The 2010 general election in historical perspective

John Curtice, well-known psephologist and one of the relatively few political academics to take the trouble to study and understand the Liberal Democrats, has published his analysis of the 2010 election from a Lib Dem point of view.

Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Liberal History, he looks at why the Liberal Democrat ‘surge’ eventually failed to deliver and why the party’s natural disappointment at the result may be masking what was in reality an impressive result – the second best, in terms of seats, since 1929, and the second best, in terms of votes, since 1923.

However, the party’s targeting strategy went backwards – the Lib Dem vote advanced most strongly in seats where it was least likely to bring the party a reward, and actually fell back somewhat in those seats it was attempting to defend. The party also found it easier to gain ground in seats where the Conservative vote was higher than the Labour one.

Curtice also looks at the increasing polarisation of the British electorate in terms of the Labour and Conservative vote, and the accompanying fall in the number of marginal seats. ‘So the hung parliament in 2010 was not a one-off accident’, he concludes. ‘It was the product of long-term and now well-established changes in the electoral geography of Britain. As a result, even if the alternative vote were not to be introduced, hung parliaments could well still be quite common in future – potentially giving the Liberal Democrats new opportunities to exercise leverage to have the system changed even if the vote next May is lost.’

Fringe meeting on Sunday

John Curtice will be speaking at the Liberal Democrat History Group fringe meeting at the Liverpool conference, ‘The 2010 election in historical perspective’, on Sunday 19 September, 8.00 – 9.15pm, in the Grace Suite 3, Hilton Hotel; the other speakers are Professor Dennis Kavanagh and James Gurling (Chair, Lib Dems Campaigns & Communications).

You can buy the issue of the Journal of Liberal History which contains the article from the Lib Dem History Group stand in the exhibition at Liverpool (for £6) – or, better still, subscribe for the whole year (for £20, and you’ll get another four issues), either at the stand, or via our website at

Duncan Brack is editor of the Journal of Liberal History.

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This entry was posted in Conference.


  • ” The party also found it easier to gain ground in seats where the Conservative vote was higher than the Labour one.”

    Id est , the Liberal Democrats found is easier to gain seats in constituencies where they were seen as having a greater chance than Labour of keeping the Conservatives out. How ironic.

    Or is is just me?

  • The party did not have enough activists on the ground to get the vote out.Labour activists were out in force getting every potential labour voter out to vote.To win more seats and influence Lib Dems must build on their membership base.We need to draw more people from different parts of the society such as ethnic minorities and white working class.Without a mass membership we will struggle to translate votes into seats.

  • YouHaveNoIdea. 19th Sep '10 - 1:04pm

    So ‘Hung parliaments are to become a common experience/’. This will suit Lib Dems no end then, one minute one thing? then the next, another? Back and forth like their principles and policies, defending and promoting only those that support their own non-mandated power base! A ‘Leverage of Self Interest for every Occasion’ . How sad the future looks from the perspective of Curtice. No point in showing where his analysis is wrong as more and more Lib Dems continue to make it up as they go along?.

  • Duncan Brack 19th Sep '10 - 2:27pm

    On Daan’s comment, no, his conclusion is wrong. It wasn’t about whether the Lib Dems were better placed than Labour to beat the Conservatives. The LIb Dem vote went up most where the Tories were ahead of Labour, even where the Lib Dems were in third place.

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