Election 2015

Reality Check: Governing without winning the most seats

Led by losers


governments led by the party that came second

  • 1885 Conservatives 249 (Liberals 319)

  • 1892 Liberals 272 (Conservatives 313)

  • 1923 Labour 191 (Conservatives 258)

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There has been much talk during this election campaign about whether a party could end up leading the government even if it wins fewer seats than one of its rivals.

Perhaps a party that does not win the most seats could govern with the support of nationalists or liberals.

Well, if either of those scenarios plays out, it will not be the first time.

In 1885, the Conservatives won 249 seats, beaten by William Gladstone's Liberals who took 319 seats. But the Conservative Marquess of Salisbury ended up as prime minister, supported by the Irish Nationalists, who had 86 seats. The government did not last long though, with another election taking place the following year in which the Conservatives won an overall majority.

In 1892, the tables were turned, with the Liberals winning 272 seats to the Conservatives' (and Liberal Unionists) 313 seats. This time it was the Liberals who formed a minority government, supported by the Irish Nationalists. This government fared a little better, lasting until 1895.

Fast forward to 1923, when Stanley Baldwin's Conservatives won 258 seats, defeating Ramsay MacDonald's Labour Party, which had 191 seats. But Ramsay MacDonald ended up forming the first Labour government, supported by Herbert Asquith's Liberals, who had won 158 seats.

The government lasted for 10 months.

So what do we learn from these historical examples? It is possible to govern despite winning fewer seats than a rival, but it doesn't tend to last the full term.

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