According to British author Walter Bagehot, “A Parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people.” Whether or not you agree, one thing is certain: when parliament is hung, they can’t get much more idle.
The term hung parliament, less commonly known as a balanced parliament, refers to a the phenomenon that happens in parliamentary democracies, such as those in commonwealth countries. Essentially, a hung parliament is a situation which results when no party is able to secure a majority of the seats in parliament.
First off, before we get into how a parliament becomes hung, let’s take a look at how the parliamentary government works. In a parliamentary democracy, a prime minister derives legitimacy from the parliament, which is elected by the people. So, in parliamentary government, the people do not vote on the prime minister in a general election, but rather, the prime minister is elected by the parliament, which is elected by the people; this is a major distinction between parliamentary democracies and other forms of democracy.
Another important hallmark of parliamentary democracies is the ability of the prime minister or the parliament to dissolve government and call for a new election. Because the U.K. has a proportional representation system, during the election, voters will not actually vote for a candidate, but, rather, they will vote for a party. Then, the party with the majority of representatives elects the new prime minister.
Hung Parliaments in the U.K.
While hung parliaments are not uncommon in many parliamentary governments, the U.K. has been an exception since it has a long tradition of two dominant parties: the Tories and the Whigs, or, more recently, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. When a democracy has two major parties, it is more likely that one party will be in the majority. Even with two strong parties, the U.K. still has had hung parliaments in 1974, 2010, and 2017.
During a hung parliament, government still has to function. So, what happens next? There are basically two options: a coalition government, or a confidence and supply agreement.
When two parties band together to share power, they form a coalition government. Coalition governments can be difficult to achieve, but they can also work pretty well. Most recently, the U.K. had a coalition government from 2010 to 2015, a run that surprised many political pundits in its longevity.
Confidence and Supply Agreement
A confidence and supply agreement keeps the government running without a formal coalition, but it tends to be much more tenuous than coalition governments. Essentially, the party with the most votes remains in power, while the smaller parties agree to vote to supply the funds to keep the government running, as well as supporting the government during votes of no confidence. So, while this arrangement is certainly not as strong as a coalition government, it does at least keep government functioning. The last time the U.K. had a confidence and supply agreement was from 1977-1979 between Jim Callaghan’s Labour Party and the Liberal Party.
Hung Parliament in the U.K. – 2017
The most recent hung parliament in the U.K. happened in June of 2017. It all started when, in June of 2016, British Prime Minister Theresa May decided to dissolve parliament, believing that her party would gain seats, which would give her more leverage in negotiating the U.K’s exit from the E.U., better known as Brexit (May’s party, the Conservative Party, already had a majority in parliament). Mays’ plan backfired, however, and the Conservative Party lost 13 seats, leaving it with 318 seats (326 seats constitue a majority in the British Parliament’s House of Commons).
A number of political pundits are suggesting that May might strike a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionists Party. As of this moment, it seems the most likely scenario, but only time will tell. One way or another, parliament will hopefully unhang itself.