Does First Past the Post actually mean voters can ‘Kick the bastards out’?

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 31st August 2010

We hear time and again of the way First Past the Post lets voters ‘kick the bastards 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 First Past the Post 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

Election year Outgoing government Incoming government
1905* Conservative Working majority Liberal Minority
1915* Liberal Minority Lib-Con-Lab Coalition
1922* Nat Lib-Con Coalition Conservative Working majority
1924* Conservative Minority Labour Minority
1924 Labour Minority Conservative Working majority
1929 Conservative Working majority Labour Minority
1931* Labour Minority Con-Lib-Nat Lab Coalition
1940* Conservative Working majority Con-Lab-Lib Coalition
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
1974 Conservative Working majority Labour Minority
1979 Labour Minority Conservative Working majority
1997 Conservative Minority Labour Working majority
2010 Labour Working majority Con-LD Coalition
2015 Con-LD Coalition Conservative Slim majority
2017 Conservative Slim majority Con-DUP Confidence and Supply
2019 Con-DUP Confidence and Supply 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.

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