Balance of power (parliament)

Balance of power (parliament)

In parliamentary politics, the term balance of power sometimes describes the pragmatic mechanism exercised by a minor political party or other grouping whose guaranteed support may enable an otherwise minority government to obtain and hold office. This can be achieved either by the formation of a coalition government or by an assurance that any motion of no confidence in the government would be defeated. A party or person may also hold a theoretical 'balance of power' in a chamber without any commitment to government, in which case both the government and opposition groupings may on occasion need to negotiate that party's legislative support. The Australian Senate, which serves as the nation's upper house and as a house of review, has the power to reject or defer lower-house legislation. The Senate is elected by a method of proportional representation which generally results in a multi-party mix, thus obliging the government of the day to negotiate with minor parties in order to pass its legislation. The Australian Senate cannot directly bring down a government, though it can pass an indicative motion of no confidence and has the power to defer or block supply bills, as notoriously occurred in the constitutional crisis of 1975 which was precipitated, in part, by the deferment of supply through a manipulated balance of power.

Examples (United Kingdom)

It should be noted that the normal UK response to a "hung" or "balanced" Parliament is the formation of a minority government. Coalitions or even formal agreements by one party to support the government of another party are rare.

1847-1852 Conservative 325, Whig and Radical 292, Irish Repeal 36, Irish Confederate 2, Chartist 1. Total seats 656.

The United Kingdom general election, 1847 produced a House of Commons in which no group had a clear majority. Candidates calling themselves Conservatives won the largest number of seats. However, the split among the Conservatives between the majority of Protectionists, led by Lord Stanley, and the minority of free traders, known also as the Peelites, led by former prime minister Sir Robert Peel, left the Whigs, led by Prime Minister Lord John Russell, in a position to continue in government.

The Irish Repeal group won more seats than in the previous general election, while the Chartists gained the only seat they were ever to hold (Feargus O'Connor).

1885-1886 Liberal 319, Conservative 249, Irish Parliamentary Party 86, Others 16. Total seats 670.

As a result of the United Kingdom general election, 1885 there was no single party with a majority in the House of Commons. The Irish Nationalists, led by Charles Stewart Parnell had the balance of power.

The Conservative minority government (led by the Marquess of Salisbury), which had come to office earlier in the year after the Parnellites and dissident Liberals had defeated the Liberal government of W.E. Gladstone, improved its position in the election but not sufficiently to obtain a majority. During the general election Parnell had called on Irish voters in Britain to vote Tory (i.e. Conservative).

However, as Gladstone was willing to propose a measure of Home Rule for Ireland which Salisbury opposed, Parnell decided to bring down the Conservative ministry when the new Parliament met. A Liberal minority government came into office in January 1886.

1892-1895 Conservative and Liberal Unionist 313, Liberal 272, Irish Nationalists 81, Others 4. Total seats 670.

The situation was similar to that in 1885-86. Following the United Kingdom general election, 1892, although the Irish Nationalists were split between pro and anti-Parnellite factions, they all still preferred the pro-Home Rule Liberals to the anti-Home Rule Unionists of Salisbury. The Conservative government was defeated early in the new Parliament and Gladstone formed a new Liberal minority government.

1910-1915 United Kingdom general election, 1910 (January) Liberal 274, Conservative and Liberal Unionist 272, Irish Nationalists 82, Labour 40, Other 2. Total seats 670.

United Kingdom general election, 1910 (December) Liberal 272, Conservative and Liberal Unionist 271, Irish Nationalists 84, Labour 42, Other 1. Total seats 670.

The Liberal government of H.H. Asquith continued in office as a stable minority administration. Despite strains, both the Irish and Labour members preferred a Liberal government to a Conservative one. This continued to be the case until Asquith formed a Liberal-Conservative-Labour coalition to prosecute the First World War.

1923-1924 United Kingdom general election, 1923 Conservative 258, Labour 191, Liberal 158, Others 8. Total seats 615.

The 1923 general election led to the defeat of the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin. The Labour Party of Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority government in January 1924. Although the party with the balance of power (Asquith's Liberals) appeared to be in a very strong position, the Labour leaders made a deliberate decision not to reach any agreement with the Liberals. As the Liberal Party did not want to join forces with the Conservatives and could not afford a quick general election, they were left in the awkward position of having to vote with the government on measures they had not been consulted about.

The Labour government eventually fell when, in a debate about alleged political interference in a decision whether to prosecute a Communist newspaper editor, the Conservative Party abandoned its own motion and voted for a Liberal one which thus passed and caused the resignation of the Labour government.

1929-1931 United Kingdom general election, 1929 Labour 287, Conservative 260, Liberal 59, Others 9. Total seats 615.

The situation was similar to 1923-1924. However the Labour Party was the largest party in the House of Commons, so the Liberals (now led by David Lloyd George) could abstain without bringing down the new Labour minority government.

As the world economic situation worsened, MacDonald had some discussions with Lloyd George. These led to a government bill to introduce the Australian style alternative vote electoral system. This measure was being obstructed by the Conservative Party and dissident Labour politicians and had not become law before the Labour government fell. A National government was formed, in 1931, with the support of a part of the Labour Party and Conservative and Liberal leaders.

1974 United Kingdom general election, 1974 (February) Labour 301, Conservative 297, Liberal 14, Others 23. Total seats 635.

This election led to the Conservative government of Edward Heath losing its majority, with Harold Wilson's Labour Party winning four more seats. However no two parties (other than Conservative and Labour) could jointly provide a majority in the House of Commons. The balance of power was held jointly by the Liberals and others (Welsh and Scottish nationalists, with the Northern Irish members) - who were unlikely to act together.

Heath entered into discussions with the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. No agreement was reached, mostly because Heath was not prepared to agree to electoral reform and the Liberals were not keen to support a government which had just lost an election. In any event a Conservative-Liberal coalition would have been a minority government.

Heath resigned and Wilson then formed a minority government.


* "British Electoral Facts 1832-1999", compiled and edited by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher (Ashgate 2000)
* "Gladstone", by E.J. Feuchtwanger (Allen Lane 1975)
* "History of the Liberal Party 1895-1970", by Roy Douglas (Sidgwick & Jackson 1971)

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