In a hung Parliament, will the biggest party form the government?

Well, Robert Hazell says ‘not necessarily’. This does not mean ‘no’. It means that, while there is a high probability, it is not a certainty. This conclusion seems to bother some people. We don’t like to talk about probability because (a) it highlights a lack of certainty; (b) many of us are crap at calculating probability; and (c) calculating probability is partly a political exercise, since we need to decide what is/ isn’t a comparable experience.

Take the simple example of tossing a coin. This example tends to be used because the conditions are the same each time and each instance is comparable to the last (assuming no one is cheating). There is a probability of getting a head of 1 in 2. This does not mean that, if you toss it twice you’ll get a head once. It means that if you toss it, say, one million times, you’ll get about half a million heads.

Herein lies the problem with UK hung Parliaments: we have only two sort-of comparable experiences – not enough to say much about what has happened as a basis for predicting what will happen. The rest don’t count because, in most cases, of course the biggest party formed a government (it had a majority of seats).

We could supplement this number with sort-of comparable cases elsewhere: for example, there seems to be a developing culture in Canada to give legitimacy to the largest party even when the choice is between minority government, with the largest party, versus majority coalition with a combination of other parties.  We might also talk of the UK culture, in which the ‘winner takes all’ mentality of the Westminster system still pushes us to think that the largest party has won even if it didn’t win outright. I got that sense in Scotland when the SNP was given the chance to form a coalition then, when it didn’t work out, a minority – and in 2010 when the Conservatives were given first shot at coalition (although there were some rumblings about Labour trying next if it didn’t work out – partly because a majority is more valuable to people seeking certainty when a government is in charge of ‘high politics’).

We could do that, but we’d still be left with a sense of high probability, not certainty. I’m fine with that.

See also: this debate plays out a bit over twitter, which shows how some of the parties see it (which may be the most important thing). The thing that interests me is the way in which Scottish Labour initially portrayed the issue with certainty …

… then focused more on people’s expectations and moral authority

The latter is, I think, closer to what we saw in 2007 when the SNP formed a minority government on the back of an often-implicit understanding of Westminster convention. Indeed, that proved to be the super-clever point of the BM tweets:


Filed under Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

2 responses to “In a hung Parliament, will the biggest party form the government?

  1. Largest Party – in seats/votes in parliament or votes in the General Election? Democracy suggests it should be votes but decisions in parliament depend on votes in parliament.

  2. SqueuedPerspextive

    There are rules about this.
    Reference :

    The incumbent party (in this case Tory) get to have first go at getting the backing to form a govt. In the case of a hung parliament where they do not have an overall majority this involves talking to other parties and offering compromises on policy to accommodate their policies and win support.

    If they cannot command an overall majority (with support from allied parties) they have 2 options. 1) Rule as a minority and risk getting a no confidence come the Queens speech or 2) Allow the next largest party to attempt to form a govt.

    The next largest party is then in the same position (with the same 2 options) if they cannot form sufficient alliances to command an overall majority.

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