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Hung up on a 'hung parliament'?

Thermogram of Houses of Parliament
Coalitions were regular occurrences in British politics before 1945

By Stuart Wilks-Heeg
Senior Lecturer, Liverpool University

With media discussion about a possible 'hung parliament' reaching fever pitch, voters might assume that this outcome would constitute a unique event in British political history.

In fact, five general elections during the 20th century turned out that way. Should no party secure a majority after 6 May, it will be unique only in the sense that no previous 'hung parliament' was described as such at the time it actually happened.

Journalists might have wanted for such a phrase as they chronicled the outcome of the election of 28 February 1974 - but it was yet to be invented.

Simon Hoggart
Journalist Simon Hoggart coined the phrase "hung parliament" in 1974

So, on 2 March 1974, The Times spoke of "an inconclusive and confused stalemate" and "as inconvenient a balance of parties in parliament as could possibly have been devised".

Journalists on The Guardian, meanwhile, seemed to settle on "deadlock" until one of them broke rank. On 22 June 1974, amid rumours of a snap summer election, Simon Hoggart pondered what might happen 'in the event of another "hung parliament".

Slowly, other journalists began to follow Hoggart's lead. By 1978, the term "hung parliament" was being used an average of three times a month in The Guardian and The Times.

Parliamentarians took a little more time to follow suit. The first recorded use of the phrase in Hansard was on 6 May 1978, in a speech by Kevin McNamara MP, but it was not uttered by parliamentarians on more than 10 occasions per annum until 1987.

Not 'hung', just 'normal'

The emergence of the Liberal-SDP Alliance in the 1980s prompted a rush to adopt the term, although it remained a contested one initially, with the use of inverted commas being commonplace.

The obviously negative connotations of a parliament being "hung" have been noted by many. Derived from the American notion of a "hung jury", an indecisive outcome which results in a re-trial, the application of the phrase to the 1974 Parliament captured the prevailing interpretation that the electors had produced an unworkable House of Commons, and that a second election would have to be called.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Coalitions are common in countries like Germany

Alternative phrases have been put forward for decades by those seeking to reassure electors, and financial markets, that a parliament in which representatives of different parties work together, rather than jeer at each other, can actually be viable.

In 1985, David Owen's speech to the SDP conference suggested the term "negotiating parliament" would be preferable. Since 2005, the notion of a "balanced parliament" has gained growing currency among the Liberal Democrats and many smaller parties.

What inspiration might we draw from elsewhere? In Canada, which retains the first-past-the-post electoral system, the phrase "minority parliament" is used. Nobody speaks of a 'hung Congress' in the USA, although its legislature is sometimes said to be "deadlocked"

Tellingly, the words "hung parliament" do not translate at all into German, French or other European languages.

Across continental Europe, where proportional representation renders single party majorities exceptionally rare, the British notion of a "hung" parliament appears to describe just a "normal" parliament. With or without electoral reform, this is probably the goal we need to work towards - however we choose to describe it.

Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Liverpool and executive director of Democratic Audit.

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