We hear time and again of the way First Past the Post lets voters ‘kick the b*stards out’ – a colourful reference to the perceived ease with which voters can turf out one government and neatly replace it with another.
It’s a view that goes almost unquestioned, including by many reformers, so we thought we’d have a closer look.
It’s obvious that the 2010 election was unusual – not because of the coalition – but that it actually produced a transfer of power. The previous occasion was of course Labour’s win in 1997, but other than in the turbulent 1970s that produced three switches of power there have only been two other occasions since the end of the war – 1951 and 1964.
Even then, 2010 came tantalisingly close to an outcome where a reconfiguration of the government as a Labour-led coalition, rather than a full transfer of power, might have been possible: Labour fell a few seats short of this possibility.
While causing a power shift, the 2010 election confirmed another surprising fact about British government – that the classical picture of a majority government of one party cleanly replacing a majority of the other main party (the basis of the argument that FPTP enables voters to kick out a government) is a very rare event.
Since the mass franchise in 1885, there has only been one such occasion – Edward Heath’s singular victory in 1970. All others without exception have involved coalitions, minority government or parliaments with too narrow a majority to allow government for a full term.
Transfers of power in British government
Outgoing governmentIncoming government
|1922*||Nat Lib-Con||Coalition||Conservative||Working majority|
|1945||Coalition/ caretaker||Coalition||Labour||Working majority|
|1951||Labour||Inadequate majority||Conservative||Working majority|
|1964||Conservative||Working majority||Labour||Inadequate majority|
|1970||Labour||Working majority||Conservative||Working majority|
* Transfer of power took place without an election. Elections followed shortly afterwards in 1905-06, 1922 and 1931 which ratified the new governments. The first transfer in 1924 followed a little after an election; arguably 1974 and 2010, when incumbent governments stayed on for a few days, are comparable.
We’ll leave that for First-Past-the-Posters to mull over.