Lessons from history

Akash Paun is a Fellow of the Institute for Government, and author of the recent report Westminster in an age of minorities http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/ publications/westminster-age-minorities-0

In the past century Britain has had six hung parliaments, some with striking parallels to the 2015 election…


The Liberal Party under Prime Minister Herbert Asquith failed to win an overall majority in two elections in January and December. This led to the rise of the Labour Party and – critically – Irish Nationalists who pushed for Home Rule


Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives had more seats than the Labour Party but for the first time a party with the second largest vote formed a government because both Labour and the Liberals had fought the election on free trade. The government was short-lived and Baldwin won a landslide victory in 1924.


In 1929, Labour won the most seats – 287 – for the first time. But it was still 21 short of a Commons majority. Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin resigned, refusing to negotiate with Liberal leader David Lloyd George. A minority Labour government was formed, with Ramsay MacDonald again becoming prime minister.


An election was called in 1931 when the Labour Government was split on how to deal with the Great Depression. The Conservatives won a huge majority but Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald stayed on to form a ‘National Government’ – a coalition of Conservatives, National Labour, National Liberals.


Edward Heath called an election in February 1974 against a backdrop of industrial strife and a three-day working week. Both Labour and the Tories fell short of an overall majority but Labour won more seats with fewer votes. Heath as incumbent refused to resign but failed to convince the Liberals or the Ulster Unionists to join with him, leaving the door open for Labour’s Harold Wilson to form a government.


In the wake of the Financial Crisis, neither the incumbent Labour nor opposition Tories could win a majority but as the Conservatives had won more seats, kingmakers the Lib Dems entered a coalition with the Conservatives which lasted a full five-year term.

Did you know…

A relic of the British Empire means Commonwealth and Irish citizens are eligible to vote in the UK General Elections (EU citizens may not). The 2011 census estimated 960 000 such voters. In a close-fought election, could they make a difference?