On the first of November 1950 Tony Benn – then known as Anthony Wedgwood Benn – was selected as the Labour candidate for the Bristol South East by-election, a by-election triggered by the resignation (due to ill health) of former Chancellor Sir Stafford Cripps.* Bristol South East was a working class suburban constituency based around the districts of St Georges and Brislington. It also extended out beyond the boundaries of the city to include the Kingswood area. The by-election was held on the 30th of November, and Benn polled 19,367 votes (56.7%) and was elected with a majority of 7,349 (21.5%).
At the 1951 General Election, Benn polled 30,811 votes (65%) and was elected with a majority of 14,256 (30.1%).
At the 1955 General Election, Benn polled 25,257 votes (59.5%) and was elected with a majority of 8,047 (18.9%).
At the 1959 General Election, Benn polled 26,273 votes (56.2%) and was elected with a majority of 5,827 (12.5%)
Following the death of his father on the 17th of November 1960, Benn succeeded to the Peerage as the second Viscount Stansgate. This meant that he was no longer eligible to sit in the Commons and so his seat became vacant. Benn was not particularly happy with this state of affairs and made the frankly badass decision to stand in the ensuing by-election, which was held on the 4th of May 1961. Technically Benn won – polling 23,275 votes (69.5%) and leading by 13,044 (38.9%) – but as he was not eligible to sit in the Commons his Conservative opponent, Malcolm St Clair, was declared the victor. St Clair held the seat until the Conservative government gave in to Benn’s characteristically noisy campaigning and passed the Peerage Act of 1963 which allowed Hereditary Peers to disclaim their Peerages. Which Benn promptly did. Sinclair then did the decent thing and resigned his seat. This led to another by-election, in which Benn (against an assorted range on independents** and no Conservative opposition) polled 20,313 votes (79.7%) and was elected with a majority of 15,479 (60.7%). And with ruritanian absurdities dispensed with…
At the 1964 General Election, Benn polled 29,117 votes (60.2%) and was elected with a majority of 9,835 (20.3%)
At the 1966 General Election, Benn polled 30,851 votes (61.3%) and was elected with a majority of 11,416 (22.7%)
At the 1970 General Election, Benn polled 29,176 votes (55.4%) and was elected with a majority of 5,688 (10.8%)
Over the next few years several important things changed. Benn’s leftwards political journey led to him announcing in October 1973 than instead of Anthony Wedgwood Benn, he would rather be known as plain Tony Benn. The Liberal Party got its act together (to the limited extent that it was capable of doing such a thing, anyway) and basically swore to never again leave most constituencies uncontested: this ended the era of two-candidate elections in Britain for ever.*** And there were boundary changes in Bristol. The constituency of Bristol Central was abolished and the new suburban (outside the city boundaries, but most definitely part of the wider urban area) constituency of Kingswood was created. Benn’s Bristol South East was greatly altered in the process: it lost Kingswood to Kingswood (duh) and was compensated with parts of abolished Bristol Central.
At the February 1974 General Election, Benn polled 26,540 votes (47.0%) and was elected with a majority of 7,912 (14.0%)
At the October 1974 General Election, Benn polled 25,978 votes (49.1%) and was elected with a majority of 9,373 (17.7%)
At the 1979 General Election, Benn polled 24,878 votes (45.4%) and was elected with a majority of 1,890 (3.4%). For the first time in his career, Benn no longer represented a safe seat.
A further set of boundary changes before the 1983 election saw Bristol South East transformed into Bristol East. The notional Labour majority in Bristol East was larger than the actual majority in Bristol South East had been, but given Benn’s highly controversial public profile at the time it was likely that this would not be so in practice. As part of Bristol South East had been added to the safe seat of Bristol South, Benn initially sought selection there instead, hoping that his popularity with Labour activists would see him through against Michael Cocks, who had held Bristol South since 1970 and who was the Party’s Chief Whip. Unfortunately for Benn, Cocks knew every trick in the book and edged him out.**** Benn refused subsequent offers from left-wing CLPs in safe seats, and stood in Bristol East.
In the 1983 General Election, Benn polled 18,055 votes (36.9%) and was defeated by the Conservative candidate, Jonathan Sayeed, who was elected with a majority of 1,789 (3.6%).***** Apparently, the swing was highest in the parts of the constituency not previously represented by Benn.
The first seat to fall vacant in the 1983-87 parliament was Chesterfield, an industrial constituency in North Derbyshire held since 1964 by Labour right-winger Eric Varley, who had resigned to become chairman of Coalite (a manufacturer of smokeless fuel). Varley had been a cabinet minister in the 1970s and he and Benn had swapped jobs in 1975 (Benn went from Industry to Energy, Varley from Energy to Industry). His majority in 1983 was 7,763 (15.6%). Benn was selected as the Labour candidate.
The by-election was held on the 1st of March 1984 and was something of a circus. Given Benn’s high profile this was basically inevitable. Sixteen candidates stood, only three of which kept their deposits. Benn polled 24,633 votes (46.5%) and was elected with a majority of 6,264 (11.8%). Incredibly for a by-election, turnout was actually higher than at the previous General Election.
At the 1987 General Election, Benn polled 24,532 votes (45.5%) and was elected with a majority of 8,577 (15.9%)
At the 1992 General Election, Benn polled 26,451 votes (47.3%) and was elected with a majority of 6,414 (11.5%)
At the 1997 General Election, Benn polled 26,105 votes (50.8%) and was elected with a majority of 5,775 (11.2%)
Tony Benn retired at the 2001 General Election.
*Who, interestingly enough, had rather similar politics and concerns to Benn.
**One of which was the tiresome ex-Liberal crank Edward Martell.
***And causes irritating problems for those into electoral geekery, because it makes it difficult to properly compare elections before and after 1974. Is a candidate who polled 50.4% in a two-way race (say) actually more popular than someone who polled 48% in a three way race in which the third party polled 15%? And so on.
****He was less successful in 1987 and was deselected in favour of Dawn Primarolo.
*****Member of Parliament for Bristol East 1983-92 (defeated), for Mid Bedfordshire 1997-2005. Resigned under an ethical cloud at the 2005 General Election.