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The big bet on the UK election is not who will be prime minister

Leon Blackman, spokesperson for Oddschecker, shows a diagram of election prediction on 2024, in London, Wednesday, July 3, 2024. Britain's general election is a big event for political gamblers. Betting on Thursday's election is expected to generate tens of millions of pounds in bets though the biggest event is a bit of a snooze.
Image Credit: (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

LONDON (AP) — In one of the store-front betting shops that are ubiquitous in London, a bookie howls with laughter when asked if anyone is placing bets on Thursday’s election.

It’s not that you can’t wager on politics. But the odds on the main event this year have become so lopsided that a wager on which party will control Parliament is a bad bet.

A gambler would have to put 100 pounds ($127) on the favoured Labour Party to pocket a pound coin in return. A pound bet on the ruling Conservatives would yield 30 times that — if they win. But the bookie wryly noted it would realistically mean throwing away a pound. Then she guffawed again.

In gambling-crazy Britain, politics is fair game for betting. The subject has received more attention than normal in this election because of a scandal revolving around what date the election would be set — one of the many gambling possibilities.

Tens of millions of pounds are expected to be wagered on this year's election, but that will be dwarfed in the fall by the amount bet on the U.S. election. The presidential election in 2020 became the world’s biggest betting event on the Betfair Exchange, with 1.7 billion pounds wagered.

Punting on the pontiff and the prime minister

Almost anything can be bet on in Britain. Punters, as bettors are known, wagered on the colour of the hat Queen Elizabeth II wore to Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton, the winner of reality shows such as “Love Island” and even the name of a future pope.

The U.K. is one of the few countries where political betting is legal and it dates to the mid-18th century, said Anthony Pickles, a social anthropology professor at the University of Birmingham.

“Whilst it’s important and kind of institutional as part of the U.K. gambling context, a lot of people don’t know that it exists,” Pickles said. “It’s quite a niche activity.”

Unlike sports bettors that include people putting money on their favourite teams, political gamblers tend to be more strategic, said Leon Blackman, spokesperson for Oddschecker.

“They take emotion out of it,” Blackman said. “They’re not going to bet on the Green Party to win the election because they like the Green Party. They’re going to look for niche little angles, keep their ears to the ground as to what’s happening in the political world, and seeing if they can find that value, where they can make some money.”

Stories abound of wild wagers that have paid off and some are still in play.

A cabbie in 1983 was so impressed after giving a lift to his new Labour member of Parliament that he drove to a bookmaker and placed a 10-pound bet he would one day be prime minister. Fourteen years later, George Elliot cashed in 5,000 pounds when Tony Blair became prime minister.

One candidate currently running for reelection, Conservative Justin Tomlinson, is still waiting for his horse to come in. When Tomlinson was at university, he bet 50 pounds he would one day be the nation's leader. If gets there by 2038, he will win 500,000 pounds.

Hundreds of House of Commons seats up for grabs

Seismic shifts in political opinion away from the ruling Conservatives have reshaped the betting landscape this year.

Of the 650 seats up for grabs in the House of Commons, as many as 400 are competitive, compared to about 100 in past elections, said Paul Krishnamurty, a professional gambler and political oddsmaker for BetOnline.ag, a Panama-based online gambling site.

The odds have done a flip-flop since the 2019 election when Conservatives won a large majority and held consistent support with a 55% to 65% chance of reelection until “Partygate” in 2021 when Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other ministers violated their own COVID-19 social distancing rules by hosting booze-ups at 10 Downing Street.

Blackman pointed to a graph of the past five years with a rising red line of Labour crossing the plummeting blue Conservative line.

“You can see the drop-off and they hit their lowest point in two years time and that kind of reflects the public’s trust in the Conservative Party from there on in,” Blackman said. “And all that ongoing carnage which led them down to this point here, the present day, where they have a 0.7% chance of winning the most seats.”

More popular bets are being placed on the number of seats each party will win, whether Liberal Democrats gain more seats than Conservatives, and whether anti-migrant firebrand Nigel Farage finally wins a seat in Westminster after seven failed attempts.

Richard Young, who follows his mother’s advice not to bet more than he can afford to lose, said he staked 5.50 pounds that Conservatives will win fewer than a fifth of the seats in the Commons. If he’s right, he stands to get 30.25 pounds in return.

“I’m generally a low-stakes gambler — it’s amusement and trading strategies, not profit, that motivate me,” Young said. “Less than 20% looked interesting given the polls and the stuttering Tory campaign."

Many of the political wagers are small.

Krishnamurty couldn't spend more than 100 pounds per constituency when he wagered 1,250 pounds on local races.

“If you wanted to get 1 million pounds on France to win (the European soccer championships), no problem, it’s easy,” Krishnamurty said. “That money is out there. People want to take that bet. In politics, you're really scratching around.”

Bettors follow the polls, and betting could help predict the outcome

Before there was polling, betting odds helped gauge a candidate's performance, Pickles said.

Even as gamblers and betting houses pore over the latest polls, there's some debate over whether betting is a better barometer for what's actually happening in an election.

“It’s almost as if the gambling markets are a kind of secondary human-interpreted form of prediction that sort of sits above the polls and interprets them in the context of other larger cultural knowledge about what’s going on in politics in one country,” Pickles said.

Some campaigns have even been known to wager heavily on their candidate as a marketing strategy as the flood of bets changes their odds and grabs attention, he said.

“That works in smaller markets where there isn’t enough money or liquidity for people to absorb those kind of spurious bets are tilting the market in one direction,” Pickles said.

A scandal unfolds over bets on the election date

One of the key issues earlier in the year wasn't who would win, but when the election would be held.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had until January to set the date. As he lagged in the polls, the smart money was on him choosing November to gain momentum.

When he called for a snap election on May 22, the Gambling Commission noted a surge of bets before his announcement.

The amount bet the day before equaled the total sum wagered on that question in the months before, said Leighton Vaughan Williams, a political gambling expert and economics professor at Nottingham Business School. It raised questions of insider trading because the outcome was based solely on Sunak's announcement and others were likely in the know.

People close to Sunak within the Conservative Party ranks and even police officers connected with his protection have been caught up in the investigation. Reports suggest the total number of parliamentary candidates and officials could be 15.

One thing that could save them is that a member of the House of Lords went on the radio that day to say he had heard rumors Sunak would call a July election, though he didn’t believe them.

“If you try to find a reason other than suspicious reasons, or inside information reasons, then that is the lifeline you’d hold on to,” Vaughan Williams said.

News from © The Associated Press, 2024
The Associated Press

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