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British Elections

English Politics

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This section is in advanced English and is only intended to be a guide, not to be taken too seriously!

There are five types of elections in the United Kingdom:-

  • General elections
  • Elections to devolved parliaments and assemblies
  • Elections to the European Parliament
  • Local elections
  • Mayoral elections

Elections are held on Election Day, which is conventionally, for some reason I can't figure out, a Thursday. General elections do not have fixed dates, but must be called within five years of the opening of parliament following the last election. Other elections are held on fixed dates though in the case of the devolved assemblies and parliaments, early elections can occur in certain situations. Presently, six electoral systems are used: single member plurality system (First Past the Post), multi member plurality system, Party list, Single Transferable Vote, Additional Member System and Supplementary Vote.


Anyone who is a citizen of the UK, the Republic of Ireland, or of a Commonwealth country, who is legally resident in the UK, and who is 18 or over on the date of an election is eligible to vote, provided they are on the electoral register, unless they are currently a member of the House of Lords, imprisoned for a criminal offence, mentally incapable of making a reasoned judgement, an undischarged bankrupt, or have been convicted of corrupt or illegal practices in connection with an election within the previous five years. Members of the House of Lords may, however, vote in local and European Elections as well as elections to the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales. Voting is not compulsory. In addition, while UK, Irish and Commonwealth citizens may register to vote in all elections, European Union nationals resident in the UK may register to vote in local, European, Scottish and Welsh elections.

In theory, members of the Royal Family who do not hold a peerage, including the Monarch, are eligible to vote, although in practice it would be seen as unconstitutional if they ever did. UK citizens who have moved abroad remain eligible to vote for 15 years thereafter. They would vote for the MP of the constituency in which they lived before they moved abroad. This is also applicable to people who were under 18 before they moved abroad; when they reach 18 they can vote. "Service voters" - including forces personnel, diplomats and other public servants resident overseas - are also eligible. Voters must appear on the electoral register in order to vote; they can now be added to the register until eleven working days before the election. The electoral register in 2000 listed 44,423,440 people registered to vote in the UK, of whom 36,994,211 were in England.

The right of Irish and Commonwealth citizens to vote is a legacy of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which limited the vote to British subjects. At that time, "British subjects" included the people of Ireland — then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland — and all other parts of the British Empire. Though most of Ireland (see Ireland Act 1949) and the majority of the colonies became independent nations, their citizens have retained the right to vote in the UK if they live in the UK.


19th century

The system of universal suffrage did not exist in Britain until 1928. From 1688 to 1832, less than 10% of the adult male population had the right to vote.

The first act to increase the size of the electorate was the Reform Act 1832 (sometimes known as the Great Reform Act). It abolished 56 rotten boroughs (which had elected 112 MPs) and decreased the property qualification in boroughs. It gave some parliamentary representation to the industrial towns (142 MPs) by redistributing some MPs from boroughs who had disproportional representation. The electoral register was created. The overall result of the Act was that the electorate was increased to 14% of the adult male population. Although this was not a large increase, the Act was the first big step towards equal representation.

Between 1838 and 1848 a popular movement, Chartism organised around 6 demands including universal male franchise and the secret ballot.

The Reform Act 1867 redistributed more MPs from boroughs who had disproportional representation (42) to London and industrial towns. It decreased the property qualification in boroughs, meaning all men (with an address) in boroughs could vote. The consequences were for the first time some of the working class could vote, and MPs had to take these new constituents into account. Some parties decided to become national parties. The overall effect was the that the Act increased the size of the electorate to 32% of the adult male population.

The Ballot Act 1872 replaced open elections with secret ballot system. The Corrupt and Illegal Practises Act 1883 criminalised attempts to bribe voters and standardised the amount that could be spent on election expenses. The Representation of the People Act 1884 and the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 (the Third Reform Act) collectively increased the electorate to 56% of the adult male population.

20th century

The Representation of the People Act 1918 expanded the electorate to include all men over the age of 21 and all married women over the age of 30. Later that year, the Parliamentary Qualification of Women Act 1918 gave women over 30 the right to stand for election as MPs. The first woman to become an MP was Constance Markiewicz in 1918. However, she declined to take up her seat, being a member of Sinn Féin. Nancy Astor, elected in 1919, was the second woman to become an MP, and the first to sit in the Commons. The Equal Franchise Act 1928 lowered the minimum age for women to vote from 30 to 21, making men and women equal in terms of suffrage for the first time. The Representation of the People Act 1949 abolished additional votes for graduates (university constituencies) and the owners of business premises.

The Representation of the People Act 1969 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. The Representation of the People Act 1985 gave British citizens abroad the right to vote for a 5 year period after they had left Britain. The Representation of the People Act 1989 extended the period to 20 years and citizens who were too young to vote when they left the country also became eligible.

Labour (post-1997) reforms

Prior to 1997, and the Labour Party government of Tony Blair, there were only three types of elections: general elections, local government elections, and elections to the European Parliament. Most elections were conducted under the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, though in Northern Ireland local government and European elections were conducted under the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. The constitutional reforms of Labour drastically changed elections, introducing elected regional assemblies and elected mayors in certain cities. Proportional Representation (PR) was introduced outside of Northern Ireland for the first time.

The hybrid (part PR, part FPTP) Additional Member System was introduced in 1999 for the newly created devolved assemblies: the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly and STV was used for the newly created Northern Ireland Assembly. The regional party list (Closed list) system was introduced for European elections in Great Britain (which had previously used single member constituency FPTP) though Northern Ireland continues to use STV.

Labour passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which created the Electoral Commission, which since 2000 has been responsible for the running of elections and referendums and to a limited extent regulating party funding. It also reduced the period during which British expatriates can vote, from 20 years after they emigrate to 15.

In 2008 the Ministry of Justice delivered a report that failed to conclusively recommend any particular voting system as "best" and instead simply compared working practices through the UK's different elections and governments. The Minister of State for Justice, Ministry of Justice (Michael Wills) issued a statement following its publication stating that no action would be taken on the various reports that, since 1997, have suggested a move towards proportional representation for the UK general election until reform of the House of Lords is completed. Critics have claimed that failure to move away from First Past the Post is disenfranchising voters.

Party System

Traditionally (with the sole exception of 1923), the UK effectively has had a two party system arising from the use of the First-Past-The-Post system for general and local elections. Duverger's law certainly seems borne out in the history of British parliamentary politics. Before World War I, Britain had a true two-party system, the main parties being the Tories (which became the Conservative Party) and the Whigs (which became the Liberal Party), though after Catholic Emancipation there was also a substantial Irish Parliamentary Party. After World War II, the dominant parties have been Conservative and Labour. No third party has come close to winning a parliamentary majority.

However, some have challenged the view that Britain still has a two party system, since the Liberal Democrats have won around 15%-25% of the votes in recent elections. The Liberal Democrats won 62 of the 646 seats in the House of Commons in the 2005 general election, and several nationalist (regional) groupings sit, leading some spectators to regard the Westminster parliament as a "two and a half" party system.

Smaller parties receive many more votes (and seats) in the elections using a proportional system, which are the regional elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly and London Assembly, and the European Parliament elections. Regional parties, such as the Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru receive many more votes than at general or local elections, and at European elections, the United Kingdom Independence Party and Green Party of England and Wales perform better. It can be argued that in these elections, there is a multi-party system.

It is relatively easy to stand for election as an independent candidate, although wins are very rare and usually involve special circumstances (for example Martin Bell's 1997 victory against the discredited Conservative MP Neil Hamilton was aided by the major parties standing aside and not contesting the election). Following the 2005 general election, there are three independent MPs, the highest number since 1945. To stand as a candidate in a particular constituency, a British citizen needs the signatures of 10 people registered to vote there, and pay a deposit of £500 (which is returned if he/she gains more than 5% of the vote in that seat).

General Elections

United Kingdom general elections are the elections held when the Members of Parliament (MPs) forming the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom are elected. Following the Parliament Act 1911, parliamentary sessions last a maximum of five years, and are ended with the dissolution of Parliament. Therefore elections are not fixed, and the time is chosen by the governing party to maximise political advantage. The 2010 election will be on May 6, 2010.

Candidates aim to win particular geographic constituencies in the UK. Each constituency elects one MP by the first past the post system of election. At the 2005 general election, there were 646 constituencies, thus 646 MPs were elected to Parliament. Boundary changes in Scotland reduced the number of MPs from 659 at the 2001 election to 646. The party with the most seats, i.e. the most MPs, usually forms the government, and the second largest party forms Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Almost all candidates are members of a political party and the majority of voters in the UK choose who to vote for based on the candidates' parties, rather than the personalities or opinions of the individual candidates.


A general election must take place before each parliamentary term begins. Since the maximum term of a parliament is five years, the interval between successive general elections can exceed that period by no more than the combined length of the election campaign and time for the new parliament to assemble (typically five to eight weeks). The actual election may be held at any time before the end of the five-year term. The five years runs from the first meeting of Parliament following the election. The timing of an election is at the discretion of the incumbent Prime Minister. This timing is usually political, and thus if a government is popular then the election is often "called" after around four years in power.

The Prime Minister asks the Monarch to dissolve Parliament by Royal Proclamation. The Proclamation also orders the issue of the formal Writs of Election which require an election to be held in each constituency. The election is held 17 working days after the date of the Proclamation, as regulated by the Representation of the People Act 1983, s. 23 and Schedule 1 ("Parliamentary election rules"), rule 1 ("Timetable").

Since 1935 every general election has been held on a Thursday. Of the 17 general elections between 1945 and 2005, four each were held in October, June, and May, and two were held in February.

The Cabinet Office imposes Purdah before elections. This is a period of roughly six weeks in which Government Departments are not allowed to communicate with members of the public about any new or controversial Government initiatives (such as modernisation initiatives, administrative and legislative changes).


Polls close at 10 p.m. and the votes are, in most constituencies, counted immediately. The earliest results are declared by about 11 p.m., with most having been declared by 3 or 4 a.m.; some constituencies do not declare their results until the following day. In Northern Ireland the count itself does not begin until the next morning, with results being announced from early afternoon onwards.

When all of the results are known, or when one party achieves an absolute majority of the seats in the House of Commons, the first response comes from the current (and possibly outgoing) Prime Minister. If a majority in the new Parliament has been achieved by their party, they remain in office without the need for reconfirmation or reappointment — no new 'term' of office is started. If a majority has not been achieved, and it is obvious that another party has the numbers to form a government, the Prime Minister submits a resignation to the Monarch. The Monarch then commissions the leader of the new majority party to form a new government. The Prime Minister has the option of attempting to remain in power even if seats have been lost. The subsequent Queen's Speech (i.e., outline of the proposed legislative programme) offers a chance for the House of Commons to cast a vote of confidence or no confidence in the government through accepting or rejecting the Queen's Speech.

The last Prime Minister who, having failed to win a majority, opted not to resign immediately was Edward Heath, in 1974. However, after initial negotiations with the Liberal Party failed to provide a coalition deal, he resigned, allowing Queen Elizabeth II to commission Labour leader Harold Wilson to form an administration. Until the Prime Minister reacts to the election result, either by deciding to remain on or resign, the Monarch has no role. Only if the Prime Minister resigns can the Monarch then commission someone else to form a government. Thus Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, was only asked to form a government once. Similarly, Tony Blair was only ever commissioned to form a government once, in 1997. After each election, having remained in power, a Prime Minister may take the option to engage in a major or minor reshuffle of ministers.

The largest party not in government becomes the Official Opposition, known as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Any smaller parties not in government are collectively known as "the opposition".

Any vacancies created in the House, due to death, ennoblement, or resignation are filled by by-election. The time-frame for these is not automatic and they can be months after the vacancy was created, or even abandoned if there is a pending general election.

Local Elections

In local elections, councillors are elected forming the local administrations of the United Kingdom. A number of tiers of local council exist, at region, county, district/borough and town/parish levels. A variety of voting systems are used for local elections. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, the single transferable vote system is used, whilst in most of England and Wales the single member plurality system is used. The remainder of England (including all of the London Boroughs) and Wales use the plurality at-large system, except for the elections of the Mayor and Assembly of the Greater London Authority (GLA).

Local elections are held every year, but different parts of the UK vote in each case. In years with a general election it is usual practice to hold both general and local elections on the same day. In 2004, for the first time, local elections were held on the same day as European elections, and London Mayoral and Assembly elections. The date was referred to as 'Super Thursday'.

The only Region of England which has a directly elected administration is London. London Assembly elections began in 2000, when it was created. The Additional Member System is used for elections to the Assembly. The Mayor is elected via the Supplementary Vote system.

The Future

Electoral reform

Some UK parties, mainly the Liberal Democrats, have long proposed that the current First Past the Post system used for general elections be replaced with another system.

The introduction of proportional representation has been advocated for some time by the Liberal Democrats, and some pressure groups such as Charter 88, Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society. Recently, following the 2005 election in which Labour was elected with the lowest share of the national vote for any single party majority government in British history, more public attention has been brought to the issue. The national compact newspaper The Independent started a petition campaign for the introduction of a more proportional system immediately after the election, under the title "Campaign For Democracy". The broad-based Make Votes Count Coalition currently brings together those groups advocating reform.

Parliamentary and Party positions

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Reform is a cross party group consisting of 150 MPs that support electoral reform, chaired by Richard Burden.

Labour pledged in its manifesto for the 1997 general election to set up a commission on alternatives to the first-past-the-post system for general elections and hold a referendum in the future on whether to change the system. The Independent Commission on the Voting System, headed by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and known as the Jenkins Commission, was established in December 1997. It reported in October 1998 and suggested the Alternative vote top-up or AV+ system.

The government had expected a recommendation which could have been implemented within the Parliament and decided that it would be impractical to have a general election using First Past the Post after a referendum decision to adopt a different system, and therefore delayed the referendum until after the next general election. In practice, forces within the Labour Party opposed to any change persuaded the party not to repeat the pledge for a referendum in the 2001 manifesto and therefore none was held once the party was re-elected.

After the 2005 election, Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer said there was "no groundswell" for change, although a Cabinet committee was given the task of investigating reform. John Prescott was made Chair; given his known opposition to change, proponents were critical and dismissive of the move. Several prominent Labour MPs have expressed a desire for investigating electoral reform, including Peter Hain (who made a speech in the House of Commons in March 2004 arguing for the Alternative Vote), Patricia Hewitt, Tessa Jowell and Baroness Amos.

As mentioned above, in January 2008 the government produced a "desk-bound" review of the experience to date of new voting systems in the UK since Labour came to power in 1997. This review was non-committal as to the need for further reform in the UK, especially as regards reform of the voting system used in General Elections.

The Conservative party are predominantly against PR. Despite the fact that the Conservative party would gain significant numbers of seats if PR was used in the last election, some in the party feel it might find itself politically isolated on the right, and face Labour/Lib Dem coalition governments. Electoral reform, towards a proportional model, is desired by the Liberal Democrat party, the Green and several other small parties.

Arguments for reform

  • It would be more representative of the electorate, as votes cast would be roughly proportional to seats.
  • No votes would be wasted if PR was used and there would be less tactical voting (which is harmful to democracy because it causes people to vote for a different party than they support).
  • It would widen voter choice, smaller parties would have a more realistic chance of winning seats.
  • It would probably reduce the large majority that the many governments (like the current government) enjoy, therefore it would produce weaker governments than with First-Past-the-Post because the governing party would have a smaller majority. This means that the effects of executive dominance would be reduced: the House of Commons would be less of a rubber stamp and the government might be forced to compromise. Genuine debate, with meaningful impact on legislation might be reintroduced in the Commons.
  • It might produce coalition governments (as in the Scottish Parliament). Advocates argue this would lead to much more emphasis on consensus, and better represent the combined will of the electorate, because coalitions include several parties.
  • PR is already used for the regional, European and mayoral elections; general elections should follow suit.

Arguments against reform

  • The direct link the FPTP system provides between voters and their local Member of Parliament would be lost if certain Proportional Representation systems were adopted. However this would not be the case if a hybrid PR system was used, such as the Additional Member System (used for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly) or alternative vote top-up (suggested by the Jenkins Commission), or if a majoritarian system such as Supplementary Vote used for Mayoral elections was selected. The Single Transferable Vote used for elections within many organisations in the UK and for local elections in both Northern Ireland and Scotland allows for multi-member constituencies elected via a proportional system but retains the constituency link because MPs are elected as individual representative as opposed to being elected from party lists. This system is used in the Republic of Ireland and means that every voter has a direct link to not one, but between 3 and 5 members, directly elected by their constituency.
  • First Past the Post tends to produce strong governments, which supporters see as an advantage (there is relatively little chance of coalition government), and the only coalitions in the 20th or 21st centuries have happened at times of emergency, usually when one party does not have an overall majority in the House of Commons.
  • Coalition governments cannot deliver the electoral mandate, because there has to be consensus on policy with other parties. Coalitions could give small parties disproportionate power.
  • Parties seen as 'extreme' by the establishment parties, such as the British National Party, might be able to win seats and gain real political power if they had enough votes nationwide. Some think it would be irresponsible to give 'extremists' the opportunity to have political power. This could be avoided with a minimum exclusion level (e.g. to return 5% of votes). However, such an exclusion would also discriminate against smaller non-'extreme' parties, such as the Green Party.

Low turnout

As in many Western democracies, voter apathy is a current concern, after a dramatic decline in election turnout recently. Turnout has fallen from 77% in 1992, 71% in 1997 to 61% in the last election. This was a small rise from 2001, which recorded 59%. The main reasons identified for low turnout are:

  • Lack of variation in the ideologies of the main parties
  • Decline in partisanship (many voters are no longer permanently loyal to one party)
  • Reduction in the popularity of various Party leaderships.
  • Dissatisfaction with parties' record on public services, education, transport etc.
  • Lack of interest in the election campaign.
  • Voter apathy due to voters believing their vote will have no effect on the overall outcome. Turnout is inversely proportional to the majority in any seat.

Possible measures to increase turnout include:

  • Compulsory voting (seen as an extreme solution, not advocated by many)
  • Electoral reform, towards PR (a policy advocated by the Liberal Democrats)
  • New forms of voting, e.g., by post, telephone, internet (the scope of postal voting was increased by Labour before the last election). There were several sets of criminal proceedings after the last general election pointing out weaknesses in the postal voting system and resulting in a cooling of enthusiasm for IT and other proxy arrangements.

Interesting Links

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