Guide to the UK Election (Overview)

The United Kingdom General Election takes place on Thursday, 7 May to elect 650 members of the House of Commons, the primary legislative chamber in Parliament.

Government

Unlike in other countries with Presidential systems (such as the United States and France), the outcome also determines the Executive – in effect, the House of Commons is also the “Electoral College” which will endorse or reject a prospective Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet of Ministers.

Typically, since the War, a single party has held the majority of seats in the House of Commons and has therefore been able to form a single-party government with its Leader as Prime Minister. Where no single party has a majority (as was the case at the last election and in February 1974), it is said to be a “hung parliament“.

System

The electoral system is simple yet controversial. 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected individually from 650 “constituencies” of roughly equal size (533 in England, including 73 in London; 59 in Scotland; 40 in Wales; and 18 in Northern Ireland – London is under-represented and Wales over-represented currently). The candidate achieving the highest number of votes is elected directly – there are no “run-offs” or preferential voting, nor is voting compulsory.

In practice, this system favours larger and regional parties (Conservative, Labour, SNP, DUP) and frustrates smaller parties with evenly spread support (Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP).

Results in each seat are often shortened to give the name and party of the winning candidate plus the number of votes they won by – so, if he/she wins by a gap of 1,000 votes, this is referred to as a “majority of 1,000” (a specifically electoral term – no doubt it jars with mathematicians!)

Phraseology

The constituencies are identical in 2015 to those in 2010. This means that, during Election Night, it will be possible to predict the overall outcome even from early results, depending on whether each party’s vote share is generally up or down – this includes a concept, for comparing Conservative versus Labour performance, known as “swing” which shows how many seats each party would take from the other if each of the two parties’ vote shares changed similarly across Great Britain.

Results are generally declared compared to the previous election. Where the same party wins the seat, it is declared a “hold“. Where a different party wins the seat, it is deemed a “gain” (this equates to the American “pick-up“). Where specifically an incumbent MP loses a seat, he/she is said to be “unseated“. (Occasionally, where a seat has been lost during the term, for example through a defection or by-election, other terms are used – “win” for if the seat is retained by the party holding it at dissolution of the last parliament if that is different from the one which won it at the last General Election; “regain” if it is regained by the party which won it at the last election but lost it during the term. Nevertheless, the overall scores are now typically tallied solely by “holds” and “gains” versus the previous General Election, regardless of what happened in between.)

A constituency which is close is said to be a “marginal” (equivalent of an American “swing state“). A constituency which is predominantly urban (known as a “borough constituency“) has different spending limits from one which is predominantly rural (a “county constituency“) – as well as being smaller, urban areas typically see lower turnout and thus declare their results much earlier.

Parties or candidates which form a common “faction” in the House of Commons are said to “take the whip“, meaning that they agree to vote the same way on every issue where there is an agreed party line. This is most notable with regard to Northern Ireland: the Ulster Unionists traditionally “took the Conservative whip” until 1973 (and expressly would have done so again in 2010 had they won any seats); the SDLP does “take the Labour whip” (although has not absolutely committed to it from 2015); the Alliance Party, although aligned in Europe, currently does not “take the Liberal Democrat whip”.

The final UK General Election outcome is declared usually in terms of the largest party and how many seats it is above or below an absolute majority (for which 326 of 650 seats are required). The 2005 result, therefore, is stated as “Labour victory with a majority of 66 – meaning that Labour had 66 more seats than all the other parties put together; the 2010 result is stated as a “Hung Parliament with the Conservatives short by 19″ – meaning that the Conservatives were the largest party, but needed another 19 seats to have a majority over all the other parties.

Typically, a majority of over triple figures (as in 1945, 1959, 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001) is referred to as a “landslide“, giving the winning Prime Minister huge freedom and leeway in Parliament; a majority of between 20 and 100 (1955, 1966, 1970, 1979, 1992 and 2005) is referred to as “working“, giving the winning party enough room to lose a few seats during the term and still serve for the full five years; any majority of less than 20 is referred to as “narrow” and is seen as unstable and usually precipitates an early election (which is possible even under fixed parliaments by losing a Vote of No Confidence, as last happened in 1979).

Position

In 2010, the outcome was:

  • Conservatives 307 (including one delayed by-election) – Conservative whip 307;
  • Labour 258 in Great Britain only, plus SDLP 3 in Northern Ireland – Labour whip 261;
  • Liberal Democrats 57 in Great Britain only – Liberal Democrat whip 57;
  • SNP 6 in Scotland and Plaid 3 in Wales – Nationalist whip 9;
  • DUP 8 in Northern Ireland – DUP whip 8; and
  • Greens 1 in England, Alliance Party 1 in Northern Ireland, an Independent in Northern Ireland, and the Speaker (from England) – non-aligned 4.

This adds up to 645 – Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland won five seats in 2010 but does not sit in the House of Commons.

This outcome gave the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition subsequently formed a “majority of 76″.

Versus 2010, therefore, this means the Conservatives need 19 net “gains” for an absolute majority and Labour needs 68 (perhaps a couple fewer if the SDLP in Northern Ireland continues to take its whip, as it has since foundation in 1970). With Sinn Fein likely to retain four of five seats (not actually taken) and the Speaker retaining one (bound by convention to vote with the government, with minor exceptions), in practice 322-323 seats would theoretically suffice for a majority.

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2 thoughts on “Guide to the UK Election (Overview)

  1. Thatcher in 83 appears to be the last government that increased majority serving a full term in government. Before that Eden and MacMillan in the 50s

    • Yes. Even that was a fluke – actually the Conservatives *lost* vote share that year, but the opposition parties were more evenly split.

      I have a History already drafted for next week! 🙂

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