What is a hung parliament?

Sabine McGinley,

Posted on the 6th November 2019

Across the country, a total of 650 Members of Parliament are elected to the Commons, with one per constituency. Under Westminster’s first past the post electoral system each MP doesn’t need to be supported by the majority of voters in their constituency, in fact, in 2015 a candidate won the Belfast South election with only 24.5% of the total, a record low.

Any party that wins more than half (326) of these seats has an overall majority in parliament (in practice the threshold is slightly lower as Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats). That means they can form a government on their own, and pass laws – even if they didn’t get more than half the vote in the country.

However, when a party does not have enough seats to win an overall majority, the result is called a ‘hung parliament’, and they can form a ‘minority’ government and negotiate for support with the other parties for every law they try and pass, or try and forge a more permanent coalition deal.

Hung parliaments under first past the post

Like in 2010, the 2017 snap election resulted in the Conservatives failing to secure an overall majority, leading Theresa May’s party to form an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party. For two years, the Conservatives relied on their confidence and supply agreement with the DUP to gain support on issues and pass important legislation in Westminster.

Then, just a few months ago, this too broke down over Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, when the PM withdrew the ‘whip’ from 21 Conservative MPs.

The problem with hung parliaments under First Past the Post is that the governments formed can still fail to represent the majority of voters: just over 43% of people voted for the Conservatives and DUP in 2017. But the lack of a proportional voting system meant that equated to a majority of seats.

Power-sharing under proportional representation

Under a proportional electoral system, where seats in parliament match how we vote, power-sharing is more common: Scotland and Wales have enjoyed power-sharing for much of the existence of their parliaments – although they can still have single parties in power if enough people vote for the same party.

The difference is: power-sharing arrangements there are based on much fairer results – representing a majority of voters, with possible coalitions discussed before elections, not pretending that every party would win a landslide.

One thing is clear, our current one-person-takes-all system is outdated – and fails time and again to generate clear majorities.

It’s no wonder people feel distant and unheard. The public is becoming more politically diverse and shopping around. It is time that our electoral system accommodated this profound and positive shift.

First Past the Post has failed for the past three elections to do what it’s meant to: create ‘strong’ single-party government. But perhaps it’s time to move on from that outmoded mentality and support working together. Hung parliaments aren’t the problem: Westminster’s broken system is.

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