William Hill published their first political betting advertisement just over 50 years ago.
Political betting past...
On 9 October 1964, William Hill took a large advertisement on Page 20 of the Daily Express to promote its odds for the forthcoming General Election – 1/ 2 Labour; 6/4 Conservatives. (Within three days it was 2/7 Labour, 5/2 Conservatives). No overall majority was a 25/1 shot. Bets were being accepted over the telephone (to open account, call Waterloo 1411, Extension 8) or by post. At this time, clients had to be 21 or over.
It was the first time Hills had gone public to advertise political betting, and the advert had been taken out against the wishes of Mr William Hill himself. As with betting shops, with which he never felt completely comfortable, the founder’s own moral compass was again affecting his company’s business – he was very much against political betting, believing it might influence the voting patterns of the general public.
The Election resulted in something of a photo finish with Labour prevailing with a majority of just four, as Harold Wilson took power.
The government did not have a real mandate and there was another General Election as soon as 31 March 1966. Unlike William Hill, who, as we have seen, just about tolerated, rather than supported, the company betting on the outcome of General Elections, rivals Ladbrokes had no such qualms and their former William Hill man, Ron Pollard, had been gleefully promoting their political odds to the media, with little competition.
William finally weakened under pressure from within the company, and allowed prices to be offered and more widely publicised, as Labour leader and current Prime Minister, Harold Wilson sought to hold onto power (which he duly did, with an increased overall majority) by defeating deadly rival Edward Heath of the Conservatives.
BBC Radio now decided to run a debate on whether political betting was ‘a suitable subject for large scale betting’ and invited William Hill and Cyril Stein to discuss the matter.
It made for fascinating listening.
Cyril was asked, ‘Your firm has been a pioneer. Do you think this is a perfectly proper subject for betting?’
‘Absolutely. If the public want to bet on elections, they should be allowed to do so….they have shown for the last three years that they want to bet when the odds are right and we give them the opportunity to do so.’
‘Now, Mr Hill,’ said the interviewer, ‘Why, in your view, isn’t a General Election a proper subject for betting?’
‘Frankly, I think it is undesirable, because if this became a fever and millions of people went for it, I think it could affect the Ballot Box. And electing a government is a very serious business.’
Cyril was not convinced: ‘I cannot believe that the Conservative Member in a particular constituency would vote Labour because he has backed Labour. To me it is idiotic that this could be so.’
The interviewer suggested to William that he was also making the point that ‘because people see Labour as the favourites, more people will be induced to vote for the Labour Party?’
‘Exactly’ said William. ‘There is always a certain majority (sic) of people who don’t go to the polls. I believe 15-20%....if people had a financial interest, and it was a mass interest going into millions, I think people would go and support their own money.’
Cyril: ‘They would be just as much influenced by the various Polls.’
‘Mr Hill was suggesting that maybe a General Election is too serious a thing to bet on: now would your firm be prepared to bet on anything?’ Cyril was asked.
‘Anything living, yes.’
‘If the public wanted to bet, Mr Stein, on the number of people killed in the Vietnam War during a certain period, or dying during a cholera epidemic, would you accept that?’
‘No, I said that we bet on anything living. We do not want to bet on anything that is going to affect human life.’
William: ‘I remember during the war, we were pressed by Fleet Street to give a price when the war would finish. And I refused to do it. Recently, we were asked if we would lay a price about the rail strike. And I refused to do it. I think Election betting could lead to a certain amount of evil and I think it most undesirable in the long run.’
‘I am completely mystified by Mr Hill’s attitude. It is a one-man campaign on Mr Hill’s part,’ declared Cyril Stein. ‘The views are held by him, and so far as I can see, by no-one else. MPs of all parties have not taken this line. MPs have come to me in the last few weeks, phoned up and asked what the odds are on their being returned to their individual constituencies.’
‘What do you say to that, Mr Hill?’
William seemed a touch rattled: ‘For your information, long before you started betting on Elections we were pressed by Fleet Street, asking us to offer odds on Elections and I resisted it. You started it. We did not interfere, we let you have it. And it’s only in the last Election, I think, that we ever bet on the Election.’
‘Yes’ said Mr Stein, ‘I think Mr Hill has really put his finger on it. He said he had to come into the business. But why? Because the public demand it. And although Mr Hill takes the line certainly that he is running this only for his clients, well, he knows as well as I do that the public wants to bet on this.’
The interviewer asked William about ‘a lot of businessmen putting a lot of money on Labour as a sort of re-insurance against a Labour victory.’
‘It’s a form of hedging, or insurance, and from that point of view I do not think that is wrong.’
Cyril spotted an opening: ‘He is saying it is alright for the businessman but not alright for the public. This really doesn’t go. I can see no reason why one person who is not a large businessman should not be allowed to bet, if he wants to bet.’
William’s response was a harmless lob served up for Cyril to volley back over the net: ‘Do you think a little small man can afford to lay 10/1 on?’
‘He doesn’t want to,’ declared a triumphant Stein. ‘He doesn’t want to, but he’s betting on the majority, and he’s enjoying it, and getting 10/1 and 16/1 against.’
It sounded like game, set and match to Stein, leaving William appearing to be as out of touch with public opinion as he still was at that point on betting shops!
Political betting today…
Fast forward to the 2014 Scottish Referendum, which astonished bookmakers as it became the biggest political betting turnover event there has ever been.
A Glasgow gambler staked £200,000 on a ‘No’ vote, equalling the previous record political wager – which had been a 2005 stake of the same amount on David Cameron becoming Tory leader.
However, both of these stakes were dwarfed when a South West London client of William Hill bet £900,000, also on a ‘No’ vote – eventually making himself a profit of £193,000.
In excess of £10m was gambled in total on the outcome of the Referendum, setting a new political record.
Now the 2015 General Election is set to surpass even that eight-figure extravaganza, propelling political punting towards becoming the nation’s most popular non-sporting punt.
With the £900,000 super-punter already returning to plunge on the biggest General Election bet yet, of £200,000 on a Hung Parliament at odds of 2/9, cash is flooding in.
It is already being dubbed the first political Grand National, with over a dozen potential outcomes being gambled on.