In recent months the main pollsters have recorded a reduction in the Conservative Party’s lead ahead of the general election. As a result, most observers are predicting a hung parliament. But what exactly does this mean?
A hung parliament occurs when each of the parties fails to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons. In simple terms, a hung parliament will occur if the Labour Party lose 24 seats and the Conservatives fail to gain 116 seats.
When a hung parliament occurs in the UK, the Party with the most votes will usually be asked by the Queen to try and form a government. At this point, they have two options.
A coalition government is formed when the largest party (that with the most votes) forges an alliance with another to achieve an overall majority. They can engage in a formal coalition by granting a certain number of cabinet positions to members of other parties, usually proportional to that of votes won by that party.
Coalition governments are not uncommon. Countries such as New Zealand, Isreal, Switzerland and Germany all have extensive experience in coalition rule. The devolved powers in both Scotland and Wales have also been successfully run by coalitions in recent years.
In many ways, coalitions encourage parties to co-operate and their bipartisan cabinets are argued to more fairly reflect the feelings of the electorate.
However, the demand for co-operation is not always viewed as a positive. Coalitions can be prone to infighting as parties with distinctly different ideologies battle for influence. Sometimes the constant level of compromise and discussions leads to a slowing of the legislative process. On the other hand the smaller party may be ignored, leading to potential factions.
The largest party may also try and form a government without making any alliances or policy concessions to smaller parties. Instead, they attempt to win support from other parties on each individual bill as and when it reaches the floor of the house.
Mike Thomas from pressure group Charter 2010 thinks it would be a mistake for the largest party after the next election to try and rule in a minority government.
He told me: “A coalition would be more stable than a minority government. An issue by issue basis doesn’t really work if you’re after stability and continuity.”
In fact, minority governments are inherently less stable than formal coalitions. The opposition’s majority can easily bring down the government and force another election by way of a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister.
Whatever the resulting government of a hung parliament, it is always likely that another election will be imminent. In systems where hung parliament’s are rare, the ruling party will usually call an election as soon as it feels it is able to win an overall majority.
This was the case the last time the UK had a hung parliament in 1974. Then, a minority government led by Harold Wilson called an election after just eight months. They won the election with a majority of only three.
What’s going to happen in the UK?
Despite a hung parliament being a real possibility, Mike Thomas thinks political parties are unlikely to talk publically about it before the general election.
“Although the parties are talking internally, none of them are likely to talk aloud because it’s in their nature to believe and think they can win the next election. They don’t want to be seen as consigning themselves to a hung parliament already.”
If a hung parliament were to occur, the balance of power is likely to be held by the Liberal Democrats. Their leader Nick Clegg has been mooted as saying that his party are not interested in cabinet jobs and would prefer policy concessions.
Clegg has set out four key themes upon which his party will fight the election. These themes have been dubbed the ‘Lib Dem shopping list’, indicating that the Party will support a coalition if it their policies on these key areas are included in a mandate.
The fact that the Liberal Democrats have signalled their intent to negotiate suggests that, in the event of a hung parliament, we are more likely to have a coalition government than a minority one. This will however depend on potentially fragile negotiations and the potential for another election later in the year is always present.
By Nick Higgins