2010 UK General Election

Posted 06 May 2010

1. Introduction
  1. An unusual election
2. Please download the PDF for the remainder of the report
  1. Please download the PDF for the remainder of the report


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.

Please download the PDF for the remainder of the report

Please download the PDF for the remainder of the report

Please download the PDF for the remainder of the report

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