The UK General Election of 2010 was held on the 6th May 2010, and might well be regarded as the General Election that nobody won. In the end it did result in a new government taking office, although quite possibly not quite the kind of government that anyone had expected.

Background

When Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on the 27th June 2007, it was clear that his plan was to make the most of his honeymoon period and go for snap election in the autumn. Unfortunately for Brown the wheels came off that particular bus fairly soon, and it became the election that never was. A succession of subsequent political scandals rather undermined Brown's electoral appeal, particularly once the shine came off Brown's so-called British Economic Miracle as the Global Banking Crisis plunged the nation into recession.

All of which meant that from the autumn of 2007 onwards, the assumption was that the General Election would be held on the 6th May 2010. Now this wasn't the absolute final date for the election, since Gordon Brown could have continued until the fifth anniversary of the previous General Election held on the 5th May 2005 and held the election a month later in June 2010. However within the UK, local elections are always held on the first Thursday in May, and it was generally believed that the General Election would therefore be called to coincide with the local elections scheduled for the 6th May 2010, if only because the Labour Party was rather short of money at the time and, in any case, given the previous experience of the local elections in 2008 and 2009, it appeared unlikely that Gordon Brown would want to begin a General Election campaign with the news of yet another electoral setback. There was, on occasions, some speculation that the Government might call an 'early' election, but nothing ever came of it, largely because the opinion polls continued to show a Conservative lead.

Thus the election campaign had been running for months even before the election itself was called, with an electoral phoney war that had only intensified since the beginning of the New Year. Indeed on the morning of the 5th April 2010, when the BBC announced that today would indeed be the day the election would be called, it even went so far as to inform the public what Gordon Brown would be saying one he'd done so. Mr Brown duly paid a visit to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II that morning, held a brief Cabinet meeting, and emerged from No 10 Downing Street at 10.49 am to announce the news of what even he referred to as the "least well-kept secret of recent years". Indeed it was such a badly kept secret that even as Mr Brown's motorcade was returning from Buckingham Palace, the Conservative Party leader David Cameron was outside County Hall on the banks of the Thames getting his campaign off the ground.

The Campaign

In the beginning the question was simply whether the Conservatives were 4% or 10% ahead of Labour, and thus whether or not the Conservatives would win enough seats to obtain a majority, or whether there'd be a hung parliament. The answer to this question appeared to reside in the fact that agreement had been reached, for the first time in British politics, to stage a series of three televised election debates between the party leaders, namely Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg. The first of these televised debates, broadcast on the 15th April 2010, came to be regarded by the media as what the pundits liked to call a 'game changer' as the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was judged to have been the runaway winner.

It was however suggested by those in the know, that Clegg's victory was simply part of a cunning Labour plan to promote the electoral fortunes of the Liberal Democrats at the expense of the Conservatives and thereby deny the latter an outright victory. The evidence in support of this proposition being that Brown took every opportunity during the debate to say "I agree with Nick", whilst both Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell were to be found in the post-debate melee going around telling every journalist they could find that Clegg had "won on style". Unfortunately, as was so often the case with 'cunning plans', this one went spectacularly wrong, as the resulting bout of Cleggmania resulted in a surge of support for the Liberal Democrats which drove Labour into third place. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the first debate some opinion polls even showed the Liberal Democrats ahead of both their rivals, and even though Cameron marginally came out ahead in the second debate, Clegg still held his own, which still left Labour trailing behind in third place, which was not the idea at all, thank you very much.

As a result, there was an about turn in the Labour campaign over the weekend of the 24th and 25th April, with the decision made to focus on policy and push Gordon Brown to the forefront of the campaign, and get him out on the street talking to ordinary voters. The result was perhaps the defining moment of the campaign when, on the 28th April, Brown spoke to a perfectly ordinary voter named Gillian Duffy on the streets of Rochdale, and was then recorded dismissing her as "just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour". (Brown had forgotten to remove his microphone, and apparently objected to Mrs Duffy asking him a question that touched on the issue of immigration.) The resulting media storm, which naturally became known as Bigotgate, seemed to put paid to any ideas of a Labour revival in the short term, particularly as Brown then failed to make much of an impression on the third leaders debate, which was in any case held to have been won by Cameron.

The batch of opinion polls that appeared over the Bank Holiday weekend variously showed a Conservative lead of between 4% and 10%, that is, back at square one again, with the exception that Labour and the Lib Dems appeared to be battling it out for the runner up spot. The consensus was however that the election remained "in the balance" as various opinion polls appeared in the following days that variously suggested that the Conservatives would either gain a small majority or fall short of their target.

The one point it might well be worth making regarding the campaign was that a number of pundits had greeted the news of the General Election with the predication that this would be the country's first truly digital election. Granted three candidates (two Labour and one Conservative) were disowned by their parties as a result of comments they had made online, but thanks to the leaders' debates and the Bigotgate scandal everyone soon realised that good old fashioned television and radio still had a lot going for them. Overall the Conservative Party ran a well managed and largely error-free campaign that nevertheless failed to generate much excitement; the Liberal Democrats did their best to exploit the opportunity provided by their increased exposure, whilst the Labour Party campaign was truly awful, verging on the incompetent, and seemed to be focussed on persuading their core vote to turn out above anything else.

See also; UK General Election Campaign 2010

The Battleground

The General Election of 2010 was fought on new constituency boundaries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; although in Scotland the boundaries were the same as they were in 2005. As a result of the reorganisation there were four more seats at stake in England, which meant that overall there were 650 seats up for grabs, as opposed to the 646 last time round.

According to Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University, (who were generally regarded as the experts at this sort of thing), had the 2005 election had been fought on these new boundaries then the Conservatives would have gained around twelve additional seats and Labour seven fewer. The notional starting point for the 2010 election was therefore Labour on 349 seats, the Conservatives on 209, the Liberal Democrats on 62, everybody else with 29 seats, and one Speaker of the House of Commons. From this baseline the Conservatives therefore needed to win 116 seats for a majority, which was more seats than they had won in any General Election since 1931; a task regarded by many as particularly challenging since the overall electoral landscape appeared to very much in favour of the Labour Party. Indeed, during the course of the campaign various political commentators and academic experts asserted that although the Labour Party might come third in terms of the popular vote, it could still come first in terms of seats.

Certainly all the final opinion polls which were published on the eve of the election appeared to confirm that a hung parliament was the most likely outcome. On average they predicted the result as Conservative 35.5%, Labour 27.5%, Liberal Democrats 27.5% and showed a Conservative lead of about 8%, which on a uniform national swing would have translated into a seat distribution of something like Conservatives 300, Labour 245 and Liberal Democrats 75. The bookmakers appeared to agree, as most of the money had gone on the 'no overall control' option, so much so in fact that Ladbrokes said that a hung parliament would be a "nightmare", as it would cost the firm £250,000. And over at Sporting Index they were quoting the seat spread as Conservative 317-322, Labour 212-217 and Liberal Democrats Seats 81-85 on the evening of the 6th May, so once again a hung parliament appeared to be in the offing.

As a result the general consensus was, in the words of The Independent, that David Cameron was "on course to become Prime Minister but will not win an overall majority" and that it promised to be the "tightest election in decades" as the Daily Telegraph put it. All of which led to a great deal of media speculation about what the Liberal Democrats would do in such an eventuality, much of which focussed on the prospect of a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, or whether Cameron would do a deal with the Unionists.

Of course both Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party had their own agendas, and indeed the respective political landscapes of both Wales and Scotland were significantly different, whilst Northern Ireland played by different rules altogether. The Green Party had their hopes of an electoral breakthrough and had their eyes set on Brighton Pavilion, Norwich South and Lewisham Deptford; the British National Party had their hopes for Barking and Stoke Central; the United Kingdom Independence Party believed that former party leader Nigel Farage could cause an upset against the Speaker in Buckingham; and even the English Democrats thought that they had a chance in Doncaster Central or the Don Valley. There were also a number of independents standing here and there in reaction to the MPs Expenses Scandal, including former television presenter Esther Ranzen who was standing in Luton South.

One interesting pointer to the election result came from Political Betting who noted that since 1945 every winning party leader at a General Election had been a graduate of the University of Oxford, with the notable exceptions of Winston Churchill and John Major, neither of whom had been to university at all, and this time round the only Oxford graduate on offer was one David Cameron.

The Count

The polls closed at 10.00 pm on the 6th May and shortly afterward the results of the NOP/MORI poll exit poll were published, which largely confirmed the picture shown by the opinion polls and predicted a hung parliament with the Conservatives winning 307 seats, Labour 255, and the Liberal Democrats 59, although shortly afterwards this was revised to 305-255-61. The one surprise was that the exit poll was predicting that the Liberal Democrats would lose seats, a prediction that seemed to be so against the grain of recent polls that it was rapidly dismissed. (Conservative blogger Iain Dale even promised to run naked down Whitehall if the Liberal Democrats won only 59 seats.)

As expected it was the three Sunderland seats that were the first to declare in the early hours of the Friday morning. All three were safe Labour seats and therefore no surprises were expected and none emerged, although the results did show a significant swing to the Conservatives of 8.4%, 11.5% and 4.8%. The declarations from two other Labour strongholds in the north-east also showed 9% swings to the Conservatives, and shortly after 1.00 am they won Kingswood from Labour on a 9% swing, all of which seemed to suggest that they were on their way to a majority. David Dimbeleby even announced that "I don't think that our exit poll is standing up that well", however by 2.15 am the Conservatives had failed to win both Gelding or Tooting, both of which appeared to be far easier targets than Kingswood, and both of which were on their 'must win' list.

Indeed, as far as the results were concerned, that was the story of the night. The Conservatives continued win some seats with significant swings, such as Redditch where Jacqui Smith was comprehensively trounced, but there were other seats which they needed to win where Labour succeeded in grimly hanging on. The BBC spent most of the early hours of the Friday morning complaining that there was no clear pattern in the results and that they had no idea of what was going to happen, and declined to make any updated prediction of the final result simply because the results were so confusing. Eventually by about 3.30 am the BBC decided that the exit poll was right after all, and in their subsequent coverage decided that it would indeed be a hung parliament.

The other story of the night was the series of reports of voters queuing outside polling stations and complaints that some polling stations had closed their doors at 10.00 pm leaving hundreds of disappointed voters outside. There were also reports that a polling station in Liverpool had run out of ballot papers, and that another one in Chester was using an outdated version of the electoral register and turning away perfectly legitimate voters. Given that the British liked to think they had 'invented' democracy, this was all highly embarrassing as the Electoral Commission promised a thorough investigation, and there was even talk that some results might be the subject of a legal challenge. According to Jenny Watson, the head of the Electoral Commission, the problem was the antiquated polling system which was "largely a legacy of the Victorian era", although as others pointed out, the antiquated system in question had worked perfectly well before with much higher levels of turnout, and what's more, worked perfectly well without the benefit of an Electoral Commission supposedly overseeing matters.

At the very least, footage of eager voters queuing outside polling stations, followed by clips of outraged citizens complaining at their disenfranchisement, provided some distraction during the small hours of the morning. With a hung parliament now apparently a certainty, it seemed that the Conservatives would be the largest party, although the exact balance of power in the new Parliament was still in question. Indeed the position was so unclear that although the BBC had originally planned to end their election coverage at 6.00 am on the assumption that the result would be clear by now, it decided to continue until 9.00 before finally switching over to its Breakfast Election Special.

One of the difficulties was that a number of counts were delayed because of the higher turnout; another was that some seats were subject to recounts, whilst there were a number of seats where it had already been decided to hold the count on the Friday in any case. It wasn't until shortly before 7.00 pm on the Friday that final result for Devon West and Torridge appeared, and even then it wasn't clear what shape the future government of the nation would take.

The final result was Conservative 305, Labour 258, Liberal Democrats 57, others 28 and one Speaker. At which point it would be worth noting that the original NOP/MORI exit poll prediction was Conservative 307, Labour 255, Liberal Democrats 59, and therefore might well be regarded as bang on the money. As far as the share of the national vote was concerned, the Conservative 36% had against Labour's 29% with 23% for the Liberal Democrats and 12% for everyone else. Given that the opinion polls had predicted the outcome at Conservative 36% Labour 28% and Liberal Democrat 28% they were reasonably happy, although no doubt concerned as to how they'd managed to overstate Liberal Democrat support, and happiest of the lot would be Ipsos MORI, who could claim that their call of 36%-29%-27% was the closest of them all.

The Result

Obviously the Labour Party were the overall losers. They won Chesterfield from the Liberal Democrats, and regained both Blaenau Gwent and Bethnal Green and Bow from sundry Labour splinter groups, recovered a couple of by-election losses in Scotland, but overall they lost 91 seats and recorded their second worst national vote share since the war.

The story of the election was however the Liberal Democrats surge that never was. After all, the expectation was that Nick Clegg, the most popular party leader since Winston Churchill, would make significant gains on behalf of his party, but in the end they lost five seats overall. "Disappointing" was Clegg's judgement on his party's performance. Granted the Liberal Democrats made some gains from Labour such as Burnley and Redcar, won both Eastbourne and Wells from the Conservatives, and held on determinedly to a number of supposedly marginal seats. But they also suffered some spectacular losses, and failed to prevent the Conservatives from making inroads elsewhere. And whilst they had managed to increase their share of the vote from 22% to 23%, this was nevertheless disappointing when compared to their opinion poll rating of 26%-29%.

As far as the other parties were concerned, the Scottish National Party failed to make any progress towards their target of twenty seats; Plaid Cymru won Arfon but otherwise failed to make any significant progress; and there was no joy for the British National Party, the English Democrats or the United Kingdom Independence Party. The happiest of all were the Green Party who made their breakthrough and won their first ever seat at Brighton Pavilion. They also doubled their vote in Norwich South, another of their fancied seats, although their overall share of the national vote was marginally down. Indeed it would be worth noting that the 285,000 or so that voted nationally for the Green Party were considerably less than the 560,000 who voted for the British National Party and the 920,000 who voted for the United Kingdom Independence Party.

As far as the Conservative Party as concerned, they made "significant gains" in Wales, although perhaps they might have hoped to have won a few more seats, whilst in Scotland they came away with just the same single seat they managed five years before. Of course thanks to a much better performance in England, they did win 97 seats which was, historically speaking, a record number in the post war period, but was still some way short of the 116 seats they needed for a majority. It was however, a close run thing, for as Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher later calculated, had the party gained "just 16,000 extra votes ... in the nineteen constituencies in which the party came closest to winning" then a majority would have been theirs.

David Cameron said that the Labour Party had "lost its mandate to govern". Which was perfectly correct, the only trouble was that no one else had won the mandate to govern. Indeed the parliamentary arithmetic was such that no one quite knew what would happen next. Had the Conservatives won something like 320 seats they could have formed a minority government with little difficulty; had they won something in excess of 310 seats then they would have had the option of establishing an understanding with the Unionists. As it was their total of 305 seats (with a probable one more to come) left open the possibility that Labour might still yet succeed in remaining in government courtesy of a deal with the Liberal Democrats and sundry other minority parties.

So it was that the fat lady refused to sing on the Friday and for a number of days afterwards. Talks began between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats with a view to forming at least some kind of understanding that would permit David Cameron to take office. Over the weekend of the 8th and 9th May these talks appeared to be progressing satisfactorily, if rather slowly, and some kind of resolution was anticipated on by Monday 10th May. Then, on the following day, Gordon Brown announced his intention to step down as Leader of the Labour Party, and did so in the belief that this would facilitate a deal with the Liberal Democrats. For one brief moment on the Tuesday it looked as if a Labour-Liberal Democrat pact was in the offing, based on a promise by Labour to speed up the pace of electoral reform. It soon became clear however that Labour would be unable to deliver on its promises, as splits appeared within the Labour ranks.

It therefore became clear during the late afternoon of the 11th May that the Liberal Democrats would be supporting a Conservative government and so at 7.20 pm Gordon Brown that evening resigned as Prime Minister. By 8.35 pm David Cameron had paid the customary visit to Buckingham Palace and was confirmed as the new Prime Minister. The one big surprise was that he did so not as the head of a minority Conservative government supported by the Liberal Democrats on a 'supply and confidence' basis, but rather as the head of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that featured Nick Clegg as the Deputy Prime Minister and four other Liberal Democrat cabinet members.

See also; The Formation of the British Government May 2010

The other highlights

The most notable casualties of the election were perhaps Peter Robinson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who lost his seat at Belfast East, and Lembit Öpik who was booted out of Montgomeryshire on a swing of 13.2%. Given that this was supposed to be one of the safest Liberal Democrat seats in the country this was generally regarded as something of a shock result. (Although some of us had always thought that Opik would be punished by his constituents for getting engaged to a perfectly decent Welsh girl, and then dumping her in favour of some Romanian floozy.) Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, also lost his seat to the Liberal Democrats, although Ed Balls managed to hang on in Morley and Outwood, dashing the hopes of many Conservatives who were looking forward to their own version of that Portillo moment, and Michelle Gildernew won Fermanagh and South Tyrone for Sinn Féin by a margin of only four votes. And despite the MPs' Expense Scandal not a single independent got anywhere near winning a seat.


Note 1 - The final opinion poll predictions

  • Harris - CON 36%, LAB 26%, LDEM 28%
  • Opinium - CON 35%, LAB 27%, LDEM 26%
  • Populus – CON 37%, LAB 28%, LDEM 27%
  • ComRes – CON 37%, LAB 28%, LDEM 28%
  • ICM – CON 36%, LAB 28%, LDEM 26%
  • YouGov – CON 35%, LAB 28%, LDEM 28%
  • Ipsos MORI - CON 36%, LAB 29%, LDEM 27%
  • TNS BMRB – CON 33%, LAB 27%, LDEM 29%
  • Angus Reid – CON 36%, LAB 24%, LDEM 29%

Note 2 - The overall party results

  PARTY          SEATS     VOTES        %

Conservative      305	 10,683,787	 36.00
Labour            258	  8,604,358	 29.00
Liberal Democrat   57	  6,827,938	 23.00
Green               1	    285,616	  1.00
Speaker             1	     22,860	  0.05

DUP                 8	    168,216	  0.60
SDLP                3	    110,970	  0.40
Alliance Party      1	     42,762	  0.10
Sinn Fein           5	    171,942	  0.60
Independent         1	     21,181	  0.05
			
Plaid Cymru         3	    165,394	  0.60
SNP                 6	    491,386	  1.70
			
Others                 2,057,228	  6.90
			
TOTAL             649 29,653,638      100.00

DUP -Democratic Unionist Party
SDLP - Social Democratic and Labour Party
SNP - Scottish National Party

The turnout was 65.2%, up from 61.4% in 2005, but still well down on the 70% plus seen in 1997 and before.

Only 649 seats were decided as the poll in the constituency of Thirsk and Malton was delayed until the 27th May, following the death of the UKIP candidate John Boakes. (Although as the seat was about as rock-solid Conservative as you could get, there would be little doubt as to the result.)

A number of news sources such as the BBC gave the Conservatives 306 seats. The Times however insisted that it should be 305 seats, since John Bercow might well have won in Buckingham, but he did so as the Speaker of the House of Commons rather than as the Conservative candidate, and therefore should not be included in the party totals.


SOURCES

Based on watching the BBC Election coverage from 10.00 pm on Thursday until 8.00 am on the Friday, and intermittently throughout the rest of the Friday and reading a lot of online news reports.

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