UK Parties lacking overall majority

May 7, 2010 12:00 am

, LONDON, May 7 – Results from the British general election indicate that no party is likely to have an overall majority, meaning the country will have its first “hung parliament” since 1974.

Below are answers to some key questions about this scenario:

What is a hung parliament?

A hung parliament is one in which no party has more than half of MPs in the House of Commons, meaning it needs the support of other parties to pass legislation.

In other countries and systems, it is also called a balanced parliament or one with no overall control. Britain has not had a hung parliament since 1974.

The opposition Conservatives were forecast on Friday to be the largest party after the closest election in three decades, but falling short of a clear majority in parliament.

An exit poll suggested the centre-right Conservatives were likely to win 305 seats and Labour 255 seats, both short of the 326 needed for a majority.

What happens if the election results in a hung parliament?

The current government remains in power as a caretaker government until it is clear who will form the next government. Parties try to muster sufficient support from smaller groups to command confidence in the House of Commons.

Tradition dictates that the incumbent government — in this case, Labour — has the first shot at trying to form an administration.

If neither the Conservative nor Labour parties has an absolute majority, they may seek to do a deal with the third largest Liberal Democrats or with smaller, nationalist parties such as Wales’ Plaid Cymru or the Scottish Nationalists.

Civil servants facilitate discussions.

Coalition or minority government?

The UK has very little history of coalition government and deciding which parties should hold which cabinet posts could take time and add to uncertainty about the final outcome. This is likely to unsettle markets.

A minority government — which seeks support from parties on individual bills — may be more likely.

The Institute for Government, an independent think tank, notes that minority governments in other countries have succeeded in governing effectively. A minority Canadian government implemented universal healthcare in the 1960s; in Sweden the country’s severe budget crisis of the early 1990s was brought under control by a minority government.

How long will it take?

Negotiations can take a few days to a few weeks although the Queen’s Speech, which sets out the government’s legislative programme and is scheduled for May 25, is considered to be the cut off point. While the make up of the government remains uncertain, financial markets are expected to remain under pressure.

After the February 1974 election a minority Labour government was formed four days after the election, after a failed attempt to form a Conservative-Liberal coalition.

Might a second election follow swiftly?

A Prime Minister of a minority government may choose to govern for a short time before calling a quick election in the hope of getting a majority, as Harold Wilson did in 1974.

A minority government can also be defeated in a confidence vote in parliament and forced into an election earlier than planned. However, a minority government can last a full term (five years in the UK) as they do in New Zealand, for example.


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