Minority Government

What do the 1923 general election, the first general election of 1974 and the 2017 general election have in common?  I'll give you a clue, it's the title of this article! Minority governments are minor in seats, but major in political implications for UK governance. Let's take a look into exactly what a minority government is. 

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Table of contents

    Meaning of 'Minority Government'

    In the UK, there are 650 constituencies which are represented in Parliament by the presence of 650 corresponding parliamentary seats in the House of Commons. In order to achieve a majority in an election, a political party is required to win 326 parliamentary seats, which is just over half the total number of seats. Parties that win a majority of seats are able to form a government through invitation and confirmation by the monarch.

    However, a majority is not always guaranteed and sometimes parties may receive less than the number of seats required for a majority, this results in a hung parliament where there are two options.

    1. The party that has received the most number of seats (yet still shy of a majority) has the opportunity to form a coalition with another party to make up the required seats to achieve a majority. However, usually, this offer to form a coalition is first granted to the incumbent leadership party. In a formal coalition, a government is formed with both of the parties and members of each party sit in the UK Cabinet.

    2. The party that received the most number of seats can form a minority government. The formation of a minority government means the party in power will need the support of other MPs from other parties in order for legislature to be passed through with a majority.

    Minority Government

    When a political party does not receive the an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons, but is still able to form a government.

    Hung Parliament

    A Parliament in which no one political party has secured enough seats in the House of Commons to gain an overall majority.

    Minority Government Chamber of the House of Commons StudySmarterFig. 1 House of Commons Chamber

    UK Minority Governments

    Whilst the House of Commons and the Westminster parliamentary system is often the most talked about when it comes to governance of the UK, it is by no means the only representative political body. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (the devolved bodies) all have their own parliaments or assemblies complete with alternative electoral system these are the single transferable vote and the Additional Member System. Minority governments in the UK are not uncommon and can be seen frequently in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

    In Scottish parliament, the use of the additional member system often produces minority governments, whereas Westminster parliaments sole use of first past the post infrequently produces minority governments.

    Check out this article on electoral systems to find out more about the Additional Member System

    Theory of minority government

    In theory, the ability for a political party to establish a minority government allows for an alternative mode of governance, which diversifies the requirements needed to form a government. It also ensures that a loss of a majority whilst in government does not necessarily lead to a loss of leadership completely, as the presence of a minority government is permitted.

    When forming a minority government, there are two types of minority governments that exist. One is a minority government where formal support has been established. This support takes the form of a confidence and supply agreement.

    Confidence and Supply Agreement

    A confidence and supply agreement formally secures the support of another political party to vote in favour of key legislature proposals, such as those concerning budgets/supply and votes of no confidence, this served to allow important legislature to pass with a majority.

    Therefore, voting in confidence and supply agreements is not on all issues, but usually on a narrow variety of important issue. In return for this agreement, the other party often receives concessions in certain areas.

    The other type of minority government is when no formal arrangement of support from other parties has been made, in these scenarios minority governments rely on the fact that enough elected MPs will support their motions for votes to pass with a majority. Minority governments in such a situation gauge their support based on the ideological positions and policy interests of individual MPs. This situation is the most precarious as it places a lot of ad hoc reliance on those from outside the party and therefore this is often a last resort and occurs when political parties fail to form a confidence and supply agreement or a coalition.

    Examples of minority governments

    Let's take a look at some key examples of minority government in the UK.

    Minority Government The first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald StudySmarterFig. 2 J. Ramsey MacDonald, Former UK Prime Minister

    On Thursday 6th December 1923 a general election took place. At this point in time there were only 615 seats in the House of Commons as opposed to today's 650. This election resulted in a hung parliament where the Conservative Party who were the incumbent party received 258 seats, the Labour Party received 191 seats and the Liberal party received 158 seats. This meant that no party received a majority in the election (which would have been 308 seats). As the incumbent party, the Conservative party continued to rule with a minority government and sought supports from the Liberal Party, which was not received.

    In the King's Speech in 1924, there was a vote of no confidence in the Conservative government. This led to King George asking the Labour Party to form a government instead which was the first Labour government in UK history and J. Ramsay McDonald, leader of the Labour Party, became the Prime minister.

    The year 1974, is an important date to know in terms of general elections, this example will tell you why.

    In 1974 two general elections took place, the first election occurred in February and resulted in a hung parliament. The incumbent party, the Conservatives received 297 seats whereas Labour who were the opposition received 301 seats, this meant that neither party had a majority in parliament. As the incumbent party, the Conservatives were given the opportunity to form a coalition. The Conservatives could not, however, form a coalition with the Liberal Party. Consequently, the Labour Party were able to form a minority government, under the leadership of Harold Wilson, as the party that had received the most seats in the 1974 election. This minority government was in place until October of the same year, when another general election took place and Labour received a majority of seats.

    When it comes to minority governments in Westminster Parliament, 2017 is the latest example of a minority government.

    In 2017 Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called for a snap general election to take place on the 8th of June. This general election came as a surprise, as a general election was not scheduled until 2020. May believed the results of the general election could increase the majority the Conservative Party had in parliament, which would aid in pushing Brexit negotiations along.

    However, the election resulted in a loss of the Conservatives majority and led to a hung parliament. As the conservatives only received 317 seats. The Conservatives were able to continue governing with a minority government and formed a confidence and supply agreement with northern Irish party the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). May resigned from her position as prime minster in 2019 after being able to push the Brexit negation and deals along.

    Minority Government Constituency map showing results of the 2017 General Election StudySmarterFig. 3Constituency map showing results of the 2017 General Election

    Minority governments do not emerge solely out of the results of a general election. A political party could have gained a majority in a general election and formed a stable government, but as their time in power goes on, they may lose their majority. This could be as a result of by-elections and defections that lead to seats changing party hands, as was the case during Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan's time in office (1976-1979).

    You may be thinking, where is the infamous 2010 Conservative- Lib Dem coalition in these examples of minority governments? However, it is important to understand, as mentioned previously, there are two types of government that may be formed by a hung parliament. These are coalitions governments or minority governments. A hung parliament does not necessarily equate to the formation of a minority government.

    In the case of the 2010 general election, there was not a majority of seats won by the Labour Party or the Conservative party. After the Labour Party failed to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats the Conservative Party formed a formal coalition (the first of its kind since 1945) which gave the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition a majority in parliament and these two parties governed together and members of both parties were part of the Cabinet (though as the larger party the Conservative Party was the senior partner).

    Problems with minority government

    The problem with minority governments in the UK, particularly with reference to the Westminster parliamentary system is that they often struggle to pass necessary legislation in the House of Commons.

    If the main opposition party (or even just two smaller parties) vote against the legislation forwarded by the minority government, they can prevent any of the proposed legislature from being passed. This makes governance ineffective and hinders the leadership of the party as despite being the party of leadership, the successful implementation of legislation can often be left at the mercy/cooperation of the other parties.

    Even in scenarios in which there are formal agreements where parties agree to support the leadership party's minority government in passing certain legislature, the supporting party may often not always act in favour of the leadership party. This implies that these 'formal' agreements are not legally binding.

    This was seen with the Conservative-DUP agreement, where the DUP voted in favour of the opposition's motion (Labour Party) regarding university fees. The DUP also did not show support for the agreements drafted by Conservative PM Theresa May regarding the withdrawal of Britain from the EU from.

    Another problem with minority governments is minority governments have reduced legitimacy as they are not elected by the majority of the and therefore are not reflective of the representation the electorate actually desire.

    Minority government - Key takeaways

    • A minority government is when a political party does not receive the required majority in parliament, but can still form a government.
    • In general elections, political parties seek to win at least 326 seats in the House of Commons to gain a majority. When no majority is achieved, the election results in a hung parliament.
    • A coalition government is an alternative to governing with a minority.
    • The problem with minority governments is that they often struggle to pass necessary legislature in the House of Commons.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 House of Commons Chamber (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:House_of_Commons_Chamber.png) by UK Parliament licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:CC-BY-3.0)
    2. Fig. 2 J. Ramsay MacDonald LCCN2014715885 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:J._Ramsay_MacDonald_LCCN2014715885_(cropped).jpg) by Bain News Service (https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q70770861) licensed by CC0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)
    3. Fig. 3 2017 UK general election constituency map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2017_UK_general_election_constituency_map.svg) by Ch1902 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Ch1902) licensed by CC0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Minority Government

    What is minority government?

    A minority government is when a political party does not receive the required majority in parliament, but can still form a government.

    What are the problems with minority governments?

    The problem with minority governments is that they often struggle to pass necessary legislature in the House of Commons. 

    How does a minority government work in UK?

    In the UK, a minority government can either form an agreement with another party to pass legislature or govern with the hope that MP's from other parties will aid in passing through legislature without a formal agreement. 

    What is the theory of minority government?

    In theory, minority governments seeks to make provision for an alternative mode of governance to winning a majority. 

    What is the principle behind minority government?

    The principle behind minority government is that not every election can produce a majority, and therefore there should be a way of governing effectively as possible when these scenarios occur.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following number of  seats required to form a majority government in today's UK Parliament?

    Which general election resulted in a minority government?

    Which of the following is an example of a minority government?

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