General Election facts
The Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 means that an elected government is in place for five years. The government is automatically dissolved at the end of that period, and a general election is triggered with polling day set for the first Thursday in May.
However, we are far from normal times. The upcoming vote in December is actually the second early general election to occur in less than 3 years. Early general elections can be called either because of a motion of no confidence agreed by a majority in parliament, or a motion for general election agreed by two thirds of seats in parliament – as was the case with the forthcoming election.
Who can vote?
In the UK, you can vote if you are over 18; British, Irish, from certain Commonwealth countries and living in the UK, or a British Citizen living abroad who has been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years. There are a few legal exclusions to voting, including such reasons as being a Royal or a Member of the House of Lords.
How do we vote? And First Past the Post
The UK is divided into 650 sections called constituencies. These constituencies can be varying sizes geographically, and each has around 60-100 thousand people. At a general election, the voters in a constituency choose a single member of parliament to represent their constituency. Each voter is given a ballot paper with the names and parties of the candidates, and they mark their choice and post the paper into a ballot box. No one is allowed to look at anyone else’s vote.
At the end of polling day, the votes are counted and the candidate with the most votes is the MP for that constituency. This is a “plurality” voting system, also known as the ‘First-Past-The-Post’ system – the person with the most votes wins. Voters in the UK only have a choice over the MP for their area, so the leader or leading party in the House of Commons is not directly voted for. Most – but not all – local candidates will be members of national political parties such as the Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat parties. Whoever wins the most votes for an area is the only MP for that constituency; they must represent everyone in that area – not just the people who voted for them.
Some constituencies are described as ‘safe seats’, which means that one particular party has always won there by a comfortable margin. That’s as close to being predictable as it gets in British politics, but of course, nothing is guaranteed. There are also ‘marginal seats’; constituencies where there hasn’t been any strong historical trend; where it might go either way.
Stations are set up for polling day in venues such as schools, community centres, church halls, and occasionally private residences – anywhere neutral and accessible. Sometimes polling stations have been set up in more unusual locations – a railway carriage, a windmill, even at the Isle of Wight Festival.
How do our MPs form a Government?
When more than half of the MPs – 326 or more – belong to one political party, this party has the majority and forms the new government. If no single party has a majority, this is a ‘hung parliament’. In a hung parliament, the parties with the most seats may try to negotiate to team up with a smaller party, bringing their total number of seats to a majority and forming a ‘coalition’ government.
Sometimes, the party with the most seats in a hung parliament may try to rule as a minority government, meaning that they negotiate for support along the way. When the 2017 United Kingdom general election resulted in a hung parliament for the Conservatives, they formed an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland.
The MPs forming the new Government appoint roles within the ‘Cabinet’ – a group of people chosen to oversee certain responsibilities, each known as ‘Secretary of State’ for their responsibility: defence; health and social care; transport; education, etc – these positions can be created without primary legislation, at the behest of the Prime Minister. There are some exceptions to the rule and not all departments are headed by a secretary of state, e.g. HM Treasury is headed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The largest non-government party in parliament – usually the party with the second-largest number of seats – is known as The Opposition. They form what’s known as a Shadow Cabinet; their role is to scrutinise and question the Government. The Labour Party currently performs this role.