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History of the Political Punter: Always Expect the Unexpected

December 1st, 2019

The modern era of big, open, political betting began in 1963 when Ron Pollard of Ladbrokes offered odds on the Conservative leadership contest for the ordinary punter. It was a dismal start as the 5/4 favourite Rab Butler was beaten by the 16/1 shot Alec Douglas-Home.

In offering the market Pollard tapped into a long, often secret, history of political betting in Britain. In the 1920s, people on the stock exchange would bet on ‘majorities’ – what we now call spread betting – where seat totals would be calculated and traders would buy/sell above or below the line.

It proved popular, and in 1931, the bookmakers traded over £750,000 on the election. They had severely under-estimated the prospect of a Labour collapse when they set a line of 200 for a National Government majority. It ended up being a 469 seat margin. The losses of one punter led to a much-publicised court case when a trader refused to pay up, citing the Gaming Act as his defence. The Council of the Stock Exchange subsequently banned election gambling.

Small secret trades continued to take place and in 1945, bookmakers offered 5/1 on a Labour victory in the first election for a decade. Fortunately for them, few were enticed into backing Labour.

Five years later Labour were quoted at odds of 4/6 to win the election and there was much greater interest. It prompted The Economist to observe how ‘It is curious that in a nation devoted to gambling as the British, so little opportunity should nowadays be taken of a general election, the most sporting of all events’.

Punters would finally get their wish in the 1960s and at the 1964 election, William Hill followed Ladbrokes into the brave new world. In a newspaper advert, Hills claimed that ‘in response to public demand’ they would now offer odds on the result of the election. Labour won by just four seats and the 1-10 margin had been priced up at 14/1

Ever since betting has been a central part of the coverage of the election campaigns and has proved lucrative for shrewd politico’s. In 1970, the bookmakers and the pollsters misjudged the result.

Ladbrokes opened up on a Labour majority at 8/13 which was quickly backed into 1/12 as they took a poll lead. Events changed, the economy faltered and England were eliminated from the World Cup. The money came flooding in for Heath’s Tories and the Times reported that £5000 had been placed on them at 8/1. Heath confounded all by securing a majority for the Conservatives. Four years later however it was Harold Wilson who defied the odds. The Conservatives were seen as slight 4/7 favourites going into the ‘Who Governs?’ election but lost their majority.

The 1979 result was never in doubt and the Conservatives won after being priced up at 1/6 for victory. However, four years later, there was much better value to be had. Despite a commanding poll lead, the bookmakers opened up at an attractive 2/9 for the Conservatives to hold their majority.

In a sign of the growth of political betting, one punter staked £90,000 on the Conservatives to win and as the Sun noted, it seemed a big risk for little reward, especially when you consider that half of the profit would be ‘swallowed in betting tax’. It would prove to be one of the safest bets in political history.

The bookmakers expected Labour’s history to save them in their heartlands and offered a mouth-watering 28/1 on a Conservative victory by 97 seats or more. They subsequently ended up with a majority of 144 seats.

Surprisingly, by January 1987, many predicted that Labour could close the gap and the Tories were an attractive 4/9 to win the most seats. By the time the election campaign began, the Tories had been backed in to 1/7 to win a majority and they did in style.

After a decade of one sided contests, the 1992 general election was one of the closest in modern political history. Labour began the campaign as 8/11 favourites and with a week to go the money was still with them. Kinnock was expected to lead the biggest party at 2/5 but a hung parliament was priced in at 10/11.

The man who had made it all happen in the 1960s, Ron Pollard, was confident of a Labour victory. He layed a bet of £14,000 to a man from Stoke on Trent for the Tories to win an overall majority and told The Times that ‘he must be mad…but if he is right, he stands to win £142,000’. He then laid another £20,000 – the biggest bet of the election – at 11/4 on a Tory win. On the night, even the exit poll could not split the two but in the end, the Tories pulled off a major shock by winning a majority of 21.

The subsequent collapse of the Major Government from 1992 onwards led many to believe that Labour could return to office after eighteen years in the wilderness. Despite being mired by scandal and incompetence, you could still back the Tories to win an overall majority at 4/1 and a hung parliament was 10/3.

One enthusiastic Labour backer drew £25,000 from his building society account to back Labour at 1 / 4. Contrary to the myth that a landslide was inevitable, the initial seat total was priced at 367 seats for Labour to the Tories 242. Sellers of Tory seats had a great night when they chalked up just 165 MPs.

The most disciplined punter was the Durham taxi driver George Elliott. In 1983 he picked up a passenger who he thought ‘had something about him’. After a political discussion, he dashed to his local bookmakers to request a bet: that his new MP, Tony Blair, would one day become Prime Minister. 15 years later, Elliot picked up £5,000 in what must rank as the shrewdest £10 punt in political history.

Labour’s electoral dominance threatened to make the 2001 election another stalemate for punters. Tony Blair was the shortest odds-on favourite in UK political history at 1/40. Nobody expected the Tories to dent Labour’s majority. One bookmaker told BBC News: ‘If you want to bet on a Tory win, give us a call, if you want to back a Lib Dem win, we’ll send a cab.’

There was still money to be made, as firms offered 10/1 on a Labour majority of 160+. Despite the short odds, firms were stung by multiple six-figure bets on Labour. With such a large majority, it was as close to ‘buying money’ as one could ever hope to find.

Four years later, the bookmakers favoured Labour too heavily, offering 1/40 on a Labour win, despite polls showing the Tories within a 5pt margin at points in the campaign. To neutralise the risk, Paddy Power paid out on a Labour victory before a vote had been cast.

2010 would prove to be a much closer run contest. Bookmakers opened up at 8/15 on a Tory majority which had drifted from 1/3 just a few months earlier. The 6/4 on a Hung Parliament offered the best value of the campaign, which saw the Lib Dems odds shorten following ‘Clegg-Mania’.

2015 was another tight one with few expecting a majority for either side. One punter, who won £193,000, on the Scottish Referendum (from a £900,000 stake) invested a further £200,000 on a Hung Parliament at odds of 2/9. On the opposite side, one pensioner defied the polls and scooped £210,000 after he placed £20,000 on Cameron to win a majority.

Then in 2017, the Labour defied all the pre-election odds. Sporting Index began the campaign with the Tories in for 386 seats to Labour’s 164. The Tories opened up at 1/25 for a majority and quoted at 1 / 4 to win seats such as Great Grimsby. The election quickly unravelled for the Tories but with a week to go, you could still back a Hung Parliament at 7/1.

On election night – the markets failed to react to the exit poll – and then over-reacted. At 1:30 am Corbyn became the 6/4 favourite to become the next Prime Minister as it looked like May would not even be able to cobble together a deal with D.U.P.

As we approach the 2019 poll there will be many twists and tuns, wobbles and price shifts. If the electorate is as undecided as polls suggest, it could prove to be the most lucrative yet for those punters who can call it right. History, however, shows us that we should always expect the unexpected on election night.

Anthony Broxton

Anthony Broxton runs the Tides of History project on twitter and tweets as @labour_history