The 2010 General Election – An Unusual Election

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 7th May 2010

The 2010 election was an unusual election, to say the least. It saw a number of unique and interesting features of the campaign and the result:

  • 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.
  • 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 First Past the Post (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.
  • 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.
  • 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. 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 2010 election result, and the way the First Past the Post system worked, 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 the basic choice is between two parties and that a majority single-party government emerges with a substantial degree of public support, were falsified again by the results in 2010.

The long-term trends make it more and more unlikely that FPTP will reliably produce single party majorities. At a local and constituency level, FPTP also failed to perform. The role of MP in a constituency is an increasingly prominent one, and two in three MPs obtained that position 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.

FPTP once again failed on all fronts. It worked neither as its supporters wanted it to, as an efficient majoritarian system, nor in terms of producing a parliament that resembled the British public either in its social composition or its political allegiances. It is clearly time for reform.

Read our full report on the 2010 General Election.

Sign our petition to scrap the First Past the Post system

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