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Balance of power (Parliament)

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Subject: Nick Xenophon, Australian federal election, 2010, Australian Labor Party, Arthur Coles, South Australian state election, 2014
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Balance of power (Parliament)

In parliamentary politics, the term balance of power sometimes informally 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. The term itself is partially a misnomer of its misapplication from geopolitics in the twentieth century and European politics in the nineteenth century involved, for example, in the assessment of the conditions of war following the Napoleonic campaigns across Europe (see Metternich). When used informally as a term describing voting majorities, this condition of 'balance' 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.


  • Australia 1
  • United Kingdom 2
  • United States 3
    • House of Representatives 3.1
  • References 4


The Senate, which serves as the nation's upper house and as a house of review, was established on the basis of ensuring that the smaller Colonies joining the Commonwealth were given equal representation, as required under the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900.[1][2] Between 1901 and 1918, Senators were elected on a first past the post system, changing to each state voting as one electorate on a preferential system from 1918 until 1948. During this period, the majority party in the lower house also generally had a commanding majority in the Senate.[2] Since 1949, Senators are elected on the basis of achieving a transferable quota in each State or Territory.[2] In more recent years, this method of election has generally resulted in a multi-party mix.[3] In the early years after the establishment of the Commonwealth, Senators were more inclined to vote along State lines, with some exceptions.[2]

The Senate has the power to reject or defer bills passed by the lower house, thus obliging the government of the day to negotiate with minor parties in the Senate (or the opposition) 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.[1]

If no party holds a majority of seats in the lower house, it is necessary to form a coalition with other members of parliament in order to form a stable government, rather than rely on the support of crossbenchers who hold the balance of power.[4]

United Kingdom

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' Feargus O'Connor gained the only seat the party would ever hold.

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, January 1910 Liberal 274, Conservative and Liberal Unionist 272, Irish Nationalists 82, Labour 40, Other 2. Total seats 670.

United Kingdom general election, December 1910 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.

February - October 1974 United Kingdom general election, February 1974 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. Also, the Liberals were not keen to support a government which had just lost an election (although it did narrowly win the popular vote). In any event, a Conservative-Liberal coalition would have been a minority government and would have needed the support of the Ulster Unionist Party (which had recently broken with the Conservatives) to command a bare majority of seats.

Heath resigned and Wilson then formed a minority government.

2010–present United Kingdom general election, 2010 Conservative 306, Labour 258, Liberal Democrats 57, Others 29. Total seats 650.

This election led to David Cameron's Conservative Party being the largest party with no majority. 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 Liberal Democrats and others (the Green Party, Welsh and Scottish nationalists, with the Northern Irish members)—who were unlikely to act together.

Labour incumbent Gordon Brown and Cameron announced their intentions to enter discussions with the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, open to signing a deal to allow a government to be formed. Having stated before the election that the party with the largest number of seats should have the initial say on forming a government, Clegg announced his intention to begin talks with the Conservative Party. Talks between the Liberal Democrats and Labour were also held, but Brown's continued presence as Prime Minister was seen as a stumbling block to formulating a Labour-Liberal Democrat deal. Thus, Brown announced that he would step down as Labour leader by September 2010. With Labour attempting to form its own coalition government, the Conservatives promised the Liberal Democrats a referendum on changing the voting mechanism to the Alternative Vote (AV) system. In response Labour said that they would introduce AV then hold a referendum asking the public to approve it.

However, by 11 May, the possibility of a Lib-Lab deal was looking unlikely as talks between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats continued, and after concluding that he would not be able to form a government, Gordon Brown announced his resignation on the evening of 11 May. Cameron became Prime Minister and announced his intention to form a coalition government, the first since the Second World War, with the Liberal Democrats. As one of his first moves, Cameron appointed Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister. Later that day, the two parties jointly published the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement specifying the terms of the coalition deal.

United States

Because politics in the United States have historically been dominated by two major parties, minority governments are extremely rare and have only occurred a few times in the country's entire history. However, they have been formed in both the lower United States House of Representatives and the upper United States Senate before, and happened quite frequently during the American Civil War period and once during World War I.

House of Representatives

1848-1849 Democrat 113, Whig 108, Free Soil 9, American 1, Independent 1. Total seats 233.

This was the first time in U.S. history that no party was able to receive a majority of seats in the House. The representatives voted 62 times to elect a Speaker of the House without any success. On the 63rd vote, Democratic leader Howell Cobb was chosen with help from the Free Soil Party, who held the balance of power. The Democrats then formed a minority government that was dependent upon Free Soil Party support to pass laws. The Free Soils would eventually turn against the Democrats in the following elections and combine with the Whigs to form the Opposition Party.

1854-1855 Opposition 100, Democrat 82, American 52. Total seats 234.

The collapse of the Whig Party was the likely reason that no party acquired a majority of seats in this midterm election. However, the Free Soil Party joined forces with the dying Whigs and created the loose Opposition Party, which would solidify into the modern Republican Party. Despite this, the Democrats technically had the most seats, and were able to form a brief coalition with the American Party until the next election.

1858-1859 Republican 114, Democrat 101, Opposition 17, American 6. Total seats 238.

This was the first time in history that the Republican Party won the most seats in the House. Nevertheless, it was not enough to secure a majority in the chamber and they were forced to establish a minority government. Thus, the Republicans relied on the last members from the Opposition Party and the American Party to pass laws.

1862-1863 Republican 88, Democrat 72, Constitutional Union 24. Total seats 185.

During the American Civil War, some states on the border between the North and South retained their laws of slavery but did not secede from the country. The voters of these states also elected many members of the Constitutional Union Party which ignored the issue of slavery and focused on reuniting the country under any circumstances. This was the only election where they were powerful enough to hold the balance of power and force the Republicans to work with them to create legislation.

1916 Republican 216, Democrat 214, Progressive 3, Socialist 1, Prohibition 1. Total seats 435.

This is last recorded election in the House that did not produce a clear majority of seats. Because Republican leader James Mann was unable to secure a majority, Democratic leader Champ Clark successfully attempted to do so with the assistance of the Progressive Party representatives and Socialist representative Meyer London by establishing a temporary wartime coalition due to the events of World War I.


  1. ^ a b  
  2. ^ a b c d Evans, Simon (2006). "The Australian Senate" (pdf). Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies,  
  3. ^ "Australia's system of government". About Australia. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,  
  4. ^  
  • 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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