General elections in the UK take place every four to five years. We’ll explain how the government is elected.
- Houses of Parliament, London
General elections are usually held between the fourth and fifth anniversary of the last general election. The exact date is chosen by the prime minister. It may not be a weekend or public holiday – so elections are usually held on a Thursday.
To call a general election, the prime minister must ask the Queen for dissolution of Parliament before announcing the date for the election. The date for the 2005 general election (5 May 2005) was announced by Tony Blair on 5 April 2005.
With posters, debates and other campaigns, the candidates try to attract voters. Candidates may not spend as much as they want on campaigning, however – there is a strict limit. Every party may only spend 40 Pence per voter in a constituency. For each candidate a further 7,150 Pound per constituency and 5–7 Pence per voter may be spent. This keeps the number of annoying mailshots and phone calls down.
Entitled to vote is everyone with a British nationality who is at least 18 years old on election day and registered in the electoral roll. Members of the Commonwealth or people from the Republic of Ireland can also vote, provided they live in Great Britain or Northern Ireland. Members of the House of Lords, prisoners and people with certain mental illnesses, however, are banned from voting.
The ballot paper lists all candidates for the constituency in alphabetical order. Every voter takes his/her ballot paper to a polling booth and selects one candidate. The folded paper is then put into the ballot box. When the polling stations close, the boxes are sealed and taken to a central point in the constituency where the votes are counted.
The electoral system in the United Kingdom is a relative majority system: every constituency gives its seat in parliament to the candidate who has received more votes than any other candidate.
Example: Let’s say there are three candidates:
- Candidate A receives 25 percent.
- Candidate B receives 35 percent.
- Candidate C receives 40 percent.
Although 60 percent have voted against candidate C, he has received more votes than any other candidate and – in a relative majority system – wins the election.
Note: This system is also called ‘first past the post’ – a term from horse racing, where the winner is who is first past the post (marking the finishing line).
The party with the absolute majority of seats (more than 50 percent) becomes the new government. Since 1945 either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party (Tories) have won the elections. In case that no party has an absolute majority, two or more parties govern together in a coalition.
Following the general elections in 2005, there are only 646 seats in parliament (instead of 659). This is due to a decision of Scottish Parliament to reduce the number of parliamentary seats.
- 529 constituencies in England
- 59 constituencies in Scotland (down from 72)
- 40 constituencies in Wales
- 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland
If between two general elections a Member of Parliament (MP) has died or resigned, a by-election is held to fill the vacant position.