Another vote in 2018? The history of rapid-fire general elections

Just how often have votes been held in quick succession?

December 11, 2017
Prime Minister Theresa May leaves No 10. Photo: Rick Findler/PA Wire/PA Images
Prime Minister Theresa May leaves No 10. Photo: Rick Findler/PA Wire/PA Images

After the indecisive election result in June, the smart money was on Theresa May not lasting the year as prime minister. Labour put itself on alert for an early poll. Since then, the government has been beset by internal divisions while at the same time trying to extricate Britain from the European Union. May’s deal in Brussels last week buys her some time but questions remain over the stability of the government and an early election remains feasible.

Another poll next year would require either a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Commons or a vote of no confidence in the government. Both are unlikely, but an early poll cannot be completely ruled out. But how much precedent is there for rapid-fire general elections? Looking back at political history offers some lessons for today.

There have been numerous occasions when UK general elections were held in quick succession. In 1910, there were elections in January and December, amid a constitutional crisis after the House of Lords had vetoed David Lloyd George’s “people’s budget.” The Liberals lost over 100 seats to the Conservatives in the first vote and a hung parliament resulted.

Although the Liberals were able to carry on with the support of the Irish nationalists, then prime minister, Herbert Asquith, called another election that year to break the deadlock. However, it produced an almost identical result, with another hung parliament and the Liberals dependent on the nationalists. The price the latter extracted for their support was legislation on Irish home rule (ultimately never implemented because of the First World War and later Irish partition).

There were general elections in consecutive years in 1922, 1923 and 1924. The Conservatives won an overall majority in 1922 amid deep divisions among the Liberals and the growth of the Labour Party. The Tory leader, Bonar Law, was taken ill a few months later and Stanley Baldwin became prime minister. Baldwin wanted his own mandate and called an early election on the issue of tariff reform. (This resembled May’s decision to go to the country in 2017 as she sought a mandate for her Brexit negotiating aims.)

Although the Conservatives remained the largest party after the 1923 election, they lost their majority and Baldwin was defeated in a confidence vote. Labour, as the second-largest party, formed a weak minority government under Ramsay MacDonald, but it too was soon brought down in a confidence vote. With a little help from the Zinoviev letter, the 1924 election produced a landslide majority for Baldwin’s Conservatives.

“There were general elections in consecutive years in 1922, 1923 and 1924”
Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government also called elections in consecutive years, in 1950 and 1951. Having won a landslide in 1945, the government faced a stronger Conservative opposition in 1950 and won a wafer-thin majority of six seats. Attlee called another election in 1951, but despite Labour polling its highest ever proportion of the vote and winning over 200,000 more votes than the Conservatives, the vagaries of first-past-the-post gave Winston Churchill’s party a majority of seats.

The year 1974 saw two elections, one in February and one in October. The first, which had been called early by Edward Heath’s Conservative government over the issue of trade-union power, resulted in a hung parliament. Coalition talks between the Tories and the Liberals failed and a minority Labour administration under Harold Wilson took office. Wilson called a second election a few months later and although he won a majority, it was of only three seats. By 1976, Labour had returned to minority status after by-election losses.

This survey suggests that 1923 and 1951 have some parallels with the early election of 2017 (seeking mandates and boosting majorities), while 1924 and October 1974 could have relevance for an early poll in 2018 (minority governments). But in all cases bar Bonar Law in 1923, the same prime minister led their party into the following election. That is unlikely to be true of May.

Early elections do not always create greater clarity. Governments with majorities lost them in 1923, 1951 and 2017. In December 1910, there was an almost replica result of the previous election, and that could easily happen with another vote in 2018. Elections offer the allure of a decisive result but as May discovered in June, they don’t always deliver it.