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Analysis paper

Hung parliaments: What are parties' options if a general election returns no clear winner?

Rules governing unclear general election results are loosely defined in the UK.

Party placards outside a polling station
Westminster has comparatively little experience of minority or multi-party government.

Despite the recent experiences of the 2010–15 Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition and 2017 Conservative–DUP confidence and supply agreement, understanding of multi-party government among the UK’s main national political parties is limited.

In the 20th century the UK’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system typically delivered majority governments. However, more recent electoral cycles have bucked this trend: two of the four general elections since 2010 returned hung parliaments. While Labour has enjoyed a poll lead for much of the past 12 months, with the election campaign not yet started and possibly more than six months to go it remains possible that the 2024 general election will see no party win an outright majority. 

However, despite the UK’s comparatively recent experience of both coalition and minority governments, Westminster lacks institutional memory of minority and multi-party governance. There are valuable lessons to learn from those examples of 2010 and 2017, from other countries and other parts of the UK; since devolution Scotland and Wales both have had different types of non-majority governments. 

This Analysis paper sets out the existing rules and conventions for government formation after an election with an unclear outcome, and examines some of the trade-offs that parties may need to make, what elements a deal can include, and the considerations that might affect what type of deal is most appealing or viable for parties.

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