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United Kingdom general elections

General elections of the United Kingdom are the elections held when the British Members of Parliament ("MPs") forming the House of Commons are elected. Terms last for a maximum of five years and can be ended early by a dissolution of Parliament.

Candidates aim to win a particular geographic constituency in the UK, and almost all are members of a political party. At the 2001 general election, there were 659 constituencies (typically called "seats"), and thus 659 MPs. At the 2005 general election there will be a slightly fewer 646 seats in the UK. The majority of voters in the UK choose who to vote for based on the candidates' parties, rather than the personalities or opinions of the individual candidates.



A general election must take place before each parliamentary term begins. Since the maximum term of a parliament is five years, the interval between successive general elections can exceed that period by no more than the combined length of the election campaign and time for the new parliament to assemble (typically five to eight weeks). The actual election may be held at any time before the end of the five-year term. The five years runs from the first meeting of Parliament following the election. The timing of an election is at the discretion of the incumbent Prime Minister. This timing is usually political, and thus if a government is popular the election is often "called" after around four years in power.

The Prime Minister asks the Monarch to dissolve Parliament by Royal Proclamation. The Proclamation also orders the issue of the formal Writs of Election which require an election to be held in each constituency. The election is held 17 working days after the date of the Proclamation (per Representation of the People Act 1983, s 23 and Schedule 1 (Parliamentary election rules), rule 1 (Timetable)).

Since 1935 every general election has been held on a Thursday. Of the 16 general elections between 1945 and 2001, four have been in October, four in June, three in May and two in February.

The UK's Cabinet Office imposes Purdah before elections. This is a period of roughly six weeks in which Government Departments are not allowed to communicate with members of the public about any new or controversial Government initiatives (such as modernisation initiatives, administrative and legislative changes).


Anyone resident in the UK who is a citizen of the UK, the Republic of Ireland or of a Commonwealth country and who is 18 or over on the date of the election is eligible to vote, provided they are on the electoral register, unless they are a member of the House of Lords, imprisoned for a criminal offence, mentally incapable of making a reasoned judgement, or have been convicted of corrupt or illegal practices in connection with an election within the previous five years.

Members of the Royal Family, including the Monarch, are eligible to vote, although in practice it would be seen as unconstitutional if they ever did. UK citizens who have moved abroad remain eligible to vote for 15 years thereafter. They would vote for the MP of the constituency in which they lived before they moved abroad. This is also applicable to people who were under 18 before they moved abroad; when they reach 18 they can vote. "Service voters" - including forces personnel, diplomats and other public servants resident overseas - are also eligible. Voters must appear on the electoral register in order to vote; they can now be added to the register until eleven working days before the election. Voting is not compulsory.

The right of Irish and Commonwealth citizens to vote is strange by the standards of elections across the world, as citizenship and the right to vote are usually synonymous. It is a legacy of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which limited the vote to British subjects. At that time "British subjects" included the people of Ireland - then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland - and all parts of the British Empire. Though Ireland and the colonies became independent nations, their citizens retained the right to vote in the UK.


It is a first-past-the-post election system, in terms of the number of MPs from a particular party. If one party has an overall majority of MPs, they will form the next government, and their leader becomes Prime Minister. If no party has an overall majority, either two or more parties will form a coalition government, with enough total MPs for a majority, typically with the leader of the larger party becoming Prime Minister, or a single party will attempt to form a government and survive through informal alliances and agreements with other parties. Passing government legislation without a majority in the House of Commons -- as happened in the last months of the John Major government -- can be difficult.

The system is not one of proportional representation (PR). A party with 20% of the vote nationally could easily end up with very few MPs. This aspect of the system attracts criticism, particularly from parties that would perform better under a PR system such as the Liberal Democrats. On the other hand, supporters of the system cite it as a reason for the lack of extremist parties from mainstream UK politics, the infrequency of coalitions, and the direct connection between constituencies and their MP.


In the UK general elections are usually affairs in which public opinion changes gradually from general election from election. However this can often have dramatic effects due to the first-past-the-post election system as support for a given political party tips sufficiently to give a landslide result. Currently the Labour party under Prime Minister Tony Blair has had two such landslides, giving power in parliament that has rivalled the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.


Polls close at 10 pm and the votes are, in most constituencies, counted immediately. The earliest results will be declared by about 11 pm, with most being declared by 3-4 am; some constituencies do not declare their results until the following day. In Northern Ireland the count does not begin until the next morning with results being announced from early afternoon onwards.

When all of the results are known, or when one party achieves an absolute majority of the seats in the House of Commons, the first response comes from the outgoing prime minister. If a majority in the new parliament has been achieved by their party, they remain in office without the need for reconfirmation or reappointment. If a majority has not been achieved and it is obvious that the opposition has the numbers to form a government, the prime minister submits a resignation to the Monarch. The Monarch then commissions the Leader of the Opposition to form a new government. The prime minister has the option of attempting to remain in power even if seats have been lost. The subsequent Queen's Speech (ie, outline of the proposed legislative programme) offers a chance for the House of Commons to vote confidence or no confidence in the government through accepting or rejecting the Queen's Speech.

The last prime minister who having failed to win a majority opted not to resign immediately was Edward Heath in 1974. However after initial negotiations with the Liberal Party failed to provide a coalition deal, he resigned, allowing Queen Elizabeth II to commission Labour leader Harold Wilson to form an administration. Until the Prime Minister reacts to the election result, either by deciding to remain on or resign, the monarch has no role. Only if the Prime Minister resigns can the monarch then commission someone else to form a government. Thus Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990, was only asked to form a government once. Similarly, Tony Blair (1997-present) has only ever been commissioned to form a government once, in 1997. After each election, having remained in power, a prime minister may take the option to engage in a major or minor reshuffle of ministers.

The largest party not in government becomes the Official Opposition, known as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Any smaller parties not in government are collectively known as the opposition.

From the Electoral register (2000) there are 44,423,440 people registered to vote in the UK, 36,994,211 of them in England.

Election results

Note that all elections until 1832 had very restricted suffrage, until 1918 it remained non-universal.

Election Date Consequent Prime Minister Party Majority
1801 (MPs )
1802 (MPs ) 22 July 1802 Henry Addington
William Pitt the Younger
1806 (MPs ) 17 November 1806 The Lord Grenville Whig
1807 (MPs ) The Duke of Portland
Spencer Perceval
The Earl of Liverpool
1818 (MPs ) The Earl of Liverpool Tory
1821 (MPs ) 16 January 1821 The Earl of Liverpool Tory
1826 (MPs ) 19 June 1826 The Earl of Liverpool
George Canning
The Viscount Goderich
The Duke of Wellington
1830 (MPs ) 9 August 1830 The Earl Grey Whig
1831 (MPs ) 25 July 1831 The Earl Grey Whig
At this point, the Reform Act 1832 gave suffrage to propertied
male adults and abolished the rotten boroughs.
1832 (MPs ) 7 December 1832 The Earl Grey
The Viscount Melbourne
Robert Peel
1835 (MPs ) The Viscount Melbourne Whig
1837 (MPs ) The Viscount Melbourne Whig
1841 (MPs ) Robert Peel Conservative
1847 (MPs ) 9 August 1847 The Earl Russel Whig
1852 (MPs ) The Earl of Derby
The Earl of Aberdeen
1857 (MPs ) The Viscount Palmerston Liberal
1859 (MPs ) 16 May 1859 The Viscount Palmerston Liberal
1865 (MPs ) The Earl Russel
The Earl of Derby
Benjamin Disraeli
1868 (MPs ) William Ewart Gladstone
1874 (MPs ) Benjamin Disraeli Conservative
1880 (MPs ) April 1880 William Ewart Gladstone Liberal
1885 (MPs) The Marquess of Sailsbury
William Ewart Gladstone
1886 (MPs ) The Marquess of Sailsbury Conservative
1892 (MPs ) William Ewart Gladstone
The Earl of Roseberry
1895 (MPs ) The Marquess of Sailsbury Conservative
1900 (MPs ) The Marquess of Sailsbury
Arthur Balfour
1906 (MPs ) Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Herbert Henry Asquith
January 1910 (MPs ) Herbert Henry Asquith Liberal
December 1910 (MPs ) Herbert Henry Asquith
David Lloyd George
At this point, the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave suffrage
to most of the adult population (men over 21, women over 30).
1918 (MPs ) December 14, 1918 David Lloyd George Liberal (Coalition Government) 238
1922 (MPs ) November 15, 1922 Andrew Bonar Law Conservative 74
1923 (MPs ) December 6, 1923 James Ramsay MacDonald Labour −98
1924 (MPs) October 29, 1924 Stanley Baldwin Conservative 210
1929 (MPs ) May 30, 1929 James Ramsay MacDonald Labour −42
1931 (MPs ) October 27, 1931 James Ramsay MacDonald National Labour (National Government) 492
1935 (MPs ) November 14, 1935 Stanley Baldwin Conservative (National Government) 242
1945 (MPs) July 5, 1945 Clement Attlee Labour 146
1950 (MPs) February 23, 1950 Clement Attlee Labour 5
1951 (MPs) October 25, 1951 Winston Churchill Conservative 17
1955 (MPs ) May 26, 1955 Anthony Eden Conservative 54
1959 (MPs ) October 8, 1959 Harold Macmillan Conservative 100
1964 (MPs ) October 15, 1964 Harold Wilson Labour 5
1966 (MPs ) March 31, 1966 Harold Wilson Labour 96
1970 (MPs ) June 18, 1970 Edward Heath Conservative 31
February 1974 (MPs) February 28, 1974 Harold Wilson Labour −33
October 1974 (MPs) October 10, 1974 Harold Wilson Labour 3
1979 (MPs) May 3, 1979 Margaret Thatcher Conservative 43
1983 (MPs) June 9, 1983 Margaret Thatcher Conservative 144
1987 (MPs) June 11, 1987 Margaret Thatcher Conservative 102
1992 (MPs) April 9, 1992 John Major Conservative 21
1997 (MPs) May 1, 1997 Tony Blair Labour 179
2001 (MPs) June 7, 2001 Tony Blair Labour 167
2005 (MPs) May 5, 2005

Note: A negative majority means that there was a hung parliament (or minority parliament) following that election. For example, in the 1929 election, Labour was 42 seats short of forming a majority, and so its majority is listed as −42.

See also

External links

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04