Why you don’t have to be a loony to bet on elections
The growth of a one-time novelty market
Sir Robert Walpole, (1676-1745), regarded as Britain’s first prime minister, was a gambling man – so when MP Mr Pultney accused him of a misquote during a debate he immediately bet him one guinea that he was correct.
The Clerk of the House ruled in favour of Pultney – whereupon Walpole ‘threw a guinea across the House to be picked up by his opponent’ recorded a contemporary account.
Opportunities for the public to place bets on political events and elections were low-profile until the arrival of betting shops on the high street in the early 1960s, when a high-profile argument broke out between Ladbrokes boss Cyril Stein and William Hill’s eponymous founder over the morality of such wagering.
Ladbrokes almost went bust as a result of the 1964 general election, taking a reported £640,000 but acquiring a business-threatening liability should the Conservatives win.
Labour landed a narrow, five-seat victory and Stein breathed again, giving his PR guru, Ron Pollard, who had jumped ship from Hills, the go-ahead to really push political betting at the 1966 general election.
William Hill had a moral objection to political wagering but was under pressure from within the company to take on Ladbrokes – and he and Stein were invited to discuss their differences in a BBC Radio debate.
“Frankly, I feel it is undesirable, because if this became a fever I think it could affect the ballot box,” declared Hill, sounding somewhat outdated, as the generation younger Stein scoffed, ‘I cannot believe that the Conservative in a particular constituency would vote Labour because he has backed Labour. It is idiotic that this could be so.’
Stein was in tune with public demand and Hill was ultimately forced to compromise his morals, finally giving permission for his company to start taking political bets.
Pollard had taken advantage of Hill’s reluctance, establishing himself as the go-to man for the media who lapped up stories as the bookies now challenged politicians and pollsters as purveyors of political punditry.
Initially, the bookies were offering outright odds, along with ‘correct score’ prices on how many seats each party would pick up.
They soon realised that general elections attracted eccentric candidates and, seeing a way of personalising betting, began to quote odds about such newsworthy individuals as Commander Bill Boaks, who campaigned on his slogan-daubed bicycle for road safety, retaining their deposits or polling a certain number of votes.
In fact, Boaks set a new low in 1982 when he won just five votes in Glasgow Hillhead.
Boaks’s baton was taken up and enhanced by pop star turned politician, Screaming Lord Sutch, who founded the Official Monster Raving Loony Party which, unlike Sutch, is still with us today.
Sutch campaigned for such impossible policies as votes at 18, passports for pets and the legalisation of commercial radio and was irresistible to the media, which enabled me to sponsor his party, allow him to hold party meetings in William Hill branches and to place the longest-odds bet ever recorded of 15 million to one against him becoming prime minister.
During a number of general elections the party changed its name to the Monster Raving Loony I Bet I Will Beat William Hill Party, which duly appeared on ballot papers.
Looking for other outlets for political punts, US elections were an obvious area for bookies to exploit as the Land of the Free did not – still does not – permit its own citizens to bet on the outcome of their presidential polls.
Learning this, one wealthy American flew over on Concorde to bet on the US Election, returning a few weeks later to place a second bet, for it to be pointed out to him that he could have deposited money over here with his bookie in London and just phoned in his bets instead of taking expensive flights each time.
Another keen US political punter called me in 1992, asking for a $3m bet on Bill Clinton. When I told him I thought that was rather a lot for any individual to risk on the outcome of an election he laughed and told me in his Texan drawl: “Hell, no, man, it ain’t all my own money – there’s three of us!”
It was the 2014 Scottish independence referendum that sparked the current surge in popularity of political betting.
Bookies were astonished at the betting turnover for what was expected to produce a routine victory for an anti-independence vote.
That’s what eventually happened, but there was fierce betting on either side and one bold individual who had never even visited Scotland but had studied a similar referendum in Canada, made what he termed as a ‘considered investment’ when he staked £900,000 on the No option.
I failed to persuade him to allow his name to be publicised, but did get him on to the Jeremy Vine Radio 2 programme to talk about his gamble, which ended up returning him £1,093,333.33.
“Anyone prepared to make a reasoned wager and believing the chance of the reasoned wager happening is one hundred per cent should bet anything they can afford to,” he told Vine.
That was a high-profile winning favourite, but it presaged a string of high-profile setbacks for bookies which have encouraged many prospective punters to believe they are better at predicting political outcomes than the old enemy, and betting accordingly.
Anyone prepared to speculate that 200-1 no-hoper Jeremy Corbyn could succeed Ed Miliband as Labour leader and double up with TV business tycoon and comically coiffed 150-1 Donald Trump becoming US president, was looking at a 30,000-1 winner when these two impossible results duly obliged.
They were topped and tailed by the bookies being certain that the 2015 general election would produce a hung parliament, and making that option odds-on, persisting in offering around 6-1 about a Tory outright victory – even when the shock exit poll indicated that would happen.
And to emphasise their difficulty in deciding whether a small number of very large wagers outweighed many more small wagers in indicating the outcome of the Brexit result, the bookies were again wrong-footed when the Leavers, backable at up to 6-1 even on voting day, edged out the Remainers.
The bookies breathed a huge sigh of relief when they finally called a major political result correctly as Marine Le Pen lost out to Emmanuel Macron in the recent French presidential election.
No longer just a niche event, political betting has come of age – with British, German, Australian and Irish elections all on the horizon, odds for all 600-plus General Election constituencies available, markets offered for the next leader of every party, margins of victory and much more now offered as a matter of course, there has never been a better time to be a political gambler, with an enormous range of subject matter to peruse.
There will always be maverick political punters, though – such as John Murphy, who stood in a local Irish election and printed up posters pointing out that his local bookie was quoting 33-1 about him winning. This started a stampede to back him, the odds tumbled to 7-4 and he romped home.
Or Sedgefield cabbie George Elliot, who was so impressed by his newly elected constituency MP when he picked him up in his taxi in 1983 that his next trip was straight to the local bookie to take 500-1 that his passenger was on his way to Downing Street one day.
In 1997 Elliot proved a fare judge as he collected £5,000 when Tony Blair duly became prime minister.