “Majorities” in 1932.

The failure of the Majorities market as a predictive barometer – despite the participation of a significant number of politicians and politically-connected individuals in the market – underscores the instability and unknowability of party politics at the start of the twentieth century, a mystique that was by no means entirely dispelled by the advent of public opinion polling in the 1930s, as we saw in 2010, and again at the 2016 referendum and the 2017 general election.  It’s the very excitement and uncertainty around elections that seems to make them so attractive to wager on, both for voters and, apparently, for the candidates themselves. In the months to come, it seems likely that either the parties or parliament itself may end up taking steps to proscribe high street betting by MPs and candidates. But even if such moves are successful, it is difficult to imagine that the practice of informal wagers (and perhaps not only between ‘gentlemen’) will ever disappear.


Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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