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Minority governments, coalitions and pacts

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 31 March 2010

Do you know the difference between an absolute majority, a minority government and a coalition? Because if the polls are correct, one could be coming our way soon.

Big Ben (Reuters)

Overall majority
There are 650 seats in the House of Commons. That means for one party to enjoy an overall - or absolute - majority, it would in principle need to win 326 seats.

However, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker do not vote, and the five current Sinn Fein MPs are barred from voting because they refuse to take swear allegiance to the Queen.

In the 2005 general election Labour won 356 seats, giving it an overall majority of 66. The Labour party will lose its absolute majority in the general election if it loses 24 seats, while the Conservative party will have to gain an extra 116 seats to govern unopposed.

Hung parliament
A hung parliament usually occurs when a general election fails to produce an overall majority for a single party.

The last hung parliament was in February 1974, when Labour secured 301 seats, the Conservatives 297, and the Liberal party 14.

Read more from Channel 4 News on hung parliaments
- Hung parliament in the balance in 2010
- Brown could lose and still be PM
- What’s so bad about a hung parliament?
- Hung parliaments: a short history

Coalition government
A coalition government is one where two or more parties cooperate in government together.

This coalition can be formalised, with two or more parties represented in cabinet and the government bound by a shared policy agenda.

However, outside wartime, hung parliaments at Westminster have rarely produced formal coalitions.

Minority government
For a minority government to succeed, one of the big parties has to strike a series deals with one or more political grouping on an ad hoc, issue by issue basis, in order to push through legislation.

The closest this country has come to a minority government in recent years is the 1977 Lib-Lab pact, when a beleaguered Labour government with no overall majority agreed to accept a range of Liberal party policy proposals – on condition the Liberals voted with Labour in any no confidence votes.

In fact, for the last 10 years the upper house at Westminster has continued to function with no overall control, with the Labour government having to secure the support of one or more other parties in order to win a vote.

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