Friday 7 May 2010

The best historical precedent for election 2010 is 1910

Most discussions of three-party precedents have discussed the elections of the 1920s. But the closest match to the unusual election of 2010 may well be the General Elections of January 1910 (which led to a second election in December, with a close to identical result).

There are several resemblances in the overall shape of the result - and this was also the election at which constitutional reform was more prominent than it has ever been before or since.

* The Liberal government lost 123 seats.

* The Conservative and Unionist opposition gained 110 seats.

* The Conservatives won the popular vote comfortably with 46.8% with the Liberals on 43.5% - but the seats were practically neck and neck, with 272 seats for the Tories and 274 for the Liberals.

* The smaller Labour party made 11 gains to rise to 40 MPs, while the Irish parties held 80 seats.

With their support, the Liberals continued in government.

And that is how Britain moved in the 1909-11 crisis from being a semi-democracy constrained by a feudal aristocratic veto - used for partisan purposes - to becoming a modern 20th century democracy.

There were, however, potentially some key differences between 1910 and 2010.

The Labour and Irish parties determined their alliances on the policy principles of the issues at stake in the election. Neither thought of employing the first-past-the-post thinking which Nick Clegg has outlined about the moral right to have the first opportunity to form a government.

1910 was a triumph for Liberalism. But it was a triumph made possible by a progressive Lib-Lab alliance. The Tories had a plurality of the popular vote in both 1910 elections, and were tied for seats. The Labour party did not ask which party had most votes or seats, but chose its alliances in that hung Parliament on values and principles. That alliance achieved a historic democratic breakthrough on which the later legislative achievements of Labour governments also depended.

And there was another difference in 1910. Instead of tactical voting guides attempting to engineer an unpredictable outcome, it was Labour and Liberal cooperation which prevented the Conservatives from getting a majority of seats in the first place by restricting the number of three-cornered contests to 35.

As Martin Pugh writes in his new history of the Labour Party, 'Speak for Britain!'

The leaders recognised that, quite apart from safeguarding the party's own electoral interests, the pact made complete sense from the national perspective. The Conservatives, who had pushed their share of the vote to over 46 per cent, would have won an overall majority of seats if Labour and the Liberals had not severely restricted the number of three-cornered contests. As a minority government, the Liberals were now dependent on the votes of the forty-two Labour members to enact reforming legislation especially as the eighty Irish were not always reliable.

That is a very good example of my broader claim that almost all of the great progressive advances of British political history have arisen from various forms of Liberal-Labour cooperation - but that the right has dominated when the Liberal and Labour traditions are set against each other.

A century on, a change in the voting system would be the most significant political reform since 1911.

Perhaps that possibility remains today, yet it seems odds against that a post-election alliance will now prevent a Conservative government so that political reform might also result from the General Election of 2010.

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