Liberal Democrats Sensational Surge in the 2010 British General Election: Multi-Party Politics in a Two-Party System

by Krist Novoselić (December 26, 2012)

The following examines the Liberal Democrats (LD) role in the 2010 British general election. That year’s election is widely considered a remarkable event (Quinn, 2011, p. 403) with the surge, in the media, of the LDP. The party’s surge was triggered by unique events such as the country’s first-ever televised leadership debate, where LD leader Nick Clegg stood among the two other leaders of the UK’s main parties. Clegg made a good impression on voters, along with a sensational splash in the media. The leader’s approval ratings soared. The press was clamoring for or against the party and its leader. Thus the phenomenon of “Clegg-mania” started.

The traditional hegemony of the Labour and Conservative parties appeared to be challenged (Parry, Richardson 2011, p. 474). It was obviously a multi-party election, while at the same time, due to the UK’s voting arrangement, certain aspects of a two-party system influenced how parties campaigned and, ultimately, how many seats they were able to win. This paper will provide the evidence that elections in the UK share tendencies of both two-party and multi-party systems.

Like alter egos, British voting rules exhibit distinct personalities depending on the situation: Under one circumstance, elections act like a two-party system, and in another they’re behaving as a multi-party system. The evidence will reveal how the dichotomous features affect campaigning between candidates and influences how voters make their choices on the ballot. Two-party election dynamics also bias seat allocations with Labour reaping the greatest benefit.

Liberal Democrats are not a minor-party in British politics, rather, the election rules penalize them distant third-place with seats won in Westminster. Because they can usually garner a quarter of the national vote, this kind of result tells us clearly the LD are really one of the three main-parties in the multi-party UK1.

The LD are the current manifestation of a longstanding tradition of organized liberalism in Great Britain. The party is dominant in local elections. I will look at this micro political aspect and how it affects LD performance in the multi-party portion of the UK’s national politics. Public financing of opposition parties also plays a role in sustaining the multi-party dynamic.

The 2010 vote was notable for being a multi-party general election that produced the first peacetime coalition government since 1929. Clegg-mania was truly remarkable as it produced an unprecedented Liberal Democrat media splash. However, beyond the resulting coalition and hype, the election produced vote totals and seat allocations very similar to traditional Liberal performance in various elections over the past century. In 2010, it seemed the more things changed, the more they stayed the same (Cutts, Fieldhouse, Russel, 2010, p. 703). I conclude the 2010 election results will have set the stage for multi-party type politics dominating the next campaign season.


UK television viewers watched the first ever party leaders debate on April 15, 2010. It was unprecedented to have a US style debate. However, this wasn’t a square off between only the dominant rival Conservatives and Labour. Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg, stood alongside the other main party leaders. With three candidates on stage, as plain as day, it was a multi-party election. During the proceedings Clegg established himself and his party as separate from the respective Labour and Conservative parties. In his opening statement, he referred to his opponents as, “the old parties”. During the 90 minute debate, Clegg went on to tag Tory David Cameron and Labour’s Gordon Brown, as, “you two”, “both major parties” and “they” among other rhetorical insinuations. This served to distinguish himself from his opponents along with challenging the traditional two-party hegemony of the Labour and Conservative parties. “It was from this initial exposure, enhanced by his confident performance, that so-called ‘Clegg-mania’ developed” (Parry, Richardson 2011, p. 476). Clegg’s rhetorical equidistance on television resulted in a next day YouGov/Sun poll (2010) giving the LD second place, behind Conservatives with 30 percent voter approval. Clegg’s prime-time performance resulted in an approval rating rising from the 40s since May 2009 to 77 percent right after the debate (Cutts, Fieldhouse, Russell 2010, p. 691). Clearly, polling in the period immediately after the debate is reflective of a multi-party democracy.

Reactions to Clegg’s performance and the resulting high polling numbers were strong among the press. Parry and Richardson offer a scholarly account of how sensational traditional media printed snarky neologisms such as Cleggwagon, Cleggphoria, Cleggacy and Cleggolatry (479). These researchers found another distinction of the season’s media bandwagon with new diminutive terms such as Clegglet, Cleggie and The Cleggster. Immediate polling, along with the party’s history, tell the Liberal Democrats are really one of the three main parties. That said, there was a particularity as far as writers throwing mocking terms around. These scholars discovered that the other main-party leaders didn’t suffer anything approaching this level of intensity. It seems like the press, accustomed to two-party hegemony in Westminster, made much copy out of the novel LD surge in the polls and how the reality of a multi-party election captured the imagination of many British voters. For better or worse, Clegg and LD, in the multi-party system, did indeed stand apart from, “the old parties”. It has been said that any press is good press, however, similar to two-party system institutional hurdles that hound the party, piles of newsprint didn’t transfer to piles of ballots giving the main-party LD a larger share of seats in the House of Commons.

For all of its successes in national elections during the last forty years, the specter of the UK’s two-party voting system has always loomed over the Liberals. There are 650 seats in the House of Commons. Each of these seats is contested in a single-member district (constituency) with the candidate who wins the most votes there getting elected – hence the term First-Past-The-Post (FPTP). Another term for this kind of plurality election is Winner-Take-All. This kind of electoral arrangement tends to produce a two-party system (Durverger, 1972). At the same time, as mentioned with the high-profile televised leaders debate and its effect on the campaign, UK elections are still multi-party affairs.

Having parallel systems can produce distortions that tend to penalize the LD. For example, usually garnering a national total of near one quarter of the votes in recent elections, without exception, the Liberals get a poor return on votes-to-seats ratios. In 2010 specifically, even with all of the Clegg-mania campaign exposure, the LD garnered 23 percent of the national vote but gained only 9 percent of the seats in parliament. In fact, they earned one percent above their 2005 vote total but the party lost five of its seats in parliament!

It is an age-old problem of the Liberal vote being too evenly spread around the country while concentrations of respective Labour or Conservative voters can dominate a single-member constituency. These biases are so strong that even if Labour and Conservatives had tied in 2010 as the national top two vote getters, the former would have still won 54 more seats than the latter (Pattie and Johnston 2010, p. 486). This margin is almost the same as all of the 57 seats won by the LD that year!

Even changing the rules to Ranked Choice Voting tabulations2 does not surmount the potency of the single-member district problem facing Liberal Democrats. In a simulated RCV election using the 2010 election data, (Sanders, Clarke, Stewart, Whiteley 2011, p. 19) the LD could have won 89 seats. That said, the researchers state, “[U]nlike other electoral reforms, AV fails to produce anything approaching genuine proportional representation in national assembly elections”. Considering the how the election rules penalize them, it should be no wonder that proportional representation (PR) is central within Liberal Democrats policy proposals. Unlike First-Past-The-Post, PR does not slow down the development of new parties (Durverger 1972, p. 3). Under a pure PR system, with 23 percent of the national vote, the party would have won 149 seats in the House of Commons3.

Even with FPTP in single-member constituencies, over the years the UK has changed from a two-party system into more of a multi-party one. For example, in the 1950s the Conservative and Labour parties together would win 91 percent of all the votes cast (Johnston and Pattie 2011, p. 18). In 2010, they together won 69 percent. These researchers demonstrate how the UK can still be a two-party system – it just depends on what two parties you are considering. The study shows how the 2010 election was various two-party contests fought among the three main parties. For example, Labour and Conservatives were the top two contenders in 286 constituencies. LD and Conservatives were top two in 203 constituencies. LD and Labour were top two in 95 constituencies. Regional / nationalist parties can dominate constituencies in Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland. Minor parties all together won a record 11.9 percent of the national vote. The Green party won its first ever seat in parliament making for a total of 11 different parties in the multi-party House of Commons (Quinn, 2011 p. 409).

No matter what two parties are in the top two of an electoral contest in a constituency, as Durverger (1972) observes, “[A] majority vote on one ballot is conductive to a two-party-system” (1). Durverger identifies the phenomenon as a matter of voters looking for a value on their ballot. This can manifest in favor of Liberal Democrats where their main rival in a constituency is the Conservative candidate. Research of the 2010 election indentifies tactical voting, “Where Labour was not in contention, Labour supporters were disproportionally likely to vote Liberal Democrats in an attempt to keep Conservative candidates out” (Pattie and Johnson, 2010, p. 482). The researchers also found in constituencies where the top two were Labour and LD, many Conservative voters chose the latter. Here we find Liberal Democrats in the perfect center with Tory supporters using them as a vote against Labour, or Labour voters blocking Conservatives by way of choosing LD on the ballot. Therefore, tactical voting with FPTP in single-member constituencies can offer some benefits to the LD.

With the two-party dynamic in various constituencies, at the same time the features of multi-party politics can also affect tactical voting considerations. Clegg-mania made the possibility of a hung parliament apparent during the election. It was reported that even the possibility of a Conservative / LD ruling coalition would put off disillusioned former Labour voters (Macintrye, 2010). Clegg announcements regarding potential coalitions affected voter opinion. “[B]y expressing a preference for working with whoever was the larger party (most likely the Conservatives) and for not working with [Labour leader] Brown, Clegg sent a signal to Labour voters that a centre-left alliance was an unlikely result even if they tactically supported the Liberal Democrats” (Cutts, Fieldhouse, Russell 2010, 704). These researchers also say that soft Labour or ‘floating voters’ from the center-left were “put off” from casting an LD vote. Therefore, considerations of potential ruling coalitions, concepts usually associated with multi-party politics, gave some Labour voters pause before they cast any tactical ballot that would have benefitted the LD.


The demands of being a major player in British politics call for a professional parliamentary party. Public policy in the United Kingdom can foster multi-party politics. The 1997 general election was a true breakthrough for the party with the Liberal Democrats winning 46 seats – doubling their ministers in parliament. This allowed for a significant increase in public funding. Public financing of certain parliament parties is called Short Money; which assists an opposition party in carrying out its Parliamentary business, funding for the opposition parties’ travel and associated expenses and funding for the running costs of the Leader of the Opposition’s office (Kelly 2012).

As its namesake Edward Short said in 1974, “A more immediate need is to provide additional support for the opposition parties in Parliament - support which they certainly require if they are to play their full part here” (Kelly 2012 p. 8). Mr. Short states “parties” in plural to acknowledge, even back then, the reality of multi-party politics. He even offers a public program to better accommodate the situation.

Public funding led to the creation of the Parliamentary Office of the Liberal Democrats (POLD). POLD then hired specialist researchers from outside the organization and increased the party’s press office. This branch of the LD employs more than half of the party’s staff (Evans, Sanderson-Nash 2011, p. 464).

While this parliamentary party is an operation of paid professionals, there is also a strong grassroots structure written into its by-laws. Liberal Democrats are unique among the three main parties with their democratic policy-making structure (Parry & Richardson, 2011, p. 467). This dynamic places them on the ground helping their focus on local politics. In the 1970s, Liberals started implementing a strategy of “pavement politics”; winning them many seats on local councils. In the 1990s, the Liberal Democrats were the second party of local government where, in many urban areas, they were the only opposition to Labour (Liberal Democrat History Group, 2007). These successes on the local level have generated greater electoral credibility among voters serving as a platform to capture parliamentary seats (Cutts, 2012, p. 101). These micro level pavement politics certainly have a role in the national multi-party situation.


The 2010 British general election was sensational, but in the end produced similar results like years past. Typical patterns were reinforced exhibiting features of both two-party and multi-party systems. This parallel affected how parties campaigned and how voters, through tactical decisions, cast their votes. The three main parties fought two-party races in various constituencies while at the same time; the election produced a multi-party result with a coalition ruling government.

Conservatives were resurgent but still could not win a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Tories then formed a coalition government with Liberal Democrats. As a result, Nick Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister – sitting next the PM Cameron in the House chamber. Even though votes-to-seats distortions penalized the LD once again, their compensation as one of the main parties occupying the center is being part of the ruling government. As such, Clegg can no longer point to leaders of the other main parties as “you two” or “them”. Liberal Democrats are now accountable, with Conservatives, for the choices made with dominating issues such as current economic austerity policies. Out of opposition, both ruling partners have lost their Short Money. Being a coalition, the LD have brought things to the partnership, and in doing so are pulling the government towards the left on issues such as climate change. For example, there is currently a Cabinet position of Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change held by a Liberal Democrat MP. These types of compromises among ruling coalitions are another result of multi-party politics.

If the coalition holds, the UK is mid-way to the 2015 election. At the next televised leaders debate, the Labour head will likely be referring at Cameron and Clegg as “you two”. The “remarkable” election of 2010 will then spawn another “remarkable” round of voting; one where all three parties will have recent experience at governing and, in turn, fold that into their respective campaigns. So goes a multi-party system – albeit one with two-party tendencies.


Cutts, D. (2012) Yet Another False Dawn? An Examination of the Liberal Democrats’ Performance in the 2010 General Election” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations VOL 14, (2012) 96–114

Cutts, D., Fieldhouse, E., Russell, A., (2010) The Campaign That Changed Everything and Still Did Not Matter? The Liberal Democrat Campaign and Performance. Parliamentary Affairs, 65 (4) 689-707

Durverger, M., (1972) Factors in a Two-Party and Multiparty System. ­Party Politics and Pressure Groups 23-32

Evans, E., Sanderson-Nash, E. “From Sandals to Suits: Professionalisation, Coalition and the Liberal Democrats”

The British Journal of Politics and International Relations: VOL 13, (2011) 459–473

Johnston, R., Pattie, C. “The British general election of 2010: a three-party contest – or three two-party contests?” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 177, No. 1, (Mar. 2011) 17–26

Kelley, R., (2012). House of Commons Library: Short Money (SN/PC/01663) Parliament and Constitution Centre

Liberal Democrat History Group (2007, July 1) A concise history of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats.

Macintyre, J. (2010, January 25) See-sawing Clegg must decide. New Statesman 14

Parry, K., Richardson, K. “Political Imagery in the British General Election of 2010: The Curious Case of ‘Nick Clegg’” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations VOL 13 (2011) 474–489

Pattie, C.J., Johnston, R.J, (2010) Constituency campaigning and local contests at the 2010 UK General Election. British Politics 5 (4) 481-505

Quinn, T. “From New Labour to New Politics: The British General Election of 2010” West European Politics, Vol. 34, No. 2, (Mar. 2011) 403–411

Sanders, D., Clarke, H.D., Stewart, M.C., Whiteley, P. (2011) Simulating the Effects of the Alternative Vote in the 2010 UK General Election. Parliamentary Affairs, 64 (1) 5-23

The Electoral Commission. UK general election 2010,

UK Polling Report Survey and polling news from YouGov’s Anthony Wells. 2005-2010 Polls You Gov:


1. [The Conservatives and Labour, respectively, each garner a third of the national vote.]

2. [Ranked Choice Voting is called "Alternative Vote" in the UK. It is a ballot where voters rank preferences. Tabulations simulate multiple runoffs until a candidate wins 50% +1 of the preferences.]

3. [149 is offered considering the FPTP in single-member district rules. An election conducted under purely proportional rules could produce different outcomes.]

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