10 years on: What the 2010 General Election says about Britain’s political system

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 12th May 2020

Last Wednesday marked 10 years since the 2010 General Election. Time flies, doesn’t it? 

It’s worth looking back on an election that marked some firsts in British politics.

The 2010 campaign was the first to feature direct, head-to-head televised debates between the leaders of the three largest UK parties (this was the Nick ‘Cleggmania’ election). These debates changed the nature of the campaign and inspired considerable public interest in the campaign.

The 2010 election was also the first since February 1974 to produce no overall majority for any party. But look a little deeper, and the picture is more nuanced. There were hung parliaments in 1976-79 and intermittently in 1994-97 as government majorities were whittled away.

As we showed in our report on the 2010 election, Westminster’s voting system quite often fails to deliver the dominating single-party governments it promises.

When it does produce majorities for parties, First Past the Post typically alienates the majority of voters. There has not been a majority mandate (over 50% support) for any one party since 1935, with the arguable exception of 1955.

The 2010 election confirmed another surprising fact about British government: the classical picture of a majority government of one party cleanly replacing a majority of the other main party is a rare event – despite it being the basis of the argument that FPTP enables voters to ‘kick out’ a party.

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.

2010 saw Britain’s first coalition formed outside wartime or emergency since 1918, or arguably even 1895.

The inter-party discussions were orderly and took place relatively rapidly, enabling the agreement of a coalition programme and formation of a government the week after the general election.

Many of the spectres conjured up about hung parliaments, coalitions and proportional representation have turned out to be entirely illusory: Britain’s political leaders proved capable of dealing with the new situation.

At the same time, the results confirmed many of the long-term problems with British elections.

Turnout, although higher than in the last two elections, was historically low, and indicated a wide gap between social classes in terms of participation in the system. Despite some improvement in numbers, women and ethnic minorities remain under-represented among MPs.

The 2010 results also showed the continuing collapse of the two-party system, with the combined share for the biggest two parties (57 per cent) being the lowest ever in a British election.

The underlying assumptions of FPTP – that people only want to vote for two big parties – were falsified again by the results in 2010.

Despite 2019’s result, the long-term trends make it more and more unlikely that FPTP will reliably produce single-party majorities.

Two in three MPs got their seat with fewer than half the votes cast. None did so with the support of a majority of electors.

The results also created a political landscape of single-party strongholds and electoral deserts, where the views of substantial minorities of voters (Labour in Eastern England, the Conservatives in Scotland, and the Liberal Democrats in many English counties) had token representation or none at all.

Westminster’s voting system once again failed on all fronts. It worked neither as its supporters wanted it to, as an efficient ‘majority’ system, nor in terms of producing a parliament that resembled the British public either.

2010 showed, as now, that we need proportional representation – where working together is the norm, and where all voters are represented.

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