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April 4, 2005 12:25 pm

FT briefing: the elections explained

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How is the government elected?
What kind of voting system does the UK have?
What are the main parties?
How often do elections take place?
What happens between now and election day?
What was the outcome last time?
What kind of turnout should we expect?
What if there is no clear winner?
What local elections are taking place?
What about Scotland and Wales?
And Northern Ireland?

How is the government elected?

The UK is a constitutional monarchy. This means the Queen is head of state but power is in reality in the hands of the government, which derives its power from parliament.

The Houses of Parliament at Westminster consist of two chambers.  The House of Commons has 659 members (MPs), elected on a constituency basis across the UK.  The party leader with the most MPs is asked by the Queen to become prime minister and form a government.

The unelected House of Lords is made up of about 700 members with the main task of scrutinising the work of the House of Commons. The Lords has undergone a series of reforms under the current government with the aim of removing hereditary peers - those who sit in the Lords purely because they have inherited a title.

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What kind of voting system does the UK have?

For general elections Britain uses the first-past-the-post or winner-takes-all system, where each elector has one vote to select their local MP. This means that a party could have strong support across the country but might have no representation at Westminster if it fails to come first in any single constituency.

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What are the main political parties?

Britain has been dominated by the right-leaning Conservative party and the left-leaning Labour party since the 1920s.  The main third party is the Liberal Democrats.  These three parties contend with nationalists in Scotland and Wales – the SNP and Plaid Cymru respectively. 

The three main parties do not stand in  Northern  Ireland. Politics in this province are dominated by two unionist parties (DUP and UUP) and two nationalist parties (SDLP and Sinn Féin).  See FT.com’s web guide for more details on the parties and our election profiles for details of the key personalities.

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How often do general elections take place?

There are no fixed terms - the date of a general election is chosen by the prime minister. The only specification is that parliament cannot sit for longer than five years.

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What happens between now and election day?

Parliament is dissolved soon after an election is called. The business of government carries on but civil servants who administer government policy enter a period of “purdah”. This means they are not allowed to publish or promote any new policy that may be seen as giving advantage to the incumbent government.

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What was the outcome of the last British general election?

Tony Blair’s Labour party had another convincing victory in 2001 to add to their 1997 landslide.

Final results for the major parties were: Labour 413 seats (40.8%), Conservative 166 seats (31.7%), Liberal Democrats 52 seats (18.3%).

The remaining 28 seats were split between the two Northern Ireland unionist parties, the two Northern Ireland nationalist parties, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. A single “independent” (ie not allied to a political party) was elected.

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What kind of turnout should we expect this year?

In common with much of the Western world, turnout has been falling in recent years.  In 2001, 26.4m general election votes were cast - a turnout of 59.4 per cent and the lowest since 1918.  This was a steep fall from 1997’s 71.5 per cent and 1992’s 77.7 per cent. The post-WW2 highspot was 84 per cent in 1950.

The Electoral Commission is assessing recent attempts to boost turnout in local elections by using more postal voting.  Authorities who experimented with all-postal pilot schemes in the last set of English local elections saw turnout rise to 50% - compared with a third who went to the polling station.

The picture is the same in local elections with only 32.8 per cent voting in 2002. The UK also has the lowest participation rate in the European parliamentary elections (24 per cent in 1999).

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What if there is no clear winner?

Given the nature of the UK’s first past the post voting system, hung parliaments - where no party has an overall majority - don’t occur very often. The last time this happened was in February 1974 when the Conservatives trailed Labour by four seats.

When the situation does arise it falls to the Queen to invite a party leader to form a government. In practical terms this is likely to mean the leader of the party which has secured the largest number of seats.

That leader will then have to decide whether to form a minority government - which will require votes from other parties to pass legislation - or to enter into discussions with other parties to form a coalition government.

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Will there be local elections as well as the national vote?

Several local polls are expected to take place on the same day as the general election. 

Local government takes several different forms across the UK. In Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of England, a single tier body (Unitary, Metropolitan or London Borough) administers local affairs.

The rest of England generally has a two-tier system of district and county councils with clearly divided responsibilities. Some areas also have parish or town councils.

In England there are polls on May 5 in all 34 county councils and in four unitary authorities (Isles of Scilly, Isle of Wight, Bristol and Stockton-on-Tees). There are also four mayoral elections (Doncaster, Stoke, Hartlepool, North Tyneside).

In Northern Ireland all 26 local councils are up for election but in Wales or Scotland there no local polls this time round.

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How does devolution affect the general election in Scotland and Wales?

Scotland is represented by 59 MPs at Westminster who all face re-election on May 5.

Labour’s introduction of devolution in 1998 means the separate Scottish parliament has certain “devolved” powers while others remain the prerogative of Westminster.

The 129 members of the Scottish parliament, elected by a mix of  “first past the post” and proportional representation, do not face re-election until 2007

The situation in Wales is similar although the Welsh Assembly has fewer powers than the Scottish parliament.  It has 60 members, also elected with a mix of first past the post and proportional representation.  The next election is also in 2007.

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And Northern Ireland?

As in Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland is represented by devolved government and overlapping Westminster MPs.

The similarities end there however. The Northern Ireland Assembly was set up by the Good Friday agreement of 1998, the culmination of a series of talks between the UK and Irish governments and the Northern Irish parties. 

The Assembly is currently – and not for the first time - suspended following a series of disputes, firstly about IRA decommissioning and then allegations of spying from Sinn Fein (the IRA’s political wing).  Powers have consequently returned to Westminster.

The other main difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is that the mainstream parties do not stand in the province.  The fight for seats at Westminster is chiefly between unionist (DUP and UUP) and nationalist (SDLP and Sinn Féin) parties.

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