Britain at the Polls 2010


Nicholas Allen & John Bartle

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    Figures and Tables

    • Figure 1.1 Voting intentions, 2005–2010 5
    • Figure 1.2 Gordon Brown's approval rating as prime minister 11
    • Figure 1.3 Labour and the economy, 2005–2010 13
    • Figure 3.1 Liberal Democrats' intra-party policy-making process 77
    • Figure 3.2 Liberal Democrat party members' preferences on party's ideological position, 2007 80
    • Figure 4.1 Government expenditure, 1997–2016 101
    • Figure 5.1 Percentage party identification among British voters by general election, 1964–2010 124
    • Figure 5.2 Political trust, 1974–2009 125
    • Figure 5.3 Government honesty and trustworthiness, 2004–2010 129
    • Figure 5.4 Satisfaction with the prime minister, 2004–2010 131
    • Figure 5.5 Satisfaction with democracy, 2004–2010 132
    • Figure 6.1 Party positions: comparative manifestos project estimates by general election, 1945–2010 155
    • Figure 6.2 Intuitions about the policy mood 161
    • Figure 6.3 The moving centre, 1950–2010 162
    • Figure 6.4 Percentage changes in the policy mood by government, 1951–2010 167
    • Figure 6.5 Relationship between the size of government and right mood, 1965–2010 168
    • Figure 7.1 The 2010 campaign polls 191
    • Figure 8.1 Satisfaction with the Labour government, 1997–2010 205
    • Table 1.1 Objective economic indicators, 2005–2010 12
    • Table 1.2 Most important issue facing Britain today, 1997–2010 16
    • Table 1.3 By-election results, 2005–2010 27
    • Table 1.4 The restless PLP, 1997–2010 29
    • Table 2.1 The Conservative and Labour brands, spring 2005: the nationwide view 38
    • Table 2.2 The Conservative brand, spring 2005: the view from swing seats 39
    • Table 2.3 The Conservative brand, spring 2005: putting people off their policies? 39
    • Table 2.4 The results of the 2005 Conservative party leadership contest 43
    • Table 2.5 Voters' positions on key themes and policies, May 2010 57
    • Table 2.N1 Perceptions of left-right distance between parties and the average voter in 2005 and 2010 62
    • Table 3.1 Location of Liberal/SDP/Liberal Democrat parliamentary seats, 1945–2010 65
    • Table 3.2 Liberal Democrat 2006 leadership election result 73
    • Table 3.3 Liberal Democrat 2007 leadership election result 75
    • Table 3.4 Orange Book contributors' jobs before and after election to parliament 75
    • Table 4.1 Manufacturing, finance and state employeesand total jobs, 1971–2008 103
    • Table 4.2 Analysis of taxes paid by the finance and manufacturing sectors, 2002–2007 106
    • Table 4.3 Change in employment by major region and source of change by major sector, 1998–2007 107 122
    • Table 5.1 Turnout and the Labour-Conservative share of the vote in general elections, 1945–2010 122
    • Table 5.2 Approximate individual party memberships, 1951–2008 123
    • Table 5.3 Satisfaction with parliament 132
    • Table 5.4 Selected occupations of MPs (% Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs), 1979–2005 139
    • Table 7.1 Other televised debates during the 2010 election campaign 181
    • Table 7.2 The prime ministerial debates 183
    • Table 7.3 Content of prime ministerial debates by theme (%) 187
    • Table 7.4 Public responses to the television debates (% agreeing with statement) 190
    • Table 8.1 The result of the 2010 general election in Great Britain (excluding the Speaker) 204
    • Table 8.2 Marginal constituencies prior to the 2010 general election by marginality and by party (Great Britain only) 208
    • Table 8.3 Biased results at the 2005 and 2010 Britishgeneral elections 214
    • Table 8.4 Conservative constituency party memberships, incomes and donations 220
    • Table 8.5 Conservative constituency parties in receipt of target seat grants, 2007 and 2008 221
    • Table 8.6 Liberal Democrat constituency parties in receipt of target seat grants, 2007 and 2008 223
    • Table 8.7 The mean change in a party's percentage share of the votes cast in a constituency between 2005 and 2010 (standard deviations in brackets) 225
    • Table 8.8 The mean change in a party's percentage share of the votes cast in a constituency between 2005 and 2010 (standard deviations in brackets) in the three main contest types 226
    • Table 8.9 Conservative seat gains in 2010 in all seats and in the two contest types involving the Conservatives 227
    • Table 8.10 Conservative seat gains in 2010 according to whether the incumbent MP was contesting the seat, in the two contest types involving the Conservatives 229
    • Table 8.11 Conservative seat gains in 2010 according to whether the constituency party and its opponent received donations 2007–2008, in the two contest types involving the Conservatives 230
    • Table 8.12 Conservative seat gains in 2010 according to whether their constituency party received a target grant in 2007 and 2008, in the two contest types involving the Conservatives 231
    • Table 8.13 Donations to local parties during the first quarterof 2010 232
    • Table 8.14 Modelling Conservative seat gains in Conservative-Labour and Conservative-Liberal Democrat contests 233


    • Nicholas Allen is Lecturer in Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.
    • Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex.
    • Judith Bara is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Queen Mary, University of London.
    • John Bartle is Senior Lecturer in Government at the University of Essex.
    • Ben Clements is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Leicester.
    • Sebastian Dellepiane Avellaneda is a Research Fellow at University College Dublin.
    • Oliver Heath is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.
    • Sukhdev Johal is Reader in Strategy and Business Analysis at Royal Holloway, University of London.
    • Ron Johnston is Professor of Geography at the University of Bristol.
    • Michael Moran is W.J.M. MacKenzie Professor of Government at the University of Manchester.
    • Philip Norton is Professor of Government and Director of the Centre for Legislative Studies at the University of Hull. He sits in the House of Lords as Lord Norton of Louth.
    • Charles Pattie is Professor of Geography at the University of Sheffield.
    • Thomas Quinn is Lecturer in Government at the University of Essex.
    • James A. Stimson is Raymond Dawson Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
    • Paul Webb is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex.
    • Karel Williams is Professor of Accounting and Political Economy and Director of the Centre for Research on Socio Cultural Change (CRESC) at the University of Manchester.


    With masterful understatement, John Bartle, Sebastian Dellepiane Avellaneda and James A. Stimson include in the opening sentence of their chapter in this tome entitled ‘The Policy Mood and the Moving Centre’, the words: ‘the 2010 general election was one of the most eventful and dramatic in British electoral history’. While there is much in this collection of essays that will (and indeed should) be a matter of debate and perhaps disagreement, that particular sentiment will surely not be disputed. Having been a candidate at every general election from 1987 onwards I can testify to its truth (and not merely because of the distinct peculiarities that arise from fighting a seat as ‘The Speaker Seeking Re-Election’).

    This book is about the extraordinary story of this election and the no less striking saga of its epilogue. It is in many ways the most valuable of the wonderful Britain at the Polls series precisely because this was not a parliament, an election campaign or a set of results which can be dismissed as wholly predictable. There is an urgent need to discern not merely what happened on polling day but why it happened. A contest such as this one, though, is capable of multiple interpretations. The authority of this volume, nonetheless, means that it is destined to be the starting point for any serious discussion about British politics between 2005 and 2010 as well as what clues might be divined for the coming decade in politics.

    The period examined here has a legitimate claim to be truly exceptional. A parliament which witnessed all three of the main parties changing their leaders (twice in the case of the Liberal Democrats) would be an unusual one. A society which experienced the sharpest economic downturn in seven decades would be worthy of close inspection. An election which saw the introduction of televised debates between the party leaders would surely be a matter of immense interest. For all three of these utterly seismic events to occur in the same timeframe is absolutely astonishing. There will not be many general elections over which historians a century hence choose to run the microscope but that of 2010 will achieve immortality.

    All of this is lovingly covered in these pages. The main actors, a Labour party in transition from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown, a Conservative party destined to be recast by David Cameron and a Liberal Democrat party which in many senses endured the wildest rollercoaster ride of them all between 2005 and 2010, are examined in forensic detail. The principal external political shocks of the period – notably those covered in chapters on ‘The Financial Crisis and its Consequences’ and ‘The Great Divide: Voters, Parties, MPs and Expenses’ – are awarded their proper prominence. The analysis of the campaign itself (and those debates), the local contests and the outcome as well as the evolving policy mood of the electorate is fascinating. To cap it all, Lord Norton brings his insight to the ultimate result of the campaign, the first formal peacetime coalition since the 1930s, indeed the first official partnership of its kind since, arguably, that of the Conservative party and the Liberal Unionists in the last decade of the nineteenth century. This book is thus an intellectual feast for anyone with the slightest enthusiasm for the operation of British politics.

    As a political practitioner, and as Speaker of the House of Commons, there are three aspects of what you are about to read that I would like to highlight.

    The first, unavoidably, involves the debates. They are here to stay. Whether they will be as dominant a factor in future elections as this one as they become a more familiar aspect of the hustings is debatable but the notion that they might disappear is implausible. Many outsider observers, particularly from the United States, thought that they were a rather impressive exercise in civilised political cut-and-thrust by international standards, and I sympathise with that evaluation. They certainly showed that it is possible to have a lively partisan exchange without baying background noise from the crowd, an observation which I hope, as I said in a speech shortly after the new parliament assembled, is not lost on the House of Commons particularly when it comes on Wednesdays to questions to the prime minister.

    The second element involves the local constituency campaigns. These manifestly mattered. It was not just the case that there was a national swing dictated by national themes which played itself out across the country. Results varied wildly often within areas and regions as well as across them. The calibre of those who wore the rosettes and who ran those campaigns was clearly important to the outcome. So too were the resources which could be mobilised by the contenders, but this is a complicated story and not merely the case of ‘he who spends the most, wins the most’ (mercifully so in my own example as I suspect I was outspent by both of my principal opponents in Buckingham!). We are some distance from former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O'Neill's dictum that ‘all politics is local’. Yet on the other hand, the lazy assumption in Britain that ‘all politics is national’ is no longer a valid claim either.

    Finally, there is the vexed matter of the scandal relating to MPs and expenses. This was a shameful episode and one which I devoted most of my first year as Speaker seeking to put an end to. It was undoubtedly a catalyst for the record level of retirements from the House in 2010. It explained some defeats for those whose indiscretions had created vast, hostile publicity, whose performance might otherwise be inexplicable. It was undoubtedly part of the DNA of the entire campaign. The expenses debacle did not, though, prevent incumbent MPs with a solid record of service from achieving a better result at the ballot box than might have been expected otherwise. To the extent that this demonstrates that parliament matters and being a good parliamentarian matters then it is a welcome development.

    It is a pleasure to be associated with this book and series not least because of its connections to the University of Essex where I had such an enjoyable and stimulating time as a student. I am sure that those who read the words will have a similarly enjoyable and stimulating experience.

    JohnBercowMP Speaker of the House of Commons.


    The 2010 general election was one of the most remarkable in recent history. Taking place against the backdrop of enormous economic and political turbulence, it offered, for the first time since 1997, when New Labour ousted the Conservatives, the real possibility of a change in government. As polling day approached, Gordon Brown's Labour party was generally expected to lose its parliamentary majority, and David Cameron's Conservatives were generally expected to make large gains. But beyond these vague expectations, there were mountains of doubt and uncertainty. A small number of optimistic Conservative supporters expected the party to win outright, but almost everyone else anticipated a hung parliament with no party winning an absolute majority of MPs. Such possibilities fuelled the uncertainty. If the Conservatives did sufficiently well, Cameron might try to form a minority government. Otherwise, Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats might end up holding the balance of power, and Clegg would then have to choose between forming a coalition with Labour or the Conservatives. Labour was assumed to be the Liberal Democrats' obvious ideological bedfellow; but everything would depend on the results and the post-election parliamentary arithmetic.

    The 2010 campaign began with the Conservatives enjoying a healthy lead over Labour and the prospect of the Tories consolidating their advantage. Then came the televised prime ministerial debates, the first such debates in British electoral history. To general amazement – and to the two major parties' consternation – the star of the first debate was Nick Clegg. His performance generated a terrific boost in support for the Liberal Democrats and turned the election on its head. Thereafter, the 2010 campaign appeared to become a genuine three-way contest, with the Liberal Democrats sometimes leapfrogging Labour into second place in the polls and very occasionally moving into first place. In the circumstances, there was general astonishment when the exit polls suggested that the Liberal Democrats would improve on their 2005 performance by just one point and actually lose around six seats.

    The exit polls, however, proved correct, and Liberal Democrat hopes of progress were dashed. More importantly, the exit polls accurately predicted that the Conservatives would become the largest single party but fall short of a majority. For the first time since February 1974, a general election thus resulted in a hung parliament. Whatever the politicians had said before polling day, it was now up to them, not the voters, to thrash out a deal and decide who would govern. After five days of bargaining, first between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and then, briefly, between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the logic of numbers prevailed. The Liberal Democrats took five cabinet posts in a Conservative-dominated coalition. David Cameron became the new prime minister, Nick Clegg became the deputy prime minister. Almost immediately, the coalition set about reducing the burgeoning government deficit and making plans for significant political reforms.

    This book tells the story of this remarkable and landmark election. Britain at the Polls 2010 is the ninth book in a series that has described and analysed every election since February 1974 with the exception of the 1987 election. As with previous volumes, this book's principal aim is to provide general readers, students of British politics and professional political scientists, in North America and Europe as well as in the United Kingdom, with an analysis of the major social, economic and political developments during the 2005–10 period, and with an assessment of the impact of these developments on the election outcome.

    General elections are not just stories in their own right, of course. They are also chapters in the unfolding story of British democracy. Britain at the Polls 2010, like previous volumes, therefore aims to provide readers with informed reflections on the election's long-term significance. Other books can be expected to provide a blow-by-blow account of the formal campaign, including: The British General Election of 2010, written by Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley; Britain Votes 2010, edited by Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge; and Political Communications: The British General Election Campaign of 2010, edited by Dominic Wring, Roger Mortimore and Simon Atkinson. As usual, The Times Guide to the House of Commons provides a definitive work of reference for the actual results, and the British Election Study, currently based at the University of Essex, will provide a detailed survey-based account of voting behaviour.

    As with previous volumes in the series, Britain at the Polls 2010 contains chapters on the chief protagonists and the actual result. Nicholas Allen in Chapter 1 provides a detailed overview of the major developments in British politics since 2005, with a particular focus on the trials and tribulations of the Labour government and its two prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In Chapter 2, Tim Bale and Paul Webb examine the Conservatives' response to their third successive defeat in 2005 and analyse how David Cameron made his party electable. In Chapter 3, Thomas Quinn and Ben Clements analyse the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats, explaining why the party managed to get through three-and-a-half leaders after the 2005 election and why Nick Clegg was able to bring his party into a coalition with the Conservatives. And in Chapter 8, Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie explain why the Conservatives won the most seats in the new House of Commons but not an overall majority, with a particular emphasis on the impact of local campaigning and the workings of Britain's first-past-the-post voting system.

    Other chapters cover distinctive features of the 2010 election and relevant long-term developments in British politics. In Chapter 4, Michael Moran, Sukhdev Johal and Karel Williams analyse the impact of the financial crisis on both the election and the structure of Britain's economy, the dominant issue in 2010. In Chapter 5, Oliver Heath examines the gulf between ordinary voters and the political class and how the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal made this gulf a central concern at the election. In Chapter 6, John Bartle, Sebastian Dellepiane Avellaneda and James Stimson describe long-term changes in the British public's policy mood and the significance of popular preferences surrounding the size of government and its implications for the new coalition's deficit reduction plan. In Chapter 7, Nicholas Allen, Judith Bara and John Bartle describe how British politics finally came to embrace televised election debates and analyse the debates' impact on the campaign and outcome. In Chapter 9, Philip Norton charts the formation of Britain's first post-war coalition government and surveys the wider postelection landscape.

    As editors, we would like to acknowledge and thank the support of several people in connection with this volume. John Bercow kindly gave his time and read through the manuscript before penning his foreword. David Mainwaring at Sage enthusiastically supported us throughout the production of this book. Graham Keilloh of Ipsos MORI, Caroline Lawes of Comres and Anthony Wells of YouGov all contributed their time and knowledge at a specially convened workshop in London, where many of the authors met and discussed their ideas. We are especially grateful to the Faculty of History and Social Sciences, Royal Holloway, University of London, for providing the funds to make that workshop possible. Finally, several colleagues read through draft chapters and provided helpful feedback. Some have preferred to remain anonymous, but we would like to single out Anthony King, Katja Mirwaldt, Thomas Quinn, Warren Ward and Steffen Weiss, who commented on our own chapters. Those familiar with the Britain at the Polls series will be aware that this is the first book not to contain a chapter by Tony King. As editor of the series since 1992, Tony set an exacting standard in scholarship and style. Although he was not formally involved in this volume, his example, advice and guidance were invaluable.

    NicholasAllenRoyal Holloway, University of LondonJohnBartle, University of Essex
  • Appendix: General Elections since 1945

    Appendix Results of British General Elections, 1945–2010

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