The imminent 2015 UK General Election is proving to be one of the most uncertain we have known; however in the recent past it was not uncommon to encounter hung parliaments where no single party had managed to gain the majority of seats. We thought it would be interesting to search through Jisc MediaHub for examples of where this had occurred, the personalities involved and what strategies had been used to form a working government.
The general election held in 1923 resulted in a hung parliament. Although most seats were won by Stanley Baldwin‘s Conservatives, Ramsay MacDonald went on to become the first Labour Prime Minister after forming a coalition with the waning Liberal party. The cartoon below shows the three candidates racing to the laurel crown: Baldwin with his trademark pipe; the Liberal leader, H.H.Asquith, being supported by David Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald being helped up the ladder to victory by the ‘working man’.
Ramsay MacDonald’s term in office proved to be very short lived. Although he had some successes he found it increasingly difficult to keep Labour’s fragile coalition with the Liberals intact. This came to a head with the Campbell Case which led to allegations that the Labour Government was being influenced by communist groups. As the Bolshevik threat was a very real fear at the time, Conservatives and Liberals were able to unite and win a motion of ‘no confidence’ against Labour. Parliament was dissolved and another general election set for less than a year since the previous one. Click on the image below to see a very rudimentary animated carton drawn at the time.
A mere 4 days before the 1924 general election a huge scandal erupted following the publication of the Zinoviev letter by the British Press. The letter, purporting to be from a senior Soviet called Grigory Zinoviev, urged the British Communist Party ‘to stir up the masses of the British proletariat’ in order to pressurise the British Government into strengthening relations with the Soviet Union. This was political dynamite and dashed any hope of victory at the polls by Labour; although it is now accepted the letter was a forgery.
Stanley Baldwin won a decisive victory and went on to form a majority Conservative government which ran to full term. For him the previous coalition had ultimately proved beneficial, despite the fact he was locked out of power during that time.
There was a lot of excitement around the 1929 general election which was the first to take place under universal suffrage. It was called the ‘Flapper Election’ as it was the first time all women aged 21 and over were allowed to vote. This was reflected in frivolous press coverage including the rapidly developing medium of newsfilm. Click on the clip below to see young women rushing to the polling station straight from the public baths and still in their 1920’s swimming costumes. This time Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour Party won the most seats but did not have a majority and were forced to enter into another coalition with the Liberals, who were now lead by David Lloyd George.
A few months later the Wall Street Crash set off the chain of events which would lead to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. MacDonald’s Government had to try and find solutions for rising unemployment and struggled to cope with the economic crisis. There was great division between the parties about the best way to promote growth and safeguard those in need, and our own experience of the 2008 financial crisis very much reflects the same problems.
After the upheaval of the World War II, subsequent general elections resulted in majority governments. In fact it was not until March 1974 that another hung parliament arose, following Edward Heath’s narrow defeat by Harold Wilson. In this unusual situation neither the Conservatives nor Labour could have made a coalition agreement with the Liberal Party to enable them to form an overall majority. Again, this general election was held against the background of an economic crisis including the Miners’ Strike and the Three Day Week.
Heath remained Prime Minister for a short while until his negotiations with the Liberals failed and he subsequently resigned. Harold Wilson was then invited to form a minority government. Click on the image above to watch scenes outside Downing Street as Edward Heath relinquished power. By this time he was an unpopular figure but nevertheless you may be surprised to witness the amount of hostility shown by the gathering crowds. Nowadays access to Downing Street is restricted.
This Labour minority government was not expected to last for long and Harold Wilson called another general election 7 months later at which Labour won a majority. Less than 18 months afterwards Wilson resigned unexpectedly, to be succeeded by Jim Callaghan until the next general election in 1979 when the Conservative’s swept to power with Margaret Thatcher.
Since then we grew used to a two party system in which UK politics was dominated by battles for power between the Conservatives and Labour. The global financial crisis of 2008 heralded a phase of great economic uncertainty which still continues today and (along with changes to British society) has reshaped the political landscape. When Labour lost their majority in the general election of 2010 no single party had enough seats to form a government, resulting in the first Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition.
As we approach the General Election 2015 polling day we know the outcome is impossible to predict and we may already be at the forefront of an age of coalition governments which will change UK politics for the foreseeable future.
- Vision of Britain: Election Results Data
- Gov.UK: Past Prime Ministers
- Understanding the UK’s 2015 General Election A MOOC from the University of Edinburgh
- Gov.UK: The Cabinet Manual Chapter 2 sets out the rules on forming a government
- BBC Election Coverage
- UK Parliament Official Website