Analyzing Britain’s 2010 General Election

Two days ago Great Britain held a general election to decide the country’s government over the next few years. Facing discontent and a nation thirsty for change, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the governing Labor Party were soundly defeated. The challenging Conservative Party, led by David Cameroon, gained 97 seats but failed to take a majority in Parliament. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats, who had surged after a strong performance in the first debate by their leader Nick Clegg, badly underperformed their expectations.

This election offers a useful study of a political system outside of the United States. While more similar to the United States than most countries, Great Britain’s electorate also offers a number of intriguing differences.

A map of the results illustrates several aspects of this system:

Note: In Britain and most of the world, the party of the left - Labour - is traditionally represented by the color red (symbolizing the revolution and the so-called blood of the workers). The Conservatives are represented by blue; the Liberal Democrats by yellow.

At first, it seems that the Tories swept the board. One can’t help but notice the sheer landmass covered by conservative-won seats.

Indeed, the Conservative Party did do quite well; with 36.1% of the vote, they won 306 out of 650 seats. Labour dropped to 29.0% and 258 seats; the Liberal Democrats took 57 seats on 23.0% of the vote.

Yet the map overstates Tory strength. Like the Republican Party of the United States, the Conservative Party does best in rural areas. Winning these seats looks good on a map but doesn’t guarantee winning an election.

The Labour Party, on the other hand, has traditionally dominated Great Britain’s densely populated cities – much like the Democrats in the United States. Much of its base lies among cities such as Sunderland, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and – of course – London. These places look small on maps but elect quite a lot of MPs.

To illustrate this point, here is a map of the 2005 general election under redrawn boundaries for 2010:

Labour did quite a bit better in 2005, as this map indicates. Yet one might be inclined to guess, by the geographic spread of Conservative seats, that they lost the election. In reality, Prime Minister Tony Blair had led his party to win 35.3% of the vote and 356 seats – a governing majority.

Interestingly, Labour majorities in cities tend to be somewhat thinner than Tory majorities in the countryside. This constitutes the opposite of the situation in the United States – where Democrats often win cities by 75-25 margins and Republicans win rural regions by 60-40  margins.

A proportional map, therefore, offers a more accurate visualization:

One sees another interesting pattern emerge here; the electorate exhibits a coherent North-South divide. In the poorer North Labour does quite well, winning a good majority of seats. In the wealthier South the Conservatives are dominant. With the exception of London, Labour wins almost no seats in southern Great Britain.

There is also a substantial difference between England, Scotland, and Wales. While England votes strongly Conservative, the latter two remain Labour strongholds. In Scotland the Tories actually come in fourth, winning only one seat – a legacy of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who to this day remains extraordinarily unpopular in Scotland. Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Scottish heritage also probably also helped Labour and hurt the Tories. While the Conservatives do better in Wales, winning eight seats, they still run ten points behind Labour.

It is in South England where the Conservatives do best. Labour runs in third place in the Southwest, Southeast, and East regions. In the Southeast region, for instance, Labour wins a mere 16.2% of the vote; the Tories win 49.9% of it.

These patterns go back for a long time. Take the 1955 general election:

There are some differences, for sure. In 1955 Conservatives had a base in rural Scotland; that has vanished today. The strength of third parties is noticeably less.

Yet what strikes the eye is the degree of similarity between 1955 and 2010. By and large, the bases of the Labour and Conservative Parties remain the same as they were half a century ago. Britain’s regions exhibit a remarkable degree of stability in which party they support – something which can not be said for the United States.

Finally, perhaps the most interesting difference between the United States and the United Kingdom is the strength of third parties in the latter. Both countries follow a first-past-the-post system, which makes the presence of a non-regional third party almost impossible. Yet in Great Britain the Liberal Democrats have somehow managed to gain legitimacy and a respectable amount of seats, through careful targeting. In the aftermath of this election, with a hung parliament, there has even been substantial discussion about changing the electoral system. Meanwhile the two-party system remains iron strong in America. Despite all their similarities, cultural and systemic, the electorates of the United States and the United Kingdom are following sharply divergent paths.

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4 Responses to Analyzing Britain’s 2010 General Election

  1. Flash says:

    I believe the vast majority of voters would have voted LibDem, if the election had been after the first Leaders’ debate. They saw in Nick Clegg a glimpse of hope for a more fairly distributed tax burden, a fairer voting and political system, and a fairer society overall.

    Then, over the next few weeks, all the radio and Tv media did its brain-washing.
    Every outlet of the UK’s supposedly neutral broadcast media hammered the voters with negative questions, and unfounded worries, about the prospect of a ‘hung parliament’. The word hung has very negative connotations; which work in favour of the two old parties, in their unfair, yet continuous quest to effectively bar any third party from power. The term ‘Hung Council’ was dropped by broadcasters decades ago, as a biased and non-pc term; yet ‘Hung Parliament’ is actually promoted, particularly by the BBC, over ‘Balanced Parliament’. (I have received a written response from BBC Complaints, which claims “ the term ‘balanced’ carries a value judgment; but ‘hung’ carries no value judgment”.)
    The use of the word ‘hung’, and the unerring associated negativity, was brroadcast hundreds of times every day for a fortnight; so it is small wonder the voters came to believe that they needed to worry about it! For the sake of balance, the fact that most European countries run more consistently smoothly and effectively than Westminster, would have to have been given hundreds of times, the tiny fraction of the available airtime which it actually received.

    I heard not one single tv presenter or commentator suggest a balanced parliament might actually be beneficial to the UK! After all, it would necessarily lead to a government made up of MPs representing a real majority of voters! (Surely, that is a vast improvement over the 40%-supported alternating dictatorships we are used to!)
    Actual party policies were largely ignored for the duration of the election campaign, except to ridicule any discussion about nuclear arms reduction, or reform of immigration policy. The media delighted in saying all other policies were largely the same: almost totally ignoring the much less severe effect that lower income people would suffer under a LibDem economic regime.

    Meanwhile, Tory propaganda was indulging in its usual fare of: “vote liberal, get labour”, and “hung parliament means muddle and fudge: and the stock markets would collapse.” All these glib untruths were absorbed more easily by the electorate, as they agreed with the broadcast media’s own biased negativity.
    All the media people threw their hands up, after the election, saying: “we do not understand why the LibDem vote flopped back down.” They should look to themselves: they are still carrying the old-parties’ scare-mongering lines even now, three days later.

    Monday morning’s top BBCtv headline was to the effect that: “economic experts are worried the stock-market prices might collapse further, than they already fell last week; as political leaders have not concluded their negotiations”
    In reality, the real experts saw NO cause for concern over the continuance of ‘coalition’ talks: which was the position they had outlined consistently from the start of the election campaign. The markets had actually fallen last week because of worries about Greece’s mammoth outstanding debts; and the current political position in the UK had no discernible effect. And yet the BBC reports the mendacious Tory scare-mongering as though it is fact!!!! I expect ITV, and other broadcasters’ reports were largely similar: they apparently dredge the same gutters for biased opinions in lieu of facts. When the London stock-market opened, share values actually rose noticeably: a fact mentioned in a few seconds of airtime, after hours of negative (Tory-inspired?) speculation!

    The election result was inevitable; and I also found it largely predictable in terms of (a) turnout, and (b) voting percentages. The public interest had first been aroused by the Clegg effect: just maybe change was possible. Then the biased media colluded with Tory propaganda to instil an irrational fear of a ‘hung parliament’. Thus the projected would-be LibDem support fell away, with many voters also falling for the Tory/media smears about their policy on already-long-term-resident illegal immigrants.
    Late-campaign reports of an increase in Tory support, at the expense of the LibDems, then worried many lower-income electors. Many of these people were scared about the prospect of the Tories’ history of huge tax increases; so they came out to vote Labour, to keep Cameron from achieving a majority.
    As usual, any third party support is squeezed at a General Election. I have long believed that MOST voters decide to cast their vote in an attempt to “keep the other lot out”; rather than feeling much agreement with their chosen candidate’s policies.

    Get real, people: Labour didn’t change; and we will get no real change out the Cons.
    The voting system is heavily biased in favour of rich kids giving their buddies safe seats ‘for a small consideration’. Most voters get NO REPRESENTATION at all.

    We desperately need a fairer voting system, and full parliamentary reform.
    We KNOW this is made more difficult by the broadcast media’s prejudice in favour of the status quo: the two old parties locking everyone else out of their cosy self-serving despotic world of power. Oh, the secret shady deals within those parties: how dare anyone suggest the LibDems would sink to those levels!

    You may notice that I have a bias in favour of the LibDems: actually, I support any under-dog which is unfairly positioned. I do not apologise for this: as my writings will only slightly redress the current imbalance!

    Broadcasters should report FACTS fairly; not fill all the available airtime with the bigoted opinions of partisan commentators.

    • inoljt says:

      Given that I’m from across the pond, I didn’t have much media access to Britain’s election coverage, so your description of the focus on a hung parliament sounds quite interesting to me.

      It’s quite ironic though, if what you say is true, that after all this time Britain ended up with a hung parliament after all. I was also quite surprised that the Liberal Democrats ended up underperforming their polls so much; I’m still not certain why. The poor Liberal Democrats, though; every election they get royally screwed by the first-past-the-post system.

      Thanks for commentating!

      • Flash says:

        an UPDATE:

        I am certain that our two-party-biased elections, resulting from the first-past-post system, generates an overwhelmingly negative voting pattern. By this I mean that electors are more intent on “keeping the other lot out”, than voting positively for a candidate/party they actually believe in.

        The expected LibDem support, as shown in earlier weeks’ polls, fell away after the UK’s two old parties used the usual anti-third-party scaremongering tactics: the politics of fear. They claim anything to stir up uncertainty about Lib Dem policies: like claiming the LibDems would give an amnesty to all illegal immigrants, or would leave the UK undefended against terrorism.
        LibDem policy is actually to try to bring long-term-resident illegals away from the hidden underworld economy of criminals, into the open tax-paying world. Labour and Tory policy has always been to deport all illegals; but only a few hundred, out of many hundreds of thousands estimated to be here, have ever been deported. The LibDem policy on revision/reduction of UK’s nuclear arsenal was ridiculed by Brown and Cameron, who refused to even include Trident’s future/replacement in next year’s scheduled Defence Review: they would keep pouring in billions we cannot afford!

        Then they claim bad things would definitely happen if we get a ‘hung’ parliament: mainly baed on the certainty of stockmarket colapse, and “a run on the pound”
        These slick sound-byte cliches are used repeatedly, at every opportunity (tacked on to answers to media questions on any subject at all), to frighten voters away from voting for LibDems. You have to understand that most ‘news’papers and satellite tv are owned by super-rich Tory activists; and the supposedly non-partisan terrestrial broadcasters almost invariably invite “expert” commentators from those newspapers’ columnists! Not surprisingly, they echo their Tory bosses’ opinions.

        I hope the “squeeze” on the third party vote-share is clearer for these comments: most frightened people seem to stick with the famliar, even ignoring their memories of lies, diappointment, sleaze, and corruption; from the last time the Conservatives were in power.

        Most people I have asked, about why they voted the way they did, actually say either “to keep the Tories out” or “to get Labour out”.

        In recent polls, 49% of voters said they would definitely vote LibDem if they thought they had a realistic chance of forming the government!

        Patently, only proportional representation can supply a real democracy here, or anywhere.
        Good luck on your side of the pond!

        Stop press!
        Cameron has become Prime Minister!
        Nick Clegg is Deputy PM
        A full Conservative-LibDem coalition is announced: dare we hope for electoral reform? Fingers crossed in hope! We all need hope!

    • Mark Thompson says:

      Look at Nick Clegg now – a complete and utter fraud.

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