Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Geographies of voting

With a hung parliament the outcome of the May 2010 UK General Election, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats emerged holding the balance of power – albeit less decisively than expected, with a Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition needing to be supplemented with smaller parties to attain a majority. Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats’ long-held objective of putting a referendum on some form of proportional representation to the British public appeared tantalisingly close. The election results demonstrated again why proportional representation is a core Liberal Democrat demand: having increased their vote from 22.1% in 2005 to 23%, they actually lost seats, declining to 57 MPs – a mere 9% of the 650 in the new parliament. In the 2010 election the Conservatives attained a higher share of the vote than Labour had in 2005 – yet while Labour had turned that vote share into a substantial majority, the Conservatives in 2010 were the largest party, but well short of a majority.

The disproportionality inherent in the first-past-the-post system is a classically geographical problem, involving the interaction of the geography of political parties’ support, and of the constituencies into which voters are organised. In a 2002 article in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Ron Johnston, David Rossiter, Charles Pattie and Danny Dorling analysed how the various biases in the UK’s post-war first-past-the-post system interact, and showed how the net effect increasingly favoured the Labour Party, having favoured the Conservatives until the 1980s. A combination of anti-Conservative tactical voting and Labour’s focus on marginal seats enabled it to greatly increase the efficiency of its vote distribution.

View the Jonathan Freedland article here Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, 7 May 2010, “Hung parliament: Nick Clegg forced to play fair maiden as suitors bow”
View the Johnston et al (2002) article here Johnston et al (2002), “Labour electoral landslides and the changing efficiency of voting distributions”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Volume 27, Issue 3, Pages 336-361

Robin de la Motte


  1. Yes, we have entered a new phase in British politics. The first past the post system was very convenient in maintaining political power in the hands of the ruling business elite through the two main parties (both upholders of the system with only minor differences as to emphasis), who could share power, keeping smaller parties out of the loop. This meant that a differentiated system to truly reflect the multi-faceted reality of society was impossible. Now there is hope of change.

  2. The election result also demonstrates that geography is related to class. The rural areas have voted overwhelmingly Conservative or Liberal whilst the cities and larger towns have voted Labour.

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