A look at seats gained by the three main parties in General Elections since 1945

Seats won by the three main parties in General Elections since 1945

Seats won by the three main parties in General Elections since 1945

History is often used when pundits start playing guessing games about elections. I am guilty of this too, using vote share precedent to suggest that the Conservative numbers are likely to fall in 2015. Likely, but this is not assured. One thing is true, each General Election is unique and as such precedent has only so much value.

Vote share may be important in establishing mandate, but it is not the critical statistic. It is the number of seats gained – which often bears only a passing resemblance to vote share.

Since the end of the Second World War the Government of the day has increased the number of seats it has on five occasions: 1955, 1959, 1966, October 1974, and 1983. Since there have been eighteen General Elections in this period this means the Government has improved its presence in the House of Commons in fewer than one in three occasions.

This will not cheer Mr Cameron. What might, though, is that there has only been one one-term Government during this period (Ted Heath: 1970 – 1974), although its successor barely exceeded five years (Wilson/Callaghan: February 1974 – May 1979).

The brief Lib-Lab pact in 1974 resulted in the biggest party (Labour) increasing the number of seats when they sought a fresh mandate. However, this fresh mandate was given a mere eight months after the pact was formed, whilst the current coalition will have given voters five years to judge its performance.

Since 1997 the third party, the Liberal Democrats, have won forty-plus seats. The intelligent guess-work suggest this will reduce to 1980s levels – a chunk of their support will find it difficult to forgive Clegg for jumping in bed with the Tories.

Many I have spoken to are suggesting another hung Parliament – although this is difficult to deliberately engineer. Again, history would suggest this is unlikely (only twice since 1945 has this happened), but with a fourth party now polling regularly in the teens we are clearly in new territory. British voters, it used be said, liked strong Government – hence their preference for an electoral system that normally guaranteed a decisive result. It is entirely possible that Labour could get a majority with only about a third of voters choosing them – a sustained UKIP presence could do enough damage to the Conservative vote to make this a reality. This would be a perverse result – and make those of us wanting a voting system reflecting our increasingly pluralistic politics would feel emboldened. I wonder whether some Conservatives are reconsidering their opposition to AV.

There is all to play for, and the most recent polls have shown that it is nip-and-tuck between Labour and the Conservatives. No-one can say for sure what will happen in seven months time – but if the numbers do not change then a Labour Prime Minister is the most likely outcome – and if is a majority Labour Government that majority will probably be slim.

Lab Con Lib
1945 393 197 12
1950 315 282 9
1951 295 321 6
1955 277 345 6
1959 258 365 6
1964 317 304 9
1966 364 253 12
1970 288 330 6
Feb-74 301 297 14
Oct-74 319 277 13
1979 269 339 11
1983 209 397 23
1987 229 376 22
1992 271 336 20
1997 418 165 46
2001 413 166 52
2005 355 198 62
2010 258 306 57


3 Responses to A look at seats gained by the three main parties in General Elections since 1945

  1. Tony Cox says:

    I don’t regret not supporting AV but it does seem boundary equalisation is now vitally I portant. If to take the latest You Gov poll which gives the Conservatives a 2% lead! this would translate into 299 Seats for the Conservatives and 313 for Labour! How is that fair under the present system.

  2. Tony: I think you are deliberately ignoring the issue of differential turnout; this is the phenomena where Labour voters are less inclined to turn out.

    But, I do think we need equal sized constituencies – but done properly. Your Government’s proposals here were nothing less than an attempt to rig the election.

  3. Equal sized constituencies are impractical until planning laws ensure that we have equal sized communities!

    The proposals that the Liberals eventually blocked (through pique rather than principal) were thoroughly flawed. The +/- 5% of average role meant that natural communities got artificially split and some wards got transferred across county (and council) boundaries. All to get a “theoretical equality” – which is still meaningless under the distortions created by First Past the Post (FPTP).

    Then to maintain this fake equality you would always be tinkering with the boundaries. So much for the “Constituency Link” as the argument that Conservatives trot out in support of FPTP and against STV (Single Transferable Vote). You will end up with people not knowing what constituency they are in – never mind not knowing their MP. (And remember – if “the people” do not know you – you are deemed “unaccountable” and will be replaced with a commissioner!) Effectively representing say a single Northumberland ward when the rest of your parliamentary constituency is in Durham is next to impossible – it will take a share of your attention out of all proportion and means that you will comparatively neglect the rest of your constituents (who in theory are probably the ones who will re-elect you – or not). Unnatural constantly varying constituencies will also be a nightmare for local political organisation!

    (Perhaps the Conservatives see elections merely as means to gain a parliamentary majority and not as a means of representation. If you look at it from a position of “equality of representation”, you might argue that a sparsely populated constituency should have fewer electors to compensate for the extra time that the MP will spend travelling around it to effectively represent it and manage their case work.)

    What many fail to realise is that STV (with the normal multi-member constituencies) would achieve much of what the Conservatives want in terms of equal sized constituencies. Constituencies would be the “natural communities” of metropolitan areas (e.g. Newcastle), large boroughs (e.g. Croydon) , small counties (e.g. Northumberland), or with populous counties some form of natural division (e.g. East and West Surrey). You then allocate 3, 4 or 5 seats according to population, with trigger populations that determine when a constituency loses or gains a seat – to maintain approximate equality. (Not as close as +/- 5%, but over the country any party advantage or disadvantage will probably even out.)

    Determining constituencies should be about more than just trying to gain (and maintain) an equal number of voters.

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