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Britain at the polls: A guide to the UK’s 2015 General Election

View of the Houses of Parliament across the River Thames in Westminster, London

By Charles Pattie at the University of Sheffield, 10 April 2015

On May 7th this year, the United Kingdom will hold a General Election for the House of Commons, the main assembly of the British Parliament. But what’s Parliament? What’s the House of Commons? And what is a General Election? Charles Pattie, Professor of Electoral Geography from the Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield, explains how the UK political system works…

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Who can vote?

This is a ‘General Election’ – and so almost every UK national over the age of 18 has a vote.

Republic of Ireland citizens and Commonwealth citizens living in the UK can also register to vote in general elections. European Union (EU) citizens living in the UK can register to vote in European Parliament and local elections (for local government where you live) in the UK, but not in the General Election.

Go to UKCISA’s article on Voting to find out more.

What is everyone voting for?

Voters choose Members of Parliament (known as MPs) to stand in the House of Commons. The House of Commons and the House of Lords make up Parliament, which is the seat of government in the UK, so the General Election is the key moment when British voters decide who their government will be.

In the UK, all new laws need to go through both houses, but the House of Commons is where members are selected by a public vote (the House of Lords, which is made up of high-ranking and respected members of society, has its own selection process).

Who are the people in the House of Commons?

The House of Commons is where 650 elected MPs sit. They are the people who propose, debate and pass new laws. After the Commons have agreed on new laws, they go to the House of Lords (which is made up of high-ranking/respected members of society) for further discussion. Once both Houses agree, the law is passed and is formally signed off by the Queen.

Almost all MPs represent one of several different political parties. The Government is usually formed by the party or parties that ‘command a majority’ in the Commons – meaning at least 326 MPs out of the total 650 are elected from the Government parties. Its leader (who will also be an MP) becomes the new Prime Minister. He or she then consults his or her senior colleagues (most of whom will be MPs too), who form the Cabinet (the senior government ministers responsible for running major departments of state).

The other parties’ MPs become ‘the opposition’ (the losing party with most MPs becomes the official ‘opposition’); their role is to take a critical look at any new laws the Government suggests and question any laws that they see as problematic. Together, the Government and the opposition make Parliament work.

As a result, choosing MPs in the General Election is very important, as it controls which political party or parties will form the government. That raises an obvious question:

How do MPs get elected to Parliament?

A cornerstone of Britain’s electoral system is that each MP represents a separate geographically defined community called a ‘constituency’. The UK is divided into 650 separate constituencies, each designed to contain around 70,000 voters. In every constituency, voters choose an MP to represent them in the Commons for the next five years.

Inside the House of Commons in Westminster, London (Photo ©VisitEngland Images)

How do people vote?

Voters in each constituency choose between the candidates (most of whom will represent a different political party) standing for election there. People make their choices for a number of reasons – some make their choices based on candidates’ policies for their local area, some look more at central Government policy or the personalities of party leaders, while others are long-standing supporters of a certain party. Major political parties usually have a candidate in almost every constituency, while other independent or small-party candidates stand in other areas.

All voters make their choices in private by placing a single cross in a box on a ballot paper against the name of the candidate they wish to support. Electoral law ensures that each individual’s vote is secret.

Some people apply for a postal vote so they can vote at home and mail their vote to the election authorities. Most, however, still vote in person, placing their vote in a sealed ballot box at a polling station. Polling stations are usually a public hall such as a school or community centre, and letters, leaflets and posters inform voters where to go on polling day.

The polls open at 7am and close at 10pm on 7 May. After this, the ballot boxes from each polling station are taken to central counting centres. The votes are counted in public, to ensure there is no manipulation of the results.

How does an MP win?

The candidate who gains the most votes in each constituency is the winner. They immediately become the local MP for the next five years.

Winning does not require getting a majority (over 50 per cent) of the votes cast. One more vote than the next most popular candidate is enough to send someone to Parliament.

This system (often referred to as ‘first past the post’) has been in use for elections to the House of Commons for many years. It is quick, simple, and usually produces clear-cut results.

What happens after the General Election?

Once the results have been declared in every constituency, the composition of the new House of Commons becomes clear. Usually, one political party emerges with a majority (i.e. over half) of MPs and can therefore guarantee it will be able to win most debates in the Commons.

But sometimes elections do not produce a clear winner – this was the case in 2010. No party had at least 326 MPs, and so no one party was able to govern by itself. As a result, after some negotiations, a coalition government (a partnership of two or more parties) was formed between the Conservatives (who had 306 MPs) and the Liberal Democrats (who had 57). Their combined number of MPs (306 + 57 = 363) took them over the threshold for a Commons majority.

So which party will voters choose in 2015? Will one party win a majority? Or will there be another coalition government – and if so, which parties will form the coalition?  

Other elections

There are separate elections for UK local governments (county and district councils) and the European Parliament, as well as Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have separate legislation in some areas – find out more here).

If elections are held in your home country while you are living in the UK, you can contact your country’s Embassy or High Commission to find out if you can vote from overseas.

As a student, you can also get involved in elections at your Students’ Union, if your institution has one. The Students' Union represents students' rights and interests on campus, and isn't connected to UK government. As an international student, you can choose to vote or stand as a candidate. Find out more here.

Want to explore the UK election further? Click here to check out the Crick Centre's online resource bundle.

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