How many hung parliaments has the UK had?

Author:
Ian Simpson, Research Officer

Posted on the 14th February 2024

Westminster’s First Past the Post (FPTP) system often results in some parties gaining far more seats than their vote share deserves. But there is no guarantee that this un-earned ‘bonus’ always means one party gets to rule alone. When a political party does not win enough seats to secure an overall majority of the House of Commons, the result is called a ‘hung parliament’.

What is a hung parliament?

When no single party has enough seats to form a government on its own, they need to collaborate and work together with other parties to establish a working majority or coalition. This can happen at an election, or when a governing party loses their overall majority through by-elections, defections or suspensions.

A hung parliament under First Past the Post still won’t match how we voted though. Some parties will benefit, and others lose out. On top of this, small changes in the vote can have a big impact on the number of seats so there is a strong incentive to go for an early election in the hope the results come out differently – even if few people have changed their minds.

Hung parliaments in the early Twentieth Century

General elections resulting in hung parliaments were a regular occurrence in the first half of the 20th century. Of the eleven UK general elections held between 1900 and 1935, five resulted in hung parliaments.

After the 1900 general election, the Conservative Party had to rely on their Liberal Unionist allies to form a coalition government. Both general elections of 1910 resulted in hung parliaments, with the Liberal Party needing the support of around 70 Irish Parliamentary Party MPs to continue in government on both occasions.

The remaining two hung parliament-producing elections in this period both resulted in Labour minority governments. In 1923, Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister for a year as head of the first-ever Labour government, relying on tacit support from the Liberals.

The 1929 election produced another hung parliament and MacDonald again formed a Labour minority government, which was to last until 1931, when financial turmoil saw him form a National Government dominated by the Conservatives.

How many hung parliaments have we had since 1945?

Forty-five years were to pass between the hung parliament-producing election of 1929 and the next such election in February 1974. Labour won 301 seats to the Conservatives 297 and formed a minority government under Harold Wilson. A further election, in October 1974, gave Labour a tiny majority of 3 seats. By 1977 this majority had been lost and for the remainder of this Labour government’s time in office it relied on the Liberals and other smaller parties to pass legislation

Are hung parliaments becoming more common now?

The 2010 general election was a pivotal moment when the Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, fell short of an outright majority. Thus ensued the first peacetime coalition government since the National Government of the 1930s, between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

In 2017, the Conservative Party lost the narrow majority secured in 2015 and entered into a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to ensure enough support in the House of Commons.

General Election Prime Minister after election Parties Involved in Co-operation
1900 Lord Salisbury Conservative, Liberal Unionists
1910 (Jan) H. H. Asquith Liberal, Irish Parliamentary Party
1910 (Dec) H. H. Asquith Liberal, Irish Parliamentary Party, followed by multi-party war-time coalition from May 1915
1923 Ramsay MacDonald Labour, Liberal
1929 Ramsay MacDonald Labour, Liberal, followed by National Government from August 1931
1974 (Feb) Harold Wilson Labour, with Liberal co-operation between 1977-78, when Labour had again lost their majority under Jim Callaghan
2010 David Cameron Conservative, Liberal Democrats
2017 Theresa May Conservative, DUP

Power sharing under proportional representation

Hung parliaments under First Past the Post still have many of the problems we usually suffer under. Smaller parties rarely have as much power as their support warrants, while the larger parties will always be tempted to have another roll of the dice, and see if the system gives them an artificial advantage the next time.

Thanks to their stable, proportional, voting systems, the devolved parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all experienced power-sharing between parties without these downsides. Although, it is still possible for individual parties to win a majority if they garner sufficient support.

First Past the Post has often failed to do what its supporters say it will, in fact it encourages chaotic short-termism. More than ever, we need proportional representation – where all voters are properly represented and if co-operation between parties is required post-election, this will be based on how people actually voted, rather than the random results spat out by First Past the Post.

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