Government and Politics


The 2010 Election

Professor Roger Scully

How will it be remembered?

The 2010 general election is likely to be remembered most for two things. The first is the leaders' debates. The televised confrontations between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, held on each of the three Thursday evenings prior to the election on 6th May, were unprecedented events in British elections. The debates drew substantial television audiences, and in many respects dominated the entire election campaign period. The second is the five days following the election: a period dominated by the inter-party negotiations which culminated in the establishment of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, the first UK peacetime coalition since 1922.

For political analysts there was much about the 2010 election that was unique. But this article will place the election in a broader historical perspective and argue that the 2010 general election both confirmed and continued some long-standing trends in electoral politics in the UK, and in Wales. These trends mean that, in several very important respects, elections are now fundamentally different from what they were like until quite recently.

Elections in the UK: A traditional view

For much of the post-war era, the nature of general elections in the UK could be summarised in a few simple points.

Two-party politics: First, and perhaps most obviously, for much of the period since 1945, general elections were about two-party competition. For many years, it was simply taken for granted by analysts, politicians and most of the public that almost everything that mattered in UK elections concerned the competition between the Labour and Conservative parties. This was a fairly realistic assumption. At every general election from 1945 to 1970, at least 85% of those who voted cast their ballot for either a Conservative or Labour candidate. This dominance in votes was strongly reinforced by the 'first past the post' electoral system used for Westminster elections. This system is strongly biased towards large parties, or those with geographically concentrated support, and it ensured almost complete dominance in parliamentary representation by the two largest parties. During this period, it was said - with only slight exaggeration - that all the Liberal MPs could fit into a single London taxi!

Alignment: Second, among the voters there was a high degree of 'partisan alignment'. That is, most people had a stable, long-term 'party identification' with one of the two major parties - they saw themselves as a supporter of that party, and they voted for it consistently over a long period of time. These identifications mostly followed along lines of social class. For much of the post-war period, despite government policies that aimed to reduce levels of economic inequality, the UK remained a class-based society with a fairly clear division between the middle and working class. This division had a direct political manifestation: most middle-class people identified with, and voted for, the Conservative party; most working-class people supported the Labour party. With the two major parties supported by these substantial blocs of society, elections tended to be won and lost through the decisions of the fairly small number of people who might change their votes - the 'floating voters'.

Electoral homogeneity: Third, in electoral terms Britain was an essentially homogeneous entity. By this we mean that there were few major regional differences in terms of how people voted - differences in parties' electoral success across the various parts of the UK were largely down to class differences. The South of England tended to elect more Conservatives than the North of England: but that was simply because the South was more affluent and more middle-class than the North. For much of the post-war era, you could predict which way an area would vote in an election to a high degree of accuracy if you knew the social-class profile of a constituency. One of the few exceptions to this, as we will discuss shortly, was Wales.

Conservative dominance: The final main element of a traditional view of UK elections was the relative dominance of the Conservative party. For much of the 20th century Britain experienced two-party competition, but it was not an equal competition. More often than not, the Conservatives won. They governed UK, either alone or in coalitions that they dominated, for 68 of the 100 years of the 20th Century. There were several reasons for Conservative dominance. But the most important one is that, compared to the Labour party, the Conservatives had the reputation and appearance of being economically competent. Several major economic crises in the 20th century that led to devaluation of the Pound (in 1931, 1947, 1967, and the late 1970s) had all occurred during periods of Labour government. Whether they deserved it or not, the Conservatives had a reputation amongst much of the country as being better at running things, and particularly at running the economy. If you have that reputation, you are a long way towards winning an election.

Wales - Labour dominance: The major exception to Conservative dominance, for many years, was Wales. The Conservatives have done worse in Wales than in England at every general election since the 1880s. Partly this is because Wales has, for most of that time, been significantly poorer and more working class than England. But even when those class differences are accounted for, Conservative support in Wales has still been much lower. A lot of this difference seems to have been due to long-standing and widespread perceptions across much of Wales that the Conservatives were an essentially 'English' party. In Wales, Labour has been the dominant party since the 1945 general election - always winning a majority of Welsh MPs, and often winning an absolute majority of Welsh votes.

Overturning the traditional view

The characteristics outlined above describe UK general elections very accurately for much of the post-war era. But over the last thirty years or so, this understanding of elections in the UK has been becoming increasingly out-dated. And the 2010 election vividly illustrated that none of the characteristics outline above remain any longer true.

Decline of two-party politics:
 First, it has become increasingly unrealistic to view elections in the UK as being just about two-party competition. The dominance of the two largest parties has been eroding steadily since the 1970s, and reached a new low in 2010 - when the Conservatives and Labour combined won the support of less than two-thirds of those who voted. Many of these votes have gone to the party now known as the Liberal Democrats. In the 1951 election, their predecessors, the Liberals, got just 1.9% of the vote: their party seemed on the way to extinction. But they began to revive from the 1960s onwards, and have won more than 15% of the vote at every one of the last seven general elections. Had leaders' debates been held in elections in the 1950s or 1960s, they would almost certainly have included only the Conservative and Labour leaders; in 2010 there was little dispute that they had to include Nick Clegg.

But in addition to the rise of the Liberal Democrats, in Scotland and Wales one can now speak realistically of four-party politics. Since the 1960s, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru have grown into serious political forces. And right across Britain, the proportion of people voting for parties other than the main ones (such as the Greens, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the BNP and so on) or for independent candidates, has also been slowly increasing: in 2010, one in ten of those who voted supported an independent or minor party candidate. And although 'first past the post' makes life difficult for smaller parties, in 2010 the Greens' leader, Caroline Lucas, became the first ever MP for her party.

De-alignment: Second, the major reason for the decline in two-party dominance has been the de-alignment of the electorate. Far fewer people now have a secure party identification than 30 years ago, and of those who do, the strength of their identity tends to be more limited. There are various reasons for this, but a major one is the breakdown of the older forms of class distinction: as class lines in society have become more blurred, and many of the bastions of the old class politics - particularly the major industrial trade unions, like the National Union of Mineworkers - have declined greatly. De-alignment has meant that there are many more votes potentially 'up for grabs'; though it can also mean that people who are unimpressed by the parties may simply not vote at all. This helps to explain the fact that the last three UK general elections have witnessed the three lowest turnout levels at any general election since 1918.

Increasing electoral heterogeneity: Third, there has been a growing heterogeneity in British voting patterns. The constituent nations of Britain have come to be increasingly different in how they vote. This was illustrated very clearly in 2010. While the Labour party lost a substantial number of votes and parliamentary seats in England, it actually saw its support levels go up in Scotland! The rise of the SNP and Plaid Cymru means that voters in those countries have a different set of choices to those given to most English voters, and increasingly they have chosen differently. The Conservatives have been in almost continuous decline for the last 40 years in Scotland, to an extent that goes far beyond any difficulties they have had in England. In 2010, the English Conservatives won more seats and votes than any other party; the Scottish Conservatives came fourth (as they have in each of the last three general elections).

Even at more local levels, the map of electoral competition in Britain is now much more complex than it used to be. For example, the Liberal Democrats have become strong in much of the rural South West of England, and the North of Scotland; they also have pockets of strength elsewhere. But they remain weak in many other areas. And similar things could be said about the other parties. It is no longer true that nearly all constituencies see a straight fight between the Conservatives and Labour. As voters' loyalties to parties have become much less automatic, the organisation of parties in particular areas has become more important, and this has prompted a growing differentiation in voting patterns and the landscape of political competition. (As an illustration, the author of this article lives in a constituency where the 2010 election was essentially a fight between the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, with Labour and the Conservatives a long way behind. The neighbouring seat to the north east was largely a battle between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives; that to the south east was dominated by Plaid Cymru and Labour. Three rural Welsh constituencies: three very different patterns of electoral competition).

End of Conservative dominance: Fourth, there is considerable reason to believe that the long-term Conservative dominance over British politics has been, if not ended, then at least substantially eroded. This statement must not be misunderstood. The Conservatives obviously remain a very important party in British politics: they are currently the largest party in Parliament, and dominate the UK government. But let us consider their electoral record in recent times. The Conservatives lost the 1997, 2001 and 2005 general elections decisively. By 2010, they seemed to have renewed their party considerably. Their new leader, David Cameron, was popular in the country, and had won support from much of the national news media for his strategy of making the Conservatives a more moderate party. The Tories were fighting against a Labour party that was tired after 13 years in government, had a very unpopular leader, and which had a very poor economic record to defend. The Conservatives also had far more money than their opponents to spend in the election campaign. Yet even in such favourable circumstances, the Conservatives could still only win 36.1% of the vote, and they failed to get a majority of MPs in parliament.

What explains the decline of Conservative dominance? Two major factors seem salient. The first is a single event: 'Black Wednesday' in September 1992, when in the wake of a serious economic recession a Conservative government presided over the collapse of the Pound. This destroyed much of the Conservative reputation for economic competence. Now back in government, the party will have to try to slowly rebuild this reputation. The second is a more general factor, leadership. The Conservatives chose a series of poor leaders - John Major, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith - none of whom were able to compete effectively with Tony Blair. While the party finally found, in David Cameron, someone able to appeal to much of the electorate, opinion polls taken during the 2010 election suggested that Cameron was significantly more popular than his party. The Conservatives are a long way from re-establishing themselves as the 'natural party of government' to many voters.

Wales: the end of Labour hegemony? As stated previously, Labour has long been the dominant party in Wales. But since the great Labour victory in the 1997 general election, the party has seen its vote share fall further in Wales than in the rest of Britain. (See Table 2). Thanks to the 'first past the post' system, Labour has been able to hold on to the majority of Welsh MPs, but in several seats only very narrowly. Labour also lost considerable ground in local council elections in Wales in the years prior to 2010, while the 2007 National Assembly for Wales election, and the 2009 European Parliament election, saw Labour winning support levels lower than had been seen in Wales at any point since 1918. In the years to come, opposing a Conservative-led government in London may help the Labour party renew its Welsh bastion. But it is certainly true to say that in recent times, party politics in Wales has looked much less like the one-party dominance that historically has been the case, and much more like a multi-party competition.


Much about the way that the 2010 UK general election was covered in the news-media, particularly the dominance of the Leaders' debates, was new. So also was the type of outcome - a coalition government - that the election produced. Yet in other respects, 2010 fits in much more comfortably with the historical picture of gradual changes over a series of the most recent elections. But we should not underestimate the extent of those changes. Quietly, and steadily, they have transformed the nature of electoral politics in Britain, and in Wales.

Table 1: 2010 Election Results (change from 2005)

  England Scotland Wales UK (including N.Ireland)
  % Vote Seats % Vote Seats % Vote Seats % Vote Seats
Conservatives 39.6 (+3.9) 298 (+92) 16.7 (+0.9) 1 26.1 (+4.7) 8 (+5) 36.1 (+3.8) 307 (+97)
Labour 28.1 (-7.4) 191 (-87) 42.0 (+2.5) 41 36.2 (-6.5) 26 (-4) 29.0 (-6.2) 258 (-91)
Lib-Dems 24.2 (+1.3) 43 (-4) 18.9 (-3.7) 11 20.1 (+1.7) 3 (-1) 23.0 (+1.0) 57 (-5)
SNP/Plaid Cymru - - 19.9 (+2.3) 6 11.3 (-1.3) 3 (+1) 2.3 9 (+1)
Others 8.1 (+2.2) 1 2.5 (-2.0) 0 6.3 (+1.4) 0 (-1) 9.6 (+1.4) 19 (-2)

Table 2: Labour party share of the vote, 1997 & 2010 general elections

  England Scotland Wales
1997 43.5% 45.6% 54.7%
2010 28.1% 42.0% 36.2%
% change -15.4% -3.6% -18.5%