Election for the Mother of All Parliaments
Owing to its many peculiarities and oddities as well as its efficacy in bringing excellent statesmen to the top, British electoral system is always a core area of interest for the students of Political Science. Parliament’s position at the heart of British government is the result of its success at absorbing the powers previously held by the Crown. The next election, scheduled to be held on 7th May, 2015, is being described as the most unpredictable in years with the traditional political forces in British politics, the Conservatives and Labour, facing challenges from smaller parties.
Ahead of the big day, here is a handy explainer on everything you need to know about the UK’s general elections.
On March 30, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the start of the campaign for the country’s May 7 general election after meeting Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace to formalise the dissolution of parliament. The procedural step of dissolution means there are officially no members of Parliament until it reconvenes on May 18 for the swearing-in of members and the official state opening of Parliament on May 27. However, government departments will carry on as normal with the same ministers in post until after the vote.
When An Election is Called
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 sets the interval between general elections at five years, unless an election is triggered earlier. Under this Act, the British parliament stood automatically dissolved at 00.01 on Monday 30th March as it stipulates that the parliament must be dissolved 25 working days before a general election. However, the Parliament may be ‘prorogued’ a few days before being dissolved. At prorogation all parliamentary business ends, although that Parliament would still exist until dissolution. The 2014-15 session of Parliament was prorogued on Thursday 26 March 2015.
The FTP Act sets the date of the next general election at Thursday 7 May 2015 and subsequent elections to be held on the first Thursday of May at five year intervals. However, if an earlier general election is triggered the Act does not state that the election has to be held on a Thursday.
Number of Seats
There are 650 seats in the House of Commons representing the 650 constituencies in the UK: 533 are in England, 59 in Scotland, 40 in Wales, and 18 in Northern Ireland. The general election will decide which party (or coalition of parties) forms the next UK government.
“First past the post” is the voting system used for the election of MPs to seats in the UK Parliament. This is just another way of describing our winner-takes-all voting system, in which the candidate with the most votes takes the seat. This means that a candidate in a constituency only needs one more vote than the nearest rival to win the seat. Similarly, political parties only need to win one more seat in the House of Commons to have a majority.
FPTP is heavily criticised by the Electoral Reform Society for not being proportionally representative enough, especially now in an era of multi-party politics.
Guidance is issued to civil servants on the principles that they should observe in relation to the conduct of Government business in the run-up to forthcoming elections. This period is sometimes referred to as ‘purdah’. In 2015, the pre-election period commenced at dissolution, on 30 March.
Who can vote?
A voter must be registered to vote, be at least 18 years old on polling day, be British or be a Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland citizen living in the UK.
Who is banned from voting?
The following are barred from voting in general elections:
Members of the House of Lords;
EU citizens resident in the UK;
Anyone other than British, Irish and qualifying Commonwealth citizens;
Anybody found guilty of electoral fraud within the last five years;
People who are subject to any “legal incapacity” which impairs their judgement.
Qualification of A Candidate
Candidates must be aged 18 or above and be British, Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland citizens. Those banned from standing in general elections are: civil servants; police officers; armed forces personnel; some bankrupts; government-nominated directors of commercial companies; judges; members of parliament in non-Commonwealth nations; those convicted of electoral malpractice; members of the House of Lords.
Polling stations are usually open from 7am to 10pm on polling day. Voters are given an officially marked ballot paper listing all the candidates in alphabetical order of surname, with the description of their party, if they have one. The voters place an X in the box beside the candidate of their choice.
Each local authority with responsibility for running elections publishes the results for parliamentary constituencies in their area.
The Electoral Commission publishes the overall election results as well as those for individual constituencies.
Formation of Government
Usually the political party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons at a general election forms the new government and its leader becomes Prime Minister.
What If There is A Hung Parliament?
A hung parliament is a possible outcome, when no single party has won an overall majority and no party holds more than 50% of seats in the Commons. When this happens the party with the most seats looks to other parties for support to gain an overall majority, potentially to form a coalition or partnership. It is also possible for a minority coalition to try to form a government.
This means the leader of the largest party does not necessarily become prime minister.
The civil service provides a private location, such as the Cabinet Office, for parties to negotiate away from parliament and the media.
While these negotiations are taking place, the UK retains a caretaker government and an incumbent prime minister. Ministers who lose their seats during the election will remain in government during this period.
If a coalition or partnership fails, the party that was in government before the election gets the first opportunity to try to form a minority government. If not, the prime minister will resign.
Return of Parliament
Parliament is due to reconvene on 18 May.
All MPs and lords are required by law to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown. They are not allowed to take their seat in the House of Commons, speak in debates or vote until the oath is made.
The first hurdle for the new government will be to pass a Queen’s speech motion for the state opening. As the speech sets out the government’s new agenda, it is crucial this succeeds. If it fails, the prime minister must resign. This could be used tactically to oust a government.
Another vote required by MPs is to appoint a Speaker. A recent attempt to make it a closed ballot failed. The Speaker’s role is to chair debates in the Commons chamber, keep order and call MPs to speak.
The state opening takes place shortly after the general election and is the formal start of the new parliament, attended by the Queen in person.
During the state opening ceremony, before the Queen’s speech, a short roleplay is performed, starring a man in tights who endures having the Commons’ chamber door slammed shut in his face — acknowledging the House of Commons’ independence from the monarchy.
1. Conservative Party
As the more powerful party in the ruling coalition, the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister David Cameron is favourite to gain the most seats. Its five years in power have been difficult, characterized by austerity and funding cuts. But the party has been boosted by slight economic growth and by the Scottish public voting to retain a political union with the rest of the UK.
2. Labour Party
The center-left Labour Party will be the Conservatives’ biggest rival to gain the most seats. In 2010, following a period of economic instability, the Labour government was defeated in the general election, in which it lost more than 90 seats. Since the last general election, the party’s membership has grown substantially and it is also projected to get a larger share of the vote.
3. UK Independence Party
With the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Liberal Democrats projected to get a similar share of the vote, either – or both – could form part of another coalition. UKIP, which opposes excessive European Union influence upon UK politics, has emerged as a popular alternative to the traditional frontrunners.
Some Interesting Facts
The UK Parliament is made up of three parts – the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Monarch (the King or Queen).
The Palace of Westminster is another name for the Parliament buildings. It is situated alongside the River Thames in Westminster, London.
The Palace of Westminster – Parliament – was built on the site of William the Conqueror’s first palace.
The original Palace was burnt down in 1834. When it was rebuilt Queen Victoria was on the throne and her initials, VR, are throughout the Palace.
The new building was designed by architect Charles Barry and built in the 1840s.
The complex of buildings covers 8 acres and has over 1,100 rooms.
There are 650 MPs elected to the House of Commons. 502 of them are men; 148 are women.
Despite there being 650 MPs, the chamber has only 427 seats – meaning there is often standing room only on big days, such as the Budget.
Applause is very, very rare in the House of Commons. Tony Blair received a standing ovation on the day he stood down as prime minister and left chamber for the final time.
Parliament produces 80 million printed pages a year, ranging from the official parliamentary record – called Hansard – to committee reports and draft legislation.
No animals are allowed into the Palace of Westminster, other than seeing eye dogs.
The Hall of Westminster is the oldest surviving part of the original building and has the largest Medieval roof in England.
When the mace, which was once a weapon but is now a symbol of Parliament being fully constituted, is brought into the House of Commons it is by a man who has a curious mincing walk in front of the speaker.
You can’t die in the House of Parliament, because it is a royal palace. Anyone who would die there is entitled to a state funeral.
The Commons Chamber, where members of Parliament meet, is decorated in green, according to an old tradition.