2010 UK General Election

Posted 06 May 2010

1. Introduction
  1. An unusual election


An unusual election

The 2010 election saw a number of unique and interesting features of the campaign and the result.

Leader debates
The 2010 campaign was the first to feature direct, head-to-head televised debates between the leaders of the three largest UK parties. These debates changed the nature of the campaign and inspired considerable public interest in the campaign.

A hung parliament
The 2010 election was the first since February 1974 to produce no overall majority for any party (although there were hung parliaments in 1976-79 and intermittently in 1994-97 as government majorities were whittled away).

House of Commons majorities have become the norm and indeed this pattern is used as an argument in favour of the FPTP electoral system.

However, the lack of an overall majority for any party among the people who voted is nothing new – there has not been a majority mandate for any party since 1935, with the arguable exception of 1955.

A transfer of power
The election was also relatively unusual in producing a transfer of power. The previous occasion was of course Labour’s win in 1997; but apart from the turbulent 1970s, which 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 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

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

* Transfer of power took place with out an election. Elections followed shortly afterwards in 1905-1906, 1922 and 1931 which ratified the new governments. The first transfer in 1924 followed a liottle after an election; arguably 1974 and 2010 when incumbent governments stayed on for a few days, are comparable.

Coalition government
The general election of 6 May 2010 was a remarkable enough campaign and result, even without the dramatic political developments of the following week in which the Conservative- Lib Dem coalition was agreed – Britain’s first coalition formed outside wartime or emergency since 1918, or arguably even 1895. By comparison with other nations, even those quite experienced in coalition government,
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. There was no financial crisis (even given the unstable conditions in world markets) and few in either coalition party feel that they have traded away their manifesto commitments in the proverbial (and largely mythical) smoke-filled room – most of the policies of the government reflect those of the larger party in the coalition, namely the Conservatives. Many of the spectres conjured up about hung parliaments and coalitions have turned out to be entirely illusory; Britain’s political leaders proved capable of dealing with the new situation.

The possibility of reform
The 2010 election also involved the serious prospect of a change to the electoral system for the House of Commons. The outgoing Labour government’s manifesto promised a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV). The two incoming coalition parties had different policies (the Lib Dems for proportional representation, the Conservatives for FPTP) but compromised on a referendum on AV
as well.

The election results

2010 results

Party Votes Votes % Change on 2005 % Seats Seast % Change on 2005
Conservative 10,698,394 36 3.8 306 47.1 97
Labour 8,609,527 29 -6.2 258 39.7 -91
Lib Dem 6,836,824 23 1 57 8.8 -5
UKIP 919,546 3.1 0.9 0 0 0
BNP 564,331 1.9 1.2 0 0 0
SNP 491,386 1.7 0.1 6 0.9 0
Green 285,616 1 -0.1 1 0.2 1
Sinn Fein 171,942 0.6 -0.1 5 0.8 0
DUP 168,216 0.6 -0.3 8 1.2 -1
Plaid Cymru 165,394 0.6 -0.1 3 0.5 1
SDLP 110,970 0.4 -0.1 3 0.5 0
UCUNF 102,361 0.3 -0.1 0 0 -1
APNI 42,762 0.1 0 1 0.2 1

In contrast to 2005, the electoral system did not  produce a House of Commons majority for a party whose support lay in the mid-30 per cent range; the Conservatives fell short in 2010 while Labour, with a slightly lower share of the UK vote, managed to win a comfortable majority in 2005. However, the share of seats for both the Conservatives and Labour was markedly higher than the parties’ share of the popular vote – 57 per cent of the vote between them produced 89 per cent of the seats. As in election after election, the Liberal Democrats’ share of seats was much lower than their share of the vote, and in 2010 they suffered a perverse result of their national share of the vote going up a bit and their number of seats going down. Among the smaller parties, UKIP was easily the largest, with nearly a million votes, but it did not even come close to gaining representation in the House of Commons. In contrast, smaller parties with concentrated support such as the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru managed to get similar shares of seats to votes, and the Greens broke through by exploiting the ability of FPTP to reward targeted campaigning and concentrated votes and win in Brighton Pavilion.

Percentage vote in UK elections 1945-2010

Looking at the longer-term trends, it is clear that in terms of the popular votes cast, the 2010 election resembles 2005 more closely than either election resembles anything previously. There was a strongly rooted two party system from 1945 (actually back to 1931) to 1974, in which Conservative and Labour could command solid blocs of support in the electorate, but since 1974 no party has managed more than the 43.9 per cent support won by the Conservatives in 1979. First Labour, then the Conservatives, and now Labour again, have plunged to historically low levels of support in general elections (and suffered even wilder fluctuations in mid-term elections). Support for the Liberals and Liberal Democrats has tended to rise, although the pattern seems to be for it to come in sharp jumps (1964, 1974, 1983) followed by gradual declines. For a time during the campaign, 2010 looked as if it would see a fourth sharp spike in Lib Dem support, up to 30 per cent or thereabouts, but it was not to be.

Seats won in UK Parliamentary elections, 1974-2010

In terms of seats, the composition of the House of Commons reflected (if rather exaggerated) the two-party voting patterns of Britain from 1945 until 1974, but since then the rise in representation for third and fourth parties has not kept pace with the rise in their support among the electorate. It took until 1997 for the proportion of MPs unaffiliated to the Conservatives or Labour to climb above 10 per cent (for the first time since 1929) and there has been no great breakthrough despite the very low shares won by Conservative and Labour in 2005 and 2010.

Votes per MP, 2010

Votes per MP in 2010

An easy way of demonstrating uneven results for the parties in the election is to divide each party’s total vote by the number of MPs it obtained.

Three parties with significant levels of support failed to obtain any seats for their votes, namely UKIP, BNP and UCUNF.


Turnout 1918 - 2010

Turnout in the 2010 general election was 65.1 per cent.

This was a modest increase on the very low- level turnout reached in the two previous elections, when it was only around 60 per cent. It was still well below the electoral participation that used to be regarded as normal – in no previous election since 1918 had turnout fallen below 70 per cent.

Over the long term, there are several well- established factors that influence turnout. One is administrative – how accurate the register may be, and the number of people who are on the register despite having moved away or died. The key political variables are how competitive the voters perceive an election to be, and how important they feel the difference between the parties to be. Turnout in elections like 2001, when the result is perceived as a foregone conclusion and the differences as not very important, is low, while it is high in elections like 1992 when the election is seen as close and the result as being important. The context in 2010 seemed more uncertain than in most elections (since 1979, only 1992 has been comparable), and passions among the parties’ supporters seemed slightly stronger than they had in other recent elections.

However, there does also seem to have been a steady decline in turnout over time, reflecting weakening attachment by electors to political parties and to the political process in general. The drop in 2001 apparently reflected a sudden change of attitude by people who were not particularly interested in politics, and now decided that they did not feel much obligation to vote. It is lowest among young people and among some, but by no means all, ethnic minority communities. That it is so low among young people is worrying, because unless they are socialised into voting at some point, turnout will continue to drop.

Turnout in 2010 appears to have been higher among men than women, although this is an unusual pattern (there is normally little difference). Ever since the late 1980s turnout has tended to be higher among the middle class, homeowners and the more educated, and this was the pattern again in 2010 according to the best available estimates.

Turnout at constituency level is influenced mostly by the demographics of the seat. This is one of the reasons for the pro-Labour bias in the electoral system, in which for a given share of the vote, Labour will win more seats than the Conservatives. Safe Conservative seats tend to have concentrations of high turnout groups like the upper middle class and older people, so the party piles up large numbers of surplus votes that swell MPs’ majorities. Safe Labour seats in city areas, with younger and poorer populations, have lower turnout and therefore the party wastes fewer votes.

Percentage turnout by demographic group, 2005 and 2010

Turnout in several categories of seat

2010 Turnout in several categories of seat

Turnout is also influenced by political competitiveness – marginal seats tend to produce higher turnout.

There may be some direct effect, in that some people know that their seat is safe and they do not vote because they know that it would make no difference.

But it is likely that the main mechanism is through the parties. Campaign activity (leafleting, phone canvassing, knocking on doors) is more intense in marginals, and this makes more voters aware of the election and encourages them to feel they have a stake in the process.

It does appear that marginality is worth a couple of extra points on turnout, but a more precise finding has to await statistical analysis so that the effects of marginality and demographics can be separated out. The contrast between the 100 safest Conservative seats, whose turnout is above average and higher than that in marginals, and the 100 safest Labour seats, where turnout is particularly low, suggests that the effect of demographics is much stronger than that of marginality.

By international comparison, Britain’s electoral participation in 2010 was fairly low. The table on Page 11 shows turnout in the latest election in the 27 European Union countries, plus a few others with parliamentary systems.

Most of the EU states with turnout lower than Britain are former communist states in eastern and central Europe, where civic participation is low in general. In general, countries with proportional voting systems have higher turnout than those with single seat majoritarian systems.

Britain’s lack of democratic enthusiasm remains a problem; the fact that fewer than two electors in three cast votes in the most competitive election since 1992 indicates that alienation from the electoral process has certainly not gone away.

Turnout in recent general elections in EU and other states

Rank (EU) Country Last election Turnout % Electoral system
1 Malta Mar-08 93.3 STV+
2 Belgium Jun-07 91.1 (CV) Semi open list
3 Luxembourg Jun-09 90.9 (CV) Open list
4 Cyprus May-06 89 Semi open list
5 Denmark Nov-07 86.6 Tiered open list
6 Sweden Sep-06 82 Semi open list
7 Austria Oct-08 81.7 Semi open list
8 Italy Apr-08 80.4 Majoritarian closed list
New Zealand Nov-08 79.5 MMP
South Africa Apr-09 77.3 Closed list
Norway Sep-09 76.4 Semi open list
9 Spain Mar-08 76 Closed local list
10 Netherlands Jun-10 75.4 Semi open list
11 Greece Oct-09 70.9 Majoritarian open list
12 Germany Sep-09 70.8 MMP
Japan Aug-09 69.3 MMM
13 Ireland May-07 67 STV
Israel Feb-09 65.2 Closed national list
14 United Kingdom May-10 65.1 FPTP
15 Finland Mar-07 65 Open list
16 Hungary Apr-10 64.4 Tiered lists/two-round
17 Slovenia Sep-08 63.1 Semi open list
18 Czech Republic May-10 62.6 Semi open list
Iraq Mar-10 62.5 Open list
19 Estonia Mar-07 61.9 Semi open list
20 Latvia Oct-06 61 Semi open list
21 Bulgaria Jul-09 60.9 MMP
Jamaica Sep-07 60.4 FPTP
22 France Jun-07 60 Two-round
23 Portugal Oct-09 59.7 Closed list
India Apr/May 09 59.7 FPTP
Canada Oct-08 58.8 FPTP
24 Slovakia Jun-06 54.7 Semi open list
25 Poland Oct-07 53.9 Closed local list
26 Lithuania Oct-08 48.6 MMM
27 Romania Nov-08 39.2 MMP

(CV: compulsory voting; STV+: STV with national seat adjustment; MMP: Mixed Member Proportional; MMM: Mixed Member Majoritarian

The 2010 election in the nations of the UK


Party Votes Votes % Change on 2005 % Seats Seats % Change on 2005
Conservative 9,908,169 39.6 3.9 297 56.1 91
Labour 7,042,398 28.1 -7.4 191 36.1 -87
Lib Dem 6,076,189 24.2 1.3 43 8.1 -4
UKIP 866,633 3.5 0.9 0
BNP 532,333 2.1 1.3 0
Green 258,954 1 -0.1 1 0.2 1
Speaker 22,860 0.1 0.1 1 0.2 1
Respect 33,251 0.1 -0.1 0 -1
Ind KHHC 16,150 0.1 0 0 -1

In one sense, the Conservatives won the election decisively in England, with a vote share more than 11 points ahead of Labour and a clear majority of parliamentary seats. This contrasted with the anomalous result in England in 2005, when the Conservatives had a very narrow lead in vote share but Labour won an overall majority of seats. However, even in 2010 the Conservative vote share was still under 40 per cent, well below what it was in the 1979-97 period and comparable to their losing performances in 1974.

For Labour, there was not a great deal to celebrate in the English results; the party polled its lowest vote share since 1918, with the exception of 1983. At least the party did not come as close as it did in 1983 to coming third in votes in England. It was the second-best Liberal year in England since 1923 (after, again, 1983) in terms of share of the vote, although the haul in seats disappointed the party.

It is worth noting that while Scottish and Welsh politics were revolutionised by the rise of nationalism in the 1970s, there was no comparable change in England where a
three party system remained firmly established through to the last decade. The UKIP vote in 2010 showed that there is a base of support

(small, as yet, in general elections) for the party. It polled a higher share in 2010 than the combined share of UKIP and the Referendum Party in 1997, when the political context was more favourable (Europe high on the public agenda, many Conservatives dissatisfied
with a tired government, and Sir James Goldsmith’s millions spent on the campaign). The low-end results for both Labour and Conservative, and the emergence of significant fourth parties (UKIP in votes, the Greens in winning a seat), suggest that the long-term future is for multi-party politics beyond the big three in England as well.

In terms of seats, both the Conservatives and Labour won much larger shares than they did in votes, with the Conservatives translating 40 per cent of the vote into 56 per cent of the seats. The Liberal Democrats were the principal losers in terms of seats, with a little less than a quarter of the vote producing a twelfth of the seats available.

Seats won by party in England 1974-2010

Seats won by party in England 1974-2010

Votes share in England, 1974 - 2010

Votes and seats in England, 2010


Party Votes Votes % Change on 2005 % Seats Seats % Change on 2005
Labour 1,035,528 42 3.1 41 69.5 1
SNP 491,386 19.9 2.3 6 10.2
Lib Dem 465,471 18.9 -3.7 11 18.6
Conservative 412,855 16.7 0.9 1 1.7
UKIP 17,223 0.7 0.3
Green 16,827 0.7 -0.3
(Speaker) -1

The 2010 election in Scotland was notable in its complete detachment from the trends in England and Wales. The Scottish Labour Party did not just keep the national swing down, but actually increased its share of the vote. This reflects the traditional commitment of Scotland to centre-left government (and the return of many Labour voters who had withheld their support in 2005), but was also in 2010 a ‘favourite son’ vote for Gordon Brown. The only seats to change hands were a technical transfer of Glasgow North East from Speaker to Labour (which took place at a by-election in 2009) and Labour’s recovery of two by-election losses, Dunfermline & West Fife (2006, Lib Dem) and Glasgow East (2008, SNP).

The Scottish Conservatives were the principal losers from the electoral system, with one vote in six for the party translating into one seat out of 59 (David Mundell’s hold in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale). Labour’s represen- tation benefited from a swing in the party’s favour and also being by far the leading political party in Scotland, over 20 points ahead of its nearest rival among Scottish voters, the SNP, and consolidated its position of dominance in Scotland’s representation at Westminster which it has enjoyed since at least 1987.

The strong results for Labour incumbents in several marginal seats means that Labour’s position is perhaps even more formidable than it looks, because few of the party’s MPs are vulnerable to anything except a very large swing. The Conservatives’ target seats of East Renfrewshire and Stirling receded even further, the SNP are further behind in Ochil & South Perthshire, and Labour’s line held in seats threatened by the Lib Dems in Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Itwould only take relatively small further swings to Labour for several more seats to fall to
the party, including East Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh West and Argyll & Bute (all from the Liberal Democrats), Dumfriesshire (from the Conservatives) and Dundee East (from the SNP). Under the FPTP electoral system
there seems little prospect of Labour’s grip on Scottish representation at Westminster being broken even if its vote falls considerably from its relatively high level in 2010.

Even had the Conservatives won a slightly larger swing and formed a majority government, they fell so short in Scotland that they would still have only had one MP north of the border, who would have ended up Scottish Secretary. Such a position would have been awkward to say the least. However, thanks to the Liberal Democrats gaining more or less their proportional share of seats, the governing UK coalition does have some depth of representation in Scotland.

Seats won and share of vote by party 1974-2010

Seats won and vote share in Scotland by party 1974-2010


Party Votes Votes % Change on 2005 % Seats Seats % Change on 2005
Labour 531,601 36.2 -6.5 26 65 -4
Conservative 382,730 26.1 4.7 8 20 5
Lib Dem 295,164 20.1 1.7 3 7.5 -1
Plaid Cymru 165,394 11.3 -1.3 3 7.5 1
UKIP 35,690 2.4 1
BNP 23,088 1.6 1.5
Green 6,293 0.4 -0.1
(Independent) -1

Wales, in sharp contrast to Scotland, was a fairly successful area for the Conservatives, with the swing (5.6 per cent) being the same as in England on this occasion. The Tories gained four seats from Labour (Aberconwy; Cardiff North, where Conservative electoral reformer Jonathan Evans narrowly defeated Julie Morgan; Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire; and Vale of Glamorgan)
and in the biggest reverse of the election in Wales, former Conservative AM Glyn Davies defeated celebrity Lib Dem, Lembit Opik, in Montgomeryshire. Plaid Cymru also made
a notional ‘gain’ from Labour in the radically revised seat of Arfon, and Labour recovered Blaenau Gwent from Independent Dai Davies.

Labour were heavily over-represented in Wales compared to their share of the vote, having
a clear majority (nearly two thirds) on 36 per cent of the vote. The Liberal Democrats were particularly disadvantaged by the electoral system, recording some poor results in seats they held or aspired to gain (with the notable exception of Ceredigion) and having surges in their share of the vote in constituencies such as Pontypridd and Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney

unrewarded by seat gains.

Over the longer term, Labour’s vote in Wales reached a historic low in 2010 – lower even than in 1983 – although the Conservatives failed by some way to recapture the sort of vote share that they enjoyed in Wales when they were winning majorities at Westminster in 1979-97.

Share of vote % by party in Wales 1974-2010

Share of vote % by party in Wales 1974-2010

Seats won by party in Wales 1974-2010

Seats won by party in Wales 1974-2010

Northern Ireland

Party Votes Votes % Change on 2005 % Seats Seats % Change on 2005
Sinn Fein 171,942 25.5 1.2 5 27.8
DUP 168,216 25 -8.7 8 44.4 -1
SDLP 110,970 16.5 -1 3 16.7
UCUNF 102,361 15.2 -2.6 0 0 -1
Alliance 42,762 6.4 2.5 1 5.6 1
Ind U 42,481 6.3 1 5.6 1
TUV 26,300 3.6 0 0
Green 3,542 0.5 0 0

Northern Ireland elections are sometimes mirror images of the contest in Great Britain in terms of the level of public interest and

turnover of seats. In 2001, while turnout slumped and there were few changes in Britain, it was a dramatic election in Northern Ireland. In 2010, however, there was a quieter election than the last couple in the province and turnout fell sharply.

The result, though, was notable in some ways. It was the first Westminster election in Northern Ireland in which Sinn Fein was
the largest single party (the party also placed first in the European election in 2009). The two main nationalist parties outpolled the combined showing of the two main unionist parties for the first time (42.0 per cent to 40.2 per cent, although Unionist independents and Traditional Unionist Voice polled another 9.9 per cent, taking the combined unionist vote to just over 50 per cent).

Two seats changed hands in Northern Ireland. In one of the most surprising results of the whole night, the Alliance Party candidate, Naomi Long, won Belfast East on a huge swing, unseating the DUP First Minister Peter Robinson. It was the first seat the Alliance
had won in a Westminster election, although it had the adherence of an ex-Conservative in the 1970-74 Parliament and polled well on a couple of previous occasions in Belfast East. The other change was a more technical one. Lady Sylvia Hermon had been the Ulster Unionist Party’s sole representative in the previous Parliament, but fought in 2010 as an Independent rather than under the UUP’s joint banner with the Conservatives. She held her North Down seat with a huge majority.

Rather by accident, the proportions of MPs elected from each community were very much in proportion with the votes cast. The Unionist parties, plus the Unionist Independents in Fermanagh & South Tyrone and North Down, won 50.4 per cent of the vote and half the seats; Nationalists won 42.0 per cent of the vote and 44.4 per cent of the seats, and there was one Alliance seat (5.6 per cent of the total) for the 7.6 per cent of those voting for other candidates.

Within the Nationalist community there was also an uncannily proportional result, with the SDLP winning 39 per cent of Nationalist votes and 3 out of 8 seats (37.5 per cent) and Sinn Fein the remainder.

The Unionist MPs, however, are unrepresentative of the votes cast. They consist of 8 DUP MPs and one Independent, while the Ulster Unionist Party/ Conservative alliance had 30 per cent of the Unionist vote but no MPs to show for it.

Vote share % by party in Northern Ireland 1974-2010

Vote share % by party in Northern Ireland 1974-2010

Seats won in Northern Ireland by party 1974-2010

Seats won in Northern Ireland by party 1974-2010

A national election?


Although there were wide variations in swing at the level of individual constituencies, the broad pattern of electoral change in the different parts of Britain was surprisingly uniform, with a few very marked exceptions. There was a national swing of 5 per cent from Labour to Conservative (pretty comparable with past Conservative returns to power in 1970 and 1979), but this consisted of a swing in most of the country of a bit over 6 per cent, from which several areas opted out. Scotland went its own way by swinging in Labour’s favour, Merseyside had no significant swing (which dragged the North West to its below-average 4.3 per cent swing), and London moved by much less than average. The differences between swing in other regions were smaller, although there was a general tendency for the Eastern regions – apparently regardless of class composition and political traditions – to swing a bit more enthusiastically to the Tories.

Taking a longer-term perspective, looking back to the election of 1992 when the gap in vote share between Conservative and Labour was similar to what it was in 2010, gives a clearer picture of the cumulative effect of regional swings. Wales emerges from this analysis as Labour’s worst region (the party’s vote share has fallen by 13.3 percentage points; the

Conservatives’ drop was rather low, 2.5 per cent). Scotland is at the other end of the scale, with Labour actually increasing its support since 1992 and the Conservatives dropping sharply. The other region that has seen a significant shift since 1992 is London, where the Conservative share has dropped most (down 10.8 per cent) and Labour’s support held steady (down only 0.4 per cent). The other regions of England vary less, although there is a distinct east-west pattern to swing, with the eastern side of England (plus the Midlands) trending Conservative and the
west (except the West Midlands) to Labour. Perhaps surprisingly, the South East has seen a relative Labour improvement since 1992.

This analysis has concerned the votes cast by the electors, and underpins the general theme of the gradual regional polarisation of politics over the long term – which in turn may be linked to the workings of the electoral system in reflecting the regional differences in an exaggerated form in parliament.

One of the most surprising features about the relationship between votes and seats in 2010 is that nearly one Labour vote in five (19.6 per cent) was cast in the three southern English regions (Eastern, South East, South West) – more than in Scotland and Wales combined. But the composition of Labour’s Parliamentary party is very different – fewer than one Labour MP in twenty represents a seat in southern England outside London. In these regions there are ten Labour MPs (Plymouth Moor View, Exeter, Bristol South, Bristol East, Oxford East, Slough, Southampton Itchen, Southampton Test, Luton North and Luton South) while – with fewer actual Labour voters – Scotland and Wales send 67 Labour representatives. While in elections Labour wins and it does gain representation in the south, these are marginal and vulnerable to setbacks. That Labour’s parliamentary party is so lopsidedly northern, Welsh and Scottish will affect its political approach and policy making, and internal processes like leadership elections.

Swing (%) from Labour to Conservative by region

Swing (%) from Labour to Conservative by region

Distribution of Labour votes and seats (%) by region, 2010

Distribution of Labour votes and seats (%) by region, 2010

Distribution of Conservative votes and seats (%) by region, 2010(%) by region, 2010

Distribution of Conservative votes and seats (%) by region, 2010(%) by region, 2010

A polarising parliament: votes and seats by region 1992 and 2010

Conservative votes %  Conservative seats % Labour votes % Labour seats %
1992 2010 1992 2010 1992 2010 1992 2010
Southern 39.5 43.7 47.9 53.1 19.5 19.6 3.7 3.9
London 11.6 11 14.3 9.2 11.5 14.1 12.9 14.7
Midlands 18.1 18.3 17 21 18.4 17.1 15.9 15.1
Wales 3.6 3.6 1.8 2.6 7.5 6.2 10 10.1
Northern 22 19.6 15.8 13.8 33.2 30.6 39.5 40.3
Scotland 5.4 3.9 3.3 0.3 9.9 12 18.1 15.9

The Conservative Party in parliament is unrepresentative of its voters, in a mirror image of Labour’s distorted representation. Although southern England is its strongest region in votes, this dominance is exaggerated in seats to the extent that a majority of Tory MPs represent seats in southern England.
Northerners and Scots who vote Conservative got relatively little representation compared
to their southern colleagues. The concerns of southern England will be more immediately felt by the party in government than those of the north and Scotland, a potential problem given that the impact of austerity will be uneven across the regions. Conflict between the Conservative and Labour parties will be refracted through this regionally polarised representation.

Comparison with 1992 indicates that the southern regional skew of Conservative votes and MPs has increased, while Labour’s
vote distribution has skewed a bit towards Londoners and Scots, although there is an uncanny similarity between the share of the Labour parliamentary party for each region in 1992 and 2010. It is very much back to the much-discussed ‘Southern Discomfort’ for Labour, while the Conservatives seem to be developing a northern problem (particularly in the big cities) alongside their all too obvious troubles in Scotland.

Local representation

Local representation

One of the features of the combination of FPTP elections and Britain’s social and political geography is that some areas end up being dominated by a single party despite that party having the support of half, or fewer, of those voting. Conversely, it is possible for parties
to win significant shares of the vote without winning parliamentary seats – the prize (if not an MP) in 2010 went to the Surrey Lib Dems whose 28.5 per cent of the vote (much more the party’s national share) went unrepresented. This produces the phenomena of the ‘electoral desert’ and what one might call the ‘one party state’ (although the overtone of dictatorship to this term does not apply).

Some of these deserts and strongholds are persistent and apply to elections with widely different national outcomes (such as the Conservatives in Surrey with the sole exception of 2001, or Labour in Glasgow) and some are more transient or variable. In some counties such as Hertfordshire and Kent, Labour can win considerable numbers of seats in a good year for the party, but these are all marginals, which are lost when the tide turns (as they were in 2010). In others, such as West yorkshire, a good Labour year will wipe out all the Conservatives. A party’s seats in a generally hostile region will often tend to be marginal and vulnerable to swings and to boundary changes.

Electoral ‘deserts’ in England, 2010

Vote % Votes PR seats
Surrey Liberal Democrat 28.5 166,667 3
Greater Manchester SE Conservative 28 120,544 3
Oxfordshire Liberal Democrat 28 92,999 2
North yorkshire Liberal Democrat 27.9 111,283 2
Warwickshire Labour 27.6 79,428 2
West Sussex Liberal Democrat 27.4 114,014 2
Northamptonshire Labour 25.7 88,535 2
Hereford & Worcester Liberal Democrat 25.3 100,433 2
Berkshire Liberal Democrat 25.2 104,133 2
Suffolk Liberal Democrat 24.1 87,695 2
Durham Liberal Democrat 24.1 69,838 2
Hertfordshire Liberal Democrat 24 134,793 3
Shropshire Liberal Democrat 23.5 56,622 1
Leicestershire Liberal Democrat 23.3 118,341 2
Humberside Liberal Democrat 22.5 92,399 2
Tyne & Wear Liberal Democrat 21.7 106,380 3
Derbyshire Liberal Democrat 21.6 110,385 2
Tyne & Wear Conservative 21.4 105,117 3
Durham Conservative 21.4 62,077 1
Suffolk Labour 21.3 77,775 1
Cheshire Liberal Democrat 21.2 109,601 2
Kent Labour 21.1 174,599 4
Gloucestershire Labour 21 66,858 1
Kent Liberal Democrat 20.9 173,176 4
Buckinghamshire Liberal Democrat 20.9 75,881 2
South yorkshire Conservative 20.6 121,131 3
Warwickshire Liberal Democrat 20.5 58,837 1
Bedfordshire Liberal Democrat 20.3 59,184 1
Lincolnshire Liberal Democrat 20.2 70,827 2
East Sussex Labour 20.1 81,571 2
South East London Liberal Democrat 19.9 95,949 2
Lincolnshire Labour 19.4 68,043 1
Nottinghamshire Liberal Democrat 19.2 65,676 2
Northamptonshire Liberal Democrat 19.1 65,676 1
Norfolk Labour 19 83,088 2
Hertfordshire Labour 19 106,478 2
Essex Labour 18.6 157,134 4
Staffordshire Liberal Democrat 18.1 97,823 2
West London Liberal Democrat 17 80,468 2
Hereford & Worcester Labour 16.7 66,394 1
Cambridgeshire Labour 16.2 60,983 1
Buckinghamshire Labour 15.5 56,389 1
Wiltshire Labour 15.3 52,364 1
East London Liberal Democrat 15 76,520 2
Black Country Liberal Democrat 14.5 73,446 2
West Sussex Labour 13.1 54,453 1
Dorset Labour 12.2 47,594 1
Surrey Labour 9.8 57,032 1
Cornwall Labour 8.6 24,257 0
Somerset Labour 7.7 22,163 0
TOTAL (major party) 17 4,252,007
Minor parties 8 2,009,536
Overall total 25 6,140,999

English regions and counties

A striking fact about the 2010 election in England was that nearly one voter in four (25.0 per cent) not only did not succeed in electing an MP of their choice in their constituency, but also did not see an MP of their party elected in their broader locality either. There is a sense that an MP can put their party’s case and represent its voters’ point of view in that general area; for instance, having an MP for Withington enables Liberal Democrats in the rest of Manchester to feel somewhat represented in Parliament (and likewise for Labour in Oxfordshire thanks to their hold on Oxford East). However, voters for all three main English parties in many areas do not have that consolation – and neither does any voter for other candidates, except for Greens in East Sussex and John Bercow’s supporters in Buckingham.

Conservative votes and seats in Metropolitan England, 2010


  Votes % Seats Seats %
Greater Manchester 27.3 2 7.4
Merseyside 21.1 1 6.7
South yorkshire 20.6 0 0
Tyne & Wear 21.4 0 0
West Midlands 33.5 7 25.0
West yorkshire 32.9 7 31.8

There were eight English counties (plus a subsection of Greater Manchester) where a party with more than a quarter of the vote ended up unrepresented in that area. The Liberal Democrats were particularly prone to this effect because their vote was evenly distributed, especially in southern England.
Labour’s largest unrepresented shares of the vote were in areas where the party had held marginals in 2005 but lost them in 2010. In East Sussex, a particularly striking example, Labour went from holding half the seats in the county in 2005 on 25.4 per cent, to nothing in 2010 despite winning 20.1 per cent. Both results demonstrate the lack of relationship between vote share and seats won under FPTP.

The Conservatives gained seats in several areas where they had been unrepresented in 2005 (Cornwall, Cleveland, Merseyside) but were still unrepresented in South yorkshire, Durham and Tyne & Wear, despite respectable shares of the vote. They also picked up a few seats in areas where they had previously been extremely under-represented, such as West yorkshire
and the Black Country, but remained short of representation in the metropolitan counties and great cities of England. Many of the seats they do hold in these areas are marginal and could disappear through boundary changes or be lost on an adverse swing.

Conversely, there are several areas that are completely dominated by one party in terms of parliamentary representation, even though there are substantial votes for other parties. In the circumstances of 2010, several of these were traditionally Conservative counties where Labour toeholds had been knocked off, but the results indicate the volatility of some areas such as Northamptonshire – the Conservatives won all six seats in 1992, a solitary seat in 1997 and 2001, three in 2005, and again everything from the county’s allocation of seven in 2010. The Conservatives’ vote of course did not change nearly as much as the county’s parliamentary representation in this time.

One party counties in England, 2010

Vote % Seats
Surrey Conservative 55.2 11
West Sussex Conservative 51.8 8
Kent Conservative 50.5 17
Hertfordshire Conservative 50.4 11
Lincolnshire Conservative 49.8 7
Tyne & Wear Labour 48.7 12
Northamptonshire Conservative 47.4 7
Suffolk Conservative 46.2 7
Hereford & Worcester Conservative 45.9 8
Warwickshire Conservative 45.7 6
Durham Labour 45.3 7

The regions of Scotland

  Vote % Votes PR seats
Central SNP 22.2 88,881 2
North East Conservative 21.4 70,286 2
Highlands & Islands Labour 20.3 46,933 1
Glasgow SNP 17.3 39,702 1
Mid & Fife Conservative 17.3 55,485 1
Lothians SNP 17.0 61,305 1
Highlands & Islands Conservative 16.7 38,505 1
Lothians Conservative 16.2 58,647 1
South SNP 15.8 52,349 1
West Conservative 15.7 41,102 1
West SNP 15.3 40,214 1

While the Conservatives were most under- represented across Scotland, the SNP

probably suffered worst from regional disparities. All six of its MPs were elected from northern Scotland, with all but Dundee East being either rural or having a large rural component. However, the three northern regions from which MPs were elected account for fewer than half of the SNP’s actual voters; the party piled up nearly as many votes in the Central region as in North East but won no MPs from the industrial heartland of urban Scotland. SNP
representation in the Scottish Parliament has always had a much larger urban component because of the proportional electoral system used to elect MSPs.

Labour’s strength in the urban centres was exaggerated by the electoral system, but despite its landslide win across Scotland the party did not win any seats in the Highlands & Islands region, even though it won over 20 per cent. In contrast to England, the Liberal Democrats did relatively well in winning at least a seat across most regions of Scotland, with rural, urban and suburban areas returning Lib Dem MPs.
Although Labour dominated across Scotland, most regions did have at least one non-Labour MP.


One party regions in Scotland, 2010

Vote % Seats
Central Labour 55.5 9
Glasgow Labour 56.2 7

The regions of Wales

As in England, the Liberal Democrats polled well in several regions of Wales without winning seats, although in general the pattern of representation was a bit more pluralistic (with the exception of the all-Labour region of South Wales West). Plaid Cymru’s vote in the South Wales regions was small but this may reflect tactical voting rather than the true level of the party’s support – it certainly polls much better in these regions in Welsh Assembly elections.

Electoral ‘deserts’ in Wales, 2010

  Vote % Votes PR seats
South Wales West                    Conservative 20.7 51,887 1
South Wales West                    Liberal Democrat 20.0 50,246 1
South Wales East                     Liberal Democrat 18.7 55,492 2
North Wales                            Liberal Democrat 16.1 49,840 1
South Wales Central                 Plaid Cymru 7.8 24,587 0
South Wales East                     Plaid Cymru 6.4 19,056 0
South Wales West                    Plaid Cymru 8.6 21,568 0

One party region in Wales, 2010

  Vote % Seats
South Wales West                    Labour 44.2 7

Constituency results


At a constituency level, the 2010 election produced a post-war record number and proportion of MPs elected by a minority of their own voters – 433 out of 650 (66.6 per cent). This was slightly up on the previous record number of minority winners, 426 in the 2005 election. One MP, Labour’s Dennis
Skinner in Bolsover, had precisely 50 per cent of the votes cast; the other 216 had over half the votes cast.

The chart below shows the transformation from the period from 1950 to 2001, in which most MPs had over 50 per cent in most elections, to the current position where
the support of a majority of those voting is unusual. The failure of the 2010 election to produce more majority winners shows that

the fragmented electoral pattern of 2005 was not an aberration (to some extent the results in 1974 were a deviation from the normal pattern). This has added strength to the
argument for the Alternative Vote, which would enable all MPs to have a majority (albeit on
a qualified basis because not all would have a majority of the valid first preferences in the constituency).

As well as a large number of minority winners, there were also increasing numbers of MPs elected with relatively small amounts of support from their constituents. While it is arguable that in multi-party politics a candidate with 48 per cent may represent near enough to a majority (or at least that a majority cannot be assembled for a rival candidate) this

is much more dubious when the winner’s support is below 40 per cent. There are 111 MPs in the 2010 parliament with less than 40 per cent support from their own voters. This was a sharp increase on 2005, when 55 MPs had this status, and from 2001 when it was a rare event – 26 slipped through then on such a low share (the number was 20 in 1992 and 9 in 1970).

Of the 111 MPs with less than 40 per cent support in 2010, 56 are Labour (up 29 on 2005), 34 Conservative (up 26, all but one of whom are gains since 2005), 10 Lib Dems (up 3) and 11 Others (up 11: 4 SNP, 3 DUP,
2 Plaid, 1 Green, 1 APNI). This pattern was particularly prevalent in Wales, with nearly one seat in three being decided on less than 40 per cent of the vote.

Majority and minority winners, 1950-2010

Majority and minority winners, 1950-2010

Winners on less than 40 per cent (by nation) 2010

Number %
England 80 15
Wales 13 32.5
Scotland 14 23.7
Northern Ireland 4 22.2
UK 111 17.1

The general upward trend in the number of MPs with sub-40 per cent vote shares is apparent in the table above, as is the sharp upward movement in 2010. Three factors seem to govern the prevalence of such small minority winners. One is that it is arithmetically impossible to win with less than 50 per cent in a two-way contest, and the last such contests were in 1979 (and they became rare in 1974).

Winning share of the vote in constituency contests, 1950-2010

  Below 40% 40-50% Above 50%

(2 candidates)

Above 50%

(3+ candidates)

1950 8 179 115* 323
1951 0 39 499* 87
1955 1 36 489 104
1959 0 80 373 177
1964 7 225 194 204
1966 5 180 234 211
1970 9 115 185 321
1974 Feb 40 368 38 189
1974 Oct 31 349 0 255
1979 13 193 3 426
1983 70 266 0 314
1987 25 258 0 367
1992 20 240 0 391
1997 49 264 0 336
2001 26 307 0 326
2005 55 371 0 220
2010 111 322 0 217

Further, the other candidates need to get at least 20 per cent of the vote (meaning that two party politics needs to have weakened).
Another is that boundary changes, by creating new seats where the tactical position is unclear, make for more 30-something (or 20-something) winners, which usually resolves itself in the next election through tactical voting and incumbency (as in 1983-87 and 1997-2001); another is
a strong national movement of votes that encourages people to support their party even when it does not help much in the constituency.

The persistence of Liberalism in rural Wales and Scotland through the party’s UK
nadir, and the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, meant that 30-something winners were formerly to be found mostly outside England (with some constituencies such
as Meirionnydd, Ceredigion, Caithness and

Aberdeen South being repeatedly won with less than 40 per cent). The 2010 election saw winners with less than 40 per cent on an unprecedented scale in England.

Seats won on low shares of the vote in 2010

Simon Wright, the Lib Dem winner in Norwich South, has the wooden spoon for the lowest share of the vote of any MP in Westminster, at 29.4 per cent. This was lower than any MP recorded in 2005, although still more than the recent record holder Sir Russell Johnston, who held Inverness for the Lib Dems in 1992 with 26.0 per cent.

As one might expect, the 21 seats where the winner had 35 per cent or under were mostly three way marginals. There were 9 seats decided on less than 35 per cent of the vote in 2005, so the 2010 election saw a significant increase in the number of MPs with only a small share of constituency support.

Norwich South election result 2010

  Party Vote Vote %
Wright, Simon Liberal Democrat 13,960 29.4
Clarke, Charles Labour 13,650 28.7
Little, Antony Conservative 10,902 22.9
Ramsay, Adrian Green 7,095 14.9
Emmens, Steve UKIP 1,145 2.4
Heather, Leonard BNP 697 1.5
Polley, Gabriel Workers Rev Party 102 0.2

MPs with 35 per cent or less of the constituency vote, 2010

MP Constituency Party Vote %
Simon Wright Norwich South Liberal Democrat 29.4
Caroline Lucas Brighton Pavilion Green 31.3
Alan Reid Argyll & Bute Liberal Democrat 31.6
Phil Woolas Oldham East & Saddleworth Labour 31.9
Austin Mitchell Great Grimsby Labour 32.7
Glenda Jackson Hampstead & Kilburn Labour 32.8
Roger Godsiff Birmingham Hall Green Labour 32.9
Chris Williamson Derby North Labour 33.0
Albert Owen ynys Mon Labour 33.4
David Ward Bradford East Liberal Democrat 33.7
Gloria de Piero Ashfield Labour 33.7
David Simpson Upper Bann DUP 33.8
William McCrea Antrim South DUP 33.9
Michael Ellis Northampton North Conservative 34.1
Oliver Colvile Plymouth Sutton & Devonport Conservative 34.3
Gregory Campbell Londonderry East DUP 34.6
Ian Murray Edinburgh South Labour 34.7
Geraint Davies Swansea West Labour 34.7
Gavin Shuker Luton South Labour 34.9
Richard Harrington Watford Conservative 34.9
Simon Reevell Dewsbury Conservative 35.0

Majority winners (by party) 2010

  Number % (of party) % (of majority winners)
Conservative 126 41.2 58.1
Labour 76 29.5 35.0
Lib Dem 12 21.1 5.5
Others 3*

Majority winners (by nation) 2010

  Number %
England 185 34.7
Wales 7 17.5
Scotland 22 37.3
Northern Ireland 3 16.7

Majority winners

Among the total of majority winners, the Conservatives are rather over-represented. The increase in their vote share pushed a number of seats they had won last time with shares of the vote in the high 40 per cent range over into majority winner status. Conversely, Labour’s falling support – particularly in some hitherto safe seats in Wales and south yorkshire – caused a drop in the number of Labour majority winners.

Labour’s strong result in Scotland increased the proportion of majority winners there a little, while the party’s weak showing in the south Wales valleys knocked the number of Welsh majority winners back significantly. Of all the MPs who gained their seat from another party in 2010 relative to 2005, only one – Labour’s Nick Smith who recaptured Blaenau Gwent from Independent – polled over 50 per cent of the vote (a handful of others reversed defections or by-elections, or won a seat where boundary changes had already changed its partisan allegiance).

The preponderance of the very safest seats is for Labour, with Merseyside and urban Scotland providing many of the most rock- solid constituencies.

Share of the electorate

In terms of the share of the entire electorate voting for the successful candidate, no MP can claim a majority after the 2010 election (there were no majorities of electors in 2005 or 2001 either). The general increase in turnout in 2010 and the increase in the Conservative share of the vote meant that rather more MPs had over 40 per cent than in 2005 – 35 seats as opposed to 3 in 2005. Many of these were in rural seats, which are safely Conservative, although there is a slight tendency for a high winning share of the electorate to be associated with a serious Lib Dem challenge a few years ago but which is now fading – as in Orpington, Maidenhead and Surrey South West. Of the 35 MPs who can claim the support of 40 per cent or more of the electorate, three are Lib Dems (Westmorland
& Lonsdale, Norfolk North, Bath), one Labour (Gordon Brown in Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath) and the other 31 are Conservatives (including David Cameron in Witney).

The 2010 election saw a lot of very individual constituency-level results and the greater deviation from average results is apparent in the fact that as well as more MPs receiving particularly strong support, there was a rise in the number of MPs with particularly weak local support. Eight MPs, compared to three in 2005, received less than 20 per cent support from their electorates.

The fall in turnout in Northern Ireland, and the erosion of the DUP’s dominance since 2005, caused several Northern Ireland seats
to appear in this category, and Labour’s good results in Scotland raised the overall level of support for its MPs (two of the three winners with less than 20 per cent of the electorate in 2005 were in Scottish Labour seats). It is perhaps ironic that two of Labour’s most convinced and tenacious electoral reformers, Austin Mitchell and Alan Johnson, should find themselves in this category.

MPs with over 60 per cent of the vote, 2010

MP Constituency Party Vote %
Steve Rotheram Liverpool Walton Labour 72.0
Gerry Adams Belfast West Sinn Fein 71.1
George Howarth Knowsley Labour 70.9
Stephen Timms East Ham Labour 70.4
Willie Bain Glasgow North East Labour 68.3
Tom Clarke Coatbridge, Chryston & Bellshill Labour 66.6
Joe Benton Bootle Labour 66.4
Gordon Brown Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath Labour 64.5
Stephen Twigg Liverpool West Derby Labour 64.1
Sylvia Hermon North Down Independent 63.3
William Hague Richmond (yorks) Conservative 62.8
Lyn Brown West Ham Labour 62.7
Frank Field Birkenhead Labour 62.5
Ian Davidson Glasgow South West Labour 62.5
Lindsay Roy Glenrothes Labour 62.3
Alistair Carmichael Orkney & Shetland Liberal Democrat 62.0
Margaret Curran Glasgow East Labour 61.6
Gemma Doyle Dunbartonshire West Labour 61.3
Dominic Grieve Beaconsfield Conservative 61.1
Frank Roy Motherwell & Wishaw Labour 61.1
Tom Watson West Bromwich East Labour 61.0
Tom Greatrex Rutherglen & Hamilton West Labour 60.8
Adam Afriyie Windsor Conservative 60.8
James Arbuthnot Hampshire North East Conservative 60.6
Greg Hands Chelsea & Fulham Conservative 60.5
Cheryl Gillan Chesham & Amersham Conservative 60.4
Tim Farron Westmorland & Lonsdale Liberal Democrat 60.0

MPs with support of more than 43 per cent of the electorate, 2010

MP Constituency Party Electorate %
Tim Farron Westmorland & Lonsdale Liberal Democrat 45.5
Cheryl Gillan Chesham & Amersham Conservative 45.0
James Arbuthnot Hampshire North East Conservative 44.4
Theresa May Maidenhead Conservative 43.8
Jeremy Wright Kenilworth & Southam Conservative 43.5
Adam Afriyie Windsor Conservative 43.4
Paul Beresford Mole Valley Conservative 43.1
Jo Johnson Orpington Conservative 43.1
Jeremy Hunt Surrey South West Conservative 43.1
David Cameron Witney Conservative 43.1

MPs with support of less than 20 per cent of the electorate, 2010

MP Constituency Party Electorate %
Austin Mitchell Great Grimsby Labour 17.6
Jackie Doyle-Price Thurrock Conservative 18.3
William McCrea Antrim South DUP 18.3
David Simpson Upper Bann DUP 18.7
Simon Wright Norwich South Liberal Democrat 19.0
Gregory Campbell Londonderry East DUP 19.1
Alan Johnson Hull West & Hessle Labour 19.4
Phil Woolas Oldham East & Saddleworth Labour 19.5


The link between constituency and MP, often cited by supporters of the current system as a benefit of FPTP, has clearly changed, not just since the high point of the two party system in the 1950s, but also since the 1990s. The normal pattern is now for two MPs out of every three to lack the support of a majority of local voters, and an increasing number not to reach 40 per cent support. No MP returned in any of the last three elections has had the support of a majority of the local electorate.

The debate over the possibility of moving to the Alternative Vote (AV) was fuelled by the low proportion of MPs with a majority mandate in the 2005 parliament, and this factor has grown rather than receded as a result of the election of 2010.

‘Wasted’ votes in 2010

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Please download the pdf for the remainder of the report

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