The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Elections in the United Kingdom

Elections in the United Kingdom gives information on election and election results in the United Kingdom. An election is a process in which a vote is held to elect candidates to an office. It is the mechanism by which a democracy fills elective offices in the legislature, and sometimes the executive and judiciary, and in which electorates choose local government officials.

See election for a more comprehensive discussion and the List of democracy and elections-related topics for an overview on related topics.

The United Kingdom has five distinct types of elections: general, local, regional, European and mayoral. Elections are traditionally held on Thursday. Five different electoral systems are currently used, the most in any country. These are: single member plurality system (First Past the Post), Party list, Single Transferable Vote, Additional Member System and Supplementary Vote. The United Kingdom elects on national level a legislature. Parliament has two chambers. The House of Commons has now 646 members (reduced from 659 members, see Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Act 2004), elected for a five year term in single-seat constituencies. The House of Lords has 675 members, 557 life peers and 118 hereditary members (June 2001).

There is an entry on the practicalities of campaigning in British elections at political campaigning.


Party systems

Traditionally, the UK has had a two party system, arising from the use of First-past-the-post-system for general and local election. Duverger's law's certainly seems borne out in the history of British parliamentary politics. Before World War I, Britain had a true two-party system, the main parties being the Tories (which became the Conservative Party) and the Whigs (which became the Liberal Party), though after Catholic Emancipation there was also a substantial Irish Parliamentary Party. After World War II, the dominant parties have been Conservative and Labour. No third party has come close to winning a parlimentary majority.

However, some have challenged the view Britain still has a two party system, since the Liberal Democrats have won around 15%-25% of the votes in recent elections. The Liberal Democrats won 53 of the 659 Commons seats in the 2001 Parliament, and several nationalist (regional) groupings sit, leading some spectators to regard the Westminster parliament as a "two and a half" party system.

Smaller parties receive much more votes (and seats) in the elections using a proportional system, which are the regional elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly and London Assembly, and the European Parliament elections. Regional parties, such as the Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru receive many more votes than at general or local elections, and at European elections, the UK Independence Party and Green Party of England and Wales perform better. It can be argued that in these elections, there is a multi-party system.

Types of elections

Westminster (general)

For Westminister elections, the single member plurality system ('First Past the Post') is used.

For more information on general elections and records of election results, see United Kingdom general elections

Scottish Parliament

Scottish Parliament elections began in 1999, when the Scottish Parliament, created by the Scotland Act 1998, opened. For elections to the Scottish Parliament the Additional Member System is used.


Welsh Assembly

Welsh Assembly elections began in 1999, when the Welsh Assembly, created by the Government of Wales Act 1998, opened. For elections to the Welsh Assembly the Additional Member System is used.


Northern Ireland Assembly

Northern Ireland Assembly elections began in 1998, when the assembly created by the Northern Ireland Act 1998 opened.. For elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Single Transferable Vote system is used.



European Parliament elections have existed since 1979. The regional party list (Closed list) has been used since 1999 for European elections in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland the Single Transferable Vote system is used. The UK is divided into twelve electoral regions, which are the three smaller nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), and the nine Regions of England.

Region Seats
South East England 10
North West England 9
Greater London 9
East of England 7
Scotland 7
South West England 7
West Midlands 7
East Midlands 6
Yorkshire and the Humber 6
Wales 4
North East England 3
Northern Ireland 3

The first past the post system was used until the 1999 election. The system had discriminated against the smaller parties attempting to gain seats, most famously in the 1989 election, where the Green Party received 2,292,718 votes and a 15% vote share, but no seats. The European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999 changed the system in time for the 1999 election. From 1979 to 1989, the UK had 81 MEPs (78 in England, Wales and Scotland, 3 in Northern Ireland). The European Parliamentary Elections Act 1993 increased the number to 87, adding five more seats in England and one more in Wales).


London Assembly

London Assembly elections began in 2000, when it was created. The Additional Member System is used for elections to the Assembly, while the Mayor is elected via the Supplementary Vote system.



For elections to some English and Welsh local authorities and all Scottish local authorities the single member plurality system is used. Some other local authorities in England and Wales use the multi member plurality system. Districts in Northern Ireland use the Single Transferable Vote system.

Directly elected mayors

For directly elected mayors in England, Supplementary vote is used.



Expansion of the franchise

19th century

The system of universal suffrage did not exist in Britain until 1928. From 1688-1832, less than 10% of the adult male population had the right to vote.

The first act to increase the size of the electorate was the Reform Act 1832 (sometimes known as the Great Reform Act). It abolished 56 rotten boroughs (which had elected 112 MPs) and decreased the property qualification in boroughs. It gave some parliamentary representation to the industrial towns (142 MPs) by redistributing some MPs from boroughs who had disproportional representation. The electoral register was created. The overall result of the Act was that the electorate was increased to 14% of the adult male population. Although this was not a large increase, the Act was the first big step towards equal representation.

Between 1838 and 1848 a popular movement, Chartism organized around 6 demands including universal male franchise and the secret ballot.

The Reform Act 1867 redistributed more MPs from boroughs who had disproportional representation (42) to London and industrial towns. It decreased the property qualification in boroughs, meaning all men (with an address) in boroughs could vote. The consquences were for the first time some of the working class could vote, and MPs had to take these new constituents into account. Some parties decided to become national parties. The overall effect was the that the Act increased the size of the electorate to 32% of the adult male population.

The Secret Ballot Act 1872 replaced open elections with secret ballot system. The Corrupt and Illegal Practises Act 1883 criminalised attempts to bribe voters and standardised the amount that could be spent on election expenses. The Franchise Act 1884 and the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 (the Third Reform Act) collectively increased the electorate to 56% of the adult male population.

20th century

The Representation of the People Act 1918 included the electorate to all men over the age of 21 and all women over the age of 30 (because young women were thought to be too radical). Later that year, the Parliamentary Qualification of Women Act 1918 gave women over 30 the right to stand for election to become an MP. The first woman to become an MP was Nancy Astor, in 1919. The Equal Franchise Act 1928 lowered the minimum age for women to vote from 30 to 21, making men and women equal in terms of suffrage for the first time. The Representation of the People Act 1949 abolished additional votes for graduates (university constituencies) and the owners of business premises.

The Representation of the People Act 1969 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. The Representation of the People Act 1985 gave British citizens abroad the right to vote for a 5 year period after they had left Britain. The Representation of the People Act 1989 extend the period to 20 years and citizens who were too young to vote when they left the country also became eligible.

New Labour's reforms

Until the reforms of New Labour, there were only 3 types of elections: there were no regional assemblies or directly elected mayors. Only one electoral system was used - First Past the Post. The constitutional reforms of Labour drastically changed elections, introducing elected regional assemblies and elected mayors in certain cities. Proportional representation was introduced for the first time.

The hybrid (part PR, part FPTP) Additional Member System was introduced in 1999 for the newly created devolved assemblies: the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly. The Single Transferable Vote system was introduced for the new created Northern Ireland Assembly, and had already been used there for local government and European elections. The regional party list (Closed list) system was introduced for European elections in the United Kingdom, which had previously used single member constituency FPTP.

This package of reforms radically changed elections in the UK, but no change was made to general elections. Labour pledged in its manifesto for the 1997 general election to set up a commission on alternatives to the first-past-the-post system for general elections and hold a referendum in the future on whether to change the system. Labour set up the Independent Commission on the Voting System, also known as the Jenkins Commission, because it was chaired by Lord Jenkins, in December 1997. It reported in October 1998 and suggested the Alternative vote top-up or AV+ system. However this recommendation was ignored by the government and no further pledge was included in its 2001 manifesto. The Labour government may have decided to abandon the commitment mainly because of their landslide election victory in the 1997 elections - it did not need Liberal Democrat support or PR to win it elections. After Labour's poor performance in the PR elections in the devolved assemblies - failure to win an outright majority in the proportional hybrid AMS elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, the case for reform within the Labour party was further diminished. Some Labour traditionalists ('Old Labour') who had never supported electoral reform felt vindicated. With the second landslide victory of 2001, it made the case for general elections reform even smaller in the Labour Party. It seems unlikely that the reform will ever take place with the current balance of power.

Labour passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which created the Electoral Commission, which from 2000 was responsible for the running of elections, referendums and to limited extent regulates party funding. It also reduced the period during which British expatriates can vote, from 20 years after they emigrate to 15.

Current issues

Electoral reform

Current Westminster system

The First Past the Post system, is used for general elections. It is non-proportional. Under the system, of the candidates standing in a given constituency, the one who receives the highest number of votes (a plurality) is elected. The votes for other candidates are not used in any later stage - unlike in some PR systems. Unlike majoritarian systems, the candidate does not need 50% or more of the votes in their constituency to be elected. Overall, in the country as a whole, the governing party does not need to get 50% or more of the vote, i.e they can become the government when less than half of the electorate voted for them.

Votes do not translate directly into seats. So it is possible for parties to get a large percentage of the vote, but get no seats in Parliament. This was the case with the Conservative party in Scotland during some parts of the last Conservative governments. With a proportional system, this would not happen. Larger parties are overepresented and smaller parties are unrepresented, for example, in the last election Labour won 60% of the seats with only 40% of the vote.

Arguments for reform
  • It would be more representative of the electorate, as votes would roughly directly translate in seats.
  • No votes would be wasted if PR was used and there would be less tactical voting (which is harmful to democracy because it causes people to vote for a different party than they support).
  • It would allow smaller parties like the Green Party to have a realistic change of seats in Parliament.
  • It would probably reduce the large majority that the many governments (like the current government enjoy), therefore it would produce weaker governments than with First-Past-the-Post because the governing party would have a smaller majority. This means elected dictatorship or executive dominance would be reduced: the House of Commons would be less of a rubber stamp and the government might be force to comprise, which has been the case in the Scottish Assembly, where Labour and the Liberal Democrats have a coalition. This might lead to genuine debate in the Commons.
  • It might cause coalitions government (like in the Scottish Parliament. Advocates argue this would lead to much more emphasis on consensus and better representing the combined will of the electorate, because coalitions be several parties.
  • Why use non-FPTP for the regional, European and mayoral elections and not general elections?
  • It would widen voter choice, smaller parties would have a more realistic chance of winning seats.
Arguments against reform

Supporters of the First Past the Post system like

  • The direct link the FPTP system provides between voters and their local MP might be lost. However this would not be the case if a hybrid system was used, such as Additional Member System (used for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly or Alternative vote top-up (suggested by the Jenkins Commission).
  • It tends to produce strong governments, which they see as an advantage (there is relatively little chance of coalition government), and the only coalitions in the 20th or 21st centuries have happened at times of emergency, usually when one party has had an overall majority in the House of Commons).
  • Coalition governments cannot deliver the electoral mandate, because there has to be consensus on policy with other parties. Coalitions could give small parties disproportionate power.
  • Small parties, including extremists, such as the BNP might be able to win seats and gain real political power if they had enough votes nationwide. Some think it would irresponsible to give extemists the opportunity to have political power.

Party support

Although the Labour Party mentioned electoral reform vaguely in its 2001 manifesto it has no desire now to reform the system, mainly because of its very strong performances in the last general elections and relatively poor performance in PR elections.

The Conservative party are predominantly against PR. Despite the fact that the Conservative party would not necessarily lose more political power, it might find itself politically isolated on the right. It is possible that the Labour party might remain in power indefinitely with a new system, through a string of minority government coalitions with the Liberal Democrats and minor parties such as the Green Party. However, this is by no means certain, because the brief co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats before the 1997 election has long since been forgotton and issues like the 2003 invasion of Iraq have divided the two parties.

Electoral reform, towards a proportional model, is desired by the Liberal Democrat party, the Green and other parties. The Liberal Democrats favour Single Transferable Vote. These smaller parties would benefit in terms of parliamentary representation if PR was introduced.

Pressure group support

There are several pressure groups in the UK that exist to advocate electoral reform. See Pressure groups in the United Kingdom

Low Turnout

Voter apathy is a concern currently, after dramatic decline in turnout recently The turnout in the last election in 2001 was just 59%. The main reasons identified for low turnout are:

  • Decline in partisanship.
  • Reduction in the popularity of leader of parties.
  • Dissatifaction with parties' record on public services, education, transportation etc.
  • Lack of interest with the election campaign.

Possible measures to reduce low turnout

  • Compulsory voting, like in Australia.
  • Electoral reform, i.e. introducing a new electoral system.
  • New ways of voting, e.g. by post, telephone, internet.

See also

External links

Last updated: 08-29-2005 09:08:29
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46