Will this period of hung parliaments come to an end, or will it become an age of hung parliaments?

10th December 2019

During every general election in the United Kingdom the assumption of many pundits – and indeed voters – is that one party will win outright.

The view is that a party getting an overall majority is the norm to which there is sometimes an exception.

But looking at United Kingdom politics over the last decade, a hung parliament has been the norm, and an overall majority the exception.

Other than the two fateful years 2015-2017 – where a Conservative majority unleashed an In/Out referendum and the current botched Brexit – there has not been a party with a majority since 2010.

Indeed – in the twenty-three years since 1996, when John Major’s Conservative government lost its majority – the Conservatives have only managed an overall majority for those two years 2015-2017.

In two days time we will discover whether this period of hung parliaments has come to an end – or whether it will continue and perhaps become an age of hung parliaments.

The 2017-2019 parliament was one which especially showed the merits (and problems) of a hung parliament – and the current general election is, in effect, a howl of pain by the Conservatives (or its leader) that they could not get their own way.

Today it is difficult but not impossible to see how the Conservatives can gain the seats required for a substantial majority.

But if that happens, and a five-year term is secured, then the last decade will be seen as a blip.

But if there is yet another hung parliament, as in 2010 and 2017, then the 2015-2017 administration will be the blip.

And if hung parliaments become the norm then that will have profound effects on the nature of party politics and the business of governing.

At the moment, both the Conservatives and Labour parties are led by individuals who are are ill-fitted to lead coalitions, and the Liberal Democrats spend a great deal of time trying to explain away or apologise for their role in the 2010-15 coalition.

Like with the pundits and many voters, the view of the parties themselves is also that getting an overall majority is the norm to which there is sometimes an unfortunate exception.

We will find out shortly whether the parties and the pundits and many votes are right.

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17 thoughts on “Will this period of hung parliaments come to an end, or will it become an age of hung parliaments?”

  1. The key feature at the moment is that with Scotland now heavily voting for the SNP it is almost impossible for Labour to form a majority. Hence the choice at this elections is ‘Conservative’, or ‘a non-Conservative alliance’. This is in turn a proxy for a ‘Leave’ government or a ‘Remain’ government.

    If Scotland recommences electing Labour and Conservative MPs in number then a hung parliament becomes statistically harder to achieve.

  2. I agree with Alan Pennie, but wonder whether the nature parliaments, especially hung ones, won’t change if another is elected. There are still no obvious coalitions and fewer grown ups likely to be elected. The country could drift into a hard Brexit with Johnson sitting tight and all other candidates for PM unable to gain the confidence of the House. The absence of Bercow may be critical. The Crown may be dragged in again and Gina Miller will be back at the Supreme Court. So lots of drama for 2020.

  3. There is only one time when we got two hung parliaments in a row – 1910. And since that was before universal suffrage – not even all men had the vote then and no women did – I think it’s fair to discount that. Closest we’ve come since universal suffrage, which didn’t happen till 1928, was 1974 which, same as 1910, had two elections in the same year. A hung parliament was the result of the February election that year; a small majority in the October one. But it was not two hung parliaments one after the other.

    I think there will be a clear majority in this election because our system since universal suffrage has never yet had two hung parliaments in a row.

    I believe an age of hung parliaments is therefore very unlikely. The Tories will win this election easily because this isn’t 2017 all over again. Tactical voting will not stop a Tory victory because the Labour vote will, if not completely collapse, shrink for a variety of reasons (none of which, incidentally, have anything to do with antisemitism which doesn’t cut through with the majority of voters).

    It’s perhaps more interesting to look ahead to the election in 2024, even assuming Johnson repeals the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Can Labour gets it act together in time to inflict defeat on a jubilant Tory party that delivered Brexit and gave the people what they wanted? I’m going with 2029 as the earliest date Labour can get back into power. And it’s entirely possible it may never again form a government if the Tories succeed in gerrymandering and voter ID to try to prevent it.

    We may in fact be seeing the start of a Tory hegemony the like of which we’ve never seen before.

    Try not to have nightmares!

    1. Brexit will still, in the end, destroy the Tory Party, at least as we have known it, Laura; arguably it has already done so. We await, however, to find out what what monstrous rough beast will break out of the cocoon once the parasite has finished devouring what is left of its brains.

      In the long run they will be damned forever if they implement anything resembling any version of Brexit they have proposed thus far, especially anything that will not destroy the party on first contact (because the headbangers are in firmly in the driving seat by virtue of the fact that they are the ones prepared to wreck the whole show rather than compromise), and they are damned if they don’t, for obvious reasons.
      This election is a roll of the dice: should they win a majority, five years in power armed with Henry VII powers and equipped with a series of national emergencies to justify extending and renewing them will be enough to extirpate all that remains of the post-War settlement they hate so much.
      This, not an impossibly ruinous Brexit, has been the main goal and prize for some time; it is astounding that the public debate should so completely have failed to address these consequences explicitly.

      The remaining so-called ‘moderates’ will play along and enable the worst because it remains as always axiomatic for them that the national interest is served above all else by having a Tory government, and because the alternative will be virtual extinction; some may even be enthused by the revolution, albeit it will be anything but “conservative.”

      As they have no viable policies or justifiable plans to explain, their main strategy is to create so much cacophony that rational public debate or deliberation is effectively impossible, and to hope that the media’s reflexive demonisation of the opposition and their consequent lead in the polls will squeeze them over the line. Hence the minimal manifesto and the complete lack of concern with obvious mendacity or maintaining even minimal coherency.
      The primary point of the FactCheck debacle, for example, is not to spread fake news via the tiny few who read it, but for the resulting polemic to undermine all such activity and so to debase democratic debate. The point of the obviously fictitious numbers of nurses is to inflame debate over *how many* nurses the Tories will actually provide (probably none in reality!), rather than how many they have already eliminated.

      It remains to be seen what toxic alliance of the unacceptable and incompetent may remain aboard at the end of this, and whether the coming orgy of xenophobia and finger-pointing (lavishly propagandised, as is their wont, at public expense) will be sufficient to make the blame stick elsewhere. The calculation of those most responsible will be that this way they survive to fight another day, and that with with a sufficiently cowed and demoralised electorate it just might work out. In the meantime they get to dismantle further the the social fabric and the very means to deliver viable public services.

      In a sane world, a Corbyn-led caretaker coalitiont is currently planning for a confirmatory referendum and chatting to the EU about what might be on offer if we can get over our self-destructive obsession over Freedom of Movement.

    2. “(none of which, incidentally, have anything to do with antisemitism which doesn’t cut through with the majority of voters)”

      Interesting. While several prominent figures have been acknowledging that, whether justifiably or not, the issue has been costing the party support, I’ve seen practically this exact same sentiment expressed several times during the last few weeks, often by the exactly same people who have argued most vociferously over several years of the damage that it was causing to the party’s public image and electoral prospects.

      Of course, I don’t know your personal views, but too many of the examples I have seen looked very much like attempts to find a position of distance from any potential blame which could arise in the event of either serious or, especially, narrow defeat.

      In the event of a narrow but viable Tory majority emerging from Thursday, I wonder which of these voices will return to arguing that grave mishandling of the issue itself has proved catastrophically costly to the party, and who will lay low for fear that their own attempts to deploy the issue as leverage against Corbyn will be seen to have having helped the right-wing press put the party beyond the pale for a critical minority of otherwise persuadable voters.

      My instinct is that they will double down on the criticism of Corbyn, as if everything cannot be portrayed as his exclusive fault then there is the risk of awkward questions being asked about the roles of others.

  4. Not so long ago politicians argued for a single party majority because, they said, it would give “strong” governments. They pointed to countries with coalition governments as having “weak” government; the usual suspect was Italy. Certainly, Italy had frequent changes of governments and prime ministers, and very little to show for it.

    Politicians decrying coalition governments never suggested following the example of Switzerland. The federal government there has been a coalition for many decades and has a strong economy and currency, and strong social cohesion. That coalition works because the parties in the executive work together and formulate policy together through negotiation; and once decided, all support the policies. There is no attempt to do other parties “down”; all work together.

    The UK’s experience was rather different to Switzerland; the Tories saw themselves as the senior partner in the coalition with the LibDems, making sure that they, the Tories, got the credit and the LibDems the blame. That’s not how a proper coalition should work.

    In N Ireland in the occasional periods when there is an Assembly and an Executive, the “partners” in this consociational form of government supposedly formulate a “programme for government” in advance of their Executive formation. But once in office, the parties follow their own narrow, sectarian agendas without reference to any agreed policies. Again this isn’t how a coalition should work.

    If this UK election produces a “hung” parliament, one where no single party has an overall majority, there may have to be a coalition of some sort. It would be good to think that such a coalition won’t make the same basic errors as the previous one; sadly, I don’t have great hopes.

    1. PS: Switzerland uses PR.

      Northern Ireland was set up by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. The single transferable vote (STV) system was to be used for the old Stormont parliament. It was used for the first two parliaments, then changed to FPTP at the behest of the ruling unionist party who were afraid that PR would undermine their hegemony.

      What was initially called Southern Ireland was set up under the same Act, also with STV. In the eventual settlement, the Dáil, the “commons” or Chamber of Deputies in the parliament of the Irish Free State was — and still is — elected by STV.

  5. Thanks so much for your commentary, which helps clarify things that from my own Estonian vantage point can seem hard to straighten out.

    Many in Continental Europe, Estonia included, would say that coalitions have the merit of nudging antagonistic factions toward consensus and compromise. The downside of coaltions is, admittedly, that they can fragment, on occasion with only scant advance warning.

    If the UK does with each passing decade or generation move more and more in the direction of coalition politics, then perhaps it would be helpful for the UK to move also toward proportional representation? It will be interesting to see whether the UK debates the question of proportional representation over the coming years.

    The Canadians for their part did put the question onto their domestic agenda a couple of times, but without in the event effecting reforms: in an Ontario election a few years ago, a possible future migration to proportional representation was offered as a kind of rider or appendix to the main ballot, and yet was rejected by the voters; and in a federal election a few years ago, the Liberals (a) campaigned on a promise of electoral form, with proportional representation to be either implemented or seriously considered, and then (b) having come into power broke their promise, without offering an explanation.

    It was well said in the old britcom “Yes, Minister” that governments are in general reluctant to reform the electoral machinery that has raised them into power.

    Hastily,
    fearing that Mr Johnson will secure a pro-Brexit mandate
    this week,
    and yet nevertheless wishing that the UK could avoid Brexit,

    Toomas = Tom
    (in Nõo Rural Municipality,
    at approx latitude of the northernmost Scottish mainland,
    and to 3 significant figures 26.5 degrees east of Greenwich)

  6. Given that a majority government can be returned by a minority of the electorate, our electoral system is broken. The polling since July 2017 has consistently shown a majority to remain in the EU, yet our dysfunctional parliament chose to have a general election rather than a further referendum/confirmatory vote.

    I hope for a hung parliament with a remain coalition/working relationship. They can then resolve Brexit via public vote and, I hope, bring about a hybridised proportional representation system which maintains a local MP (the only value in the current system) and reflects the national opinion in the make-up of parliament.

    I think we need to winnow out very poor MPs and encourage talented and honest people to take up the role. Johnson should rather be in the dock in some court than resident in Downing St. We have never had a PM less suited to the role. The national interest is a stranger to the man – the only interest he recognises is his own.

  7. All very true – but if the answer in two days’ time is that hung parliaments are “the new normal”, the urgent question then becomes: what to do about it?

    We Constitutional geeks all know that Proportional Representation is one obvious response, but will the two big parties – one or other of whom must decide – ever accept this, given that both stand to lose? Nuh-uh.

    Another response is to encourage a more “inclusive”, political culture in which coalition becomes the norm, European-style, but the LibDem’s burned fingers – whether merited or not – have set that cause back a long way. And, as you point out, this is currently anything but the tenor of the times.

    And so we stagger on… quite probably retching and coughing with the Brexit Elephant that will shortly be stuck in our throats.

    1. “We Constitutional geeks all know that Proportional Representation is one obvious response, but will the two big parties – one or other of whom must decide – ever accept this, given that both stand to lose? Nuh-uh.”

      If we had an accessible and modern constitution like, say, Italy, then 500000 signatures would be sufficient to raise a referendum on the issue.

      Or, to put it another way, in Italy the number of signatures attracted by one single petition to revoke ‘Article 50’ would have been sufficient to call * twelve* popular referendums on the issue. (There is a small quibble here that referendums in Italy cannot usually address foreign relations, but if we were going to exclude all such referendums from legitimacy then we would not find ourselves where we are today!)

      There exist sound ways to incorporate referendums and other instruments of direct democracy into a modern polity, but that would have required a careful examination of the experience of other countries as to what works well in practice and, perhaps more importantly, what really doesn’t, not an amateurish and superficial attempt to patch up an insane internal party squabble by putting the future of the entire country on the block, finessed by an ineffable sense of British superiority which disregards painful lessons from elsewhere as inapplicable at home.

      Oh, and holding a de facto constitutional referendum on a vague proposition to do ‘something’ with glaringly no idea of what that ‘something’ might turn out to entail, let alone any codified description, is military-grade stupidity! Referring you back to the Italian constitution (which happens to be the one I have in front of me) a Constitutional Referendum can only take place to confirm a fully drafted proposal for a constitutional law which has already passed both houses of parliament with and absolute majority at its second reading. The merits and likely consequences of such measures are, or course subject to debate, but such debate takes place on the basis of specific concrete proposals: nobody can be in the slightest doubt what will be implemented if the referendum confirms the law.

  8. Given that the Tories will receive less than 50% of the vote their ought to be an hung parliament. Cameron in 2015 got 36.8% of the votes and 50.1% of the seats. Tony Blair in 2001 got 40.7% of the votes and 62.5% of the seats.

    First past the post doesn’t work. It is as antiquated as the Palace of Westminster.

    But to get out of this trap will be immensely difficult, now even more difficult than in the past. The lock of the right wing media, supercharged by the internet, reinforced by a BBC that has lost its way (every news bulletin this morning on Radio 3, even Radio 3 for heaven’s sake, this morning began with the words either “Boris Johnson” or “The Prime Minister” followed by the Tory’s message of the day – what semblance of balance is that?) means we are deep in the hole.

  9. So, from a complete non-expert and generally disenchanted voter. Hung parliament likely. If this resulted in a coalition, potentially good but unlikely in this country where it’s every man/party for itself.
    Still disenchanted and utterly at a loss.

  10. there is surely a reason for hung parliaments being more common than some decades ago. Well, two reasons actually. One is the reemergence of the Liberal Party, which was widely expected to disappear in the 1950s. More important is the emergence of nationalist parties, most obviously the SNP but also Plaid Cymru. All this means that the simple two-party pattern no longer exists, and third or fourth parties are more likely to hold the balance of power

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