Elections in the United Kingdom
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politics and government of
the United Kingdom
There are six types of elections in the United Kingdom: United Kingdom general elections, elections to devolved parliaments and assemblies, elections to the European Parliament, local elections, mayoral elections and Police and Crime Commissioner elections. Elections are held on Election Day, which is conventionally a Thursday. General elections have fixed dates, and must be called within five years of the opening of parliament following the last election. Other elections are held on fixed dates, though in the case of the devolved assemblies and parliaments early elections can occur in certain situations. Currently, six electoral systems are used: the single member plurality system (First Past the Post), the multi member plurality system, party list PR, the single transferable vote, the Additional Member System and the Supplementary Vote.
Elections are administered locally: in each lower-tier local authority, the actual polling procedure is run by the Returning Officer and the compiling and maintenance of the electoral roll by the Electoral Registration Officer (except in Northern Ireland, where the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland assumes both responsibilities). The Electoral Commission only sets standards for and issues guidelines to Returning Officers and Electoral Registration Officers, but is responsible for nationwide electoral administration (such as the registration of political parties and directing the administration of national referendums).
- 1 Electoral registration
- 2 Party system
- 3 Polling procedure
- 4 General elections
- 5 Elections to national parliaments and assemblies
- 6 European Parliament elections
- 7 Regional and local elections
- 8 Police and Crime Commissioners
- 9 History
- 10 Current issues
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 External links
The total number of names in the United Kingdom appearing in Electoral Registers published on 1 December 2010 and based on a qualifying date of 15 October 2010 was 45,844,691.
Entitlement to register
Anyone who will be aged 18 or over on polling day and who is a national of the United Kingdom (all forms of British nationality but excluding British protected persons), the Republic of Ireland, a Commonwealth country (including Fiji, Zimbabwe and the whole of Cyprus ) or a European Union member state can apply to the Electoral Registration Officer in the district in the UK where they reside with a 'considerable degree of permanence' to be listed in that area's Electoral Register. A person can still register at his/her ordinary address if he/she will be away temporarily (for example, away working, on holiday, in student accommodation or in hospital). A person who has two homes (such as a university student who has a term-time address and lives at home during holidays) may be able to register to vote at both addresses as long as they are not in the same electoral area (though an elector can only vote once in any single election or referendum).
In addition, to qualify to appear on the Electoral Register, applicants who are Commonwealth citizens must either possess leave to enter or remain in the UK or not require such leave on the date of their application and no applicant may be a convicted person detained in prison or a mental hospital (or unlawfully at large if he/she would otherwise have been detained) or a person found guilty of certain corrupt or illegal practices.
In Northern Ireland, a further criterion has to be fulfilled to qualify for registration: it is only possible to apply to be listed on the Electoral Register if a person has been resident in Northern Ireland for at least three months prior to the date of application.
Remand prisoners, voluntary patients in mental hospitals and people without a fixed place of residence can register to vote by making a declaration of local connection.
Members of HM Forces and their immediate family members have the option of registering as a service voter, by making a service declaration based on the last UK address.
British citizens (but not other categories of British nationals) residing outside the United Kingdom can register as an overseas voter provided that they were on the Electoral Register in the UK within the previous 15 years. The 15 years period begins when they no longer appeared in the electoral register, not the date they moved abroad. For British citizens who moved abroad before they were 18 years old, they can still qualify for registration, with the 15 years period calculated from the date their parent(s)/guardian ceased to appear in the electoral register. Overseas voters can only vote in European Parliamentary and UK Parliamentary elections in the constituency of their last registered UK address (or for those who moved abroad as a child, the last registered UK address of their parent(s)/guardian). British citizens who are away overseas temporarily do not need to register as overseas electors and can register to vote in the usual way at their UK address.
Crown servants and British Council employees (as well as their spouses who live abroad) employed in a post outside the UK can register by making a Crown Servant declaration, allowing them to vote in all UK elections.
An individual can register as an anonymous elector if his/her safety (or that of any other person in the same household) would be at risk were his/her name and address to be disclosed publicly on the Electoral Register, but the application needs to be supported by a relevant court order, injunction or an attestation by a chief police officer or a Director of Social Services.
The right of Commonwealth and Irish citizens to vote 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 other parts of the British Empire. Though most of Ireland (see Ireland Act 1949) and the majority of the colonies became independent nations, their citizens have retained the right to vote if they live in the United Kingdom.
In theory, members of the Royal Family who are not members of the House of Lords (including those who are peers who lost their right to sit following the House of Lords Act 1999) are eligible to vote, although in practice they do not exercise that right.
In Great Britain, most electors are enrolled during the course of the annual canvass, which Electoral Registration Officers are obliged to conduct every year between August and November. Canvass forms are sent to all households which must be returned, otherwise a fine of £1000 can be imposed. One person in the household must confirm the details of all residents who are existing electors, which includes adding or deleting residents who have moved in or out and are eligible to register to vote.
Between December and early August, the rolling registration procedure applies instead. Applications must be submitted individually (unlike the annual canvass forms where one person is responsible for registering all eligible people in a household) using registration forms available from local Electoral Registration Officers or the Electoral Commission's website . Although no proof of identity or address is necessary when submitting an application, the Electoral Registration Officer can require the applicant to provide further information regarding the applicant's age, nationality, residence and whether or not they are disqualified and/or evidence to prove the applicant's age and/or nationality. Application forms can be returned to the local Electoral Registration Officer by post, by fax or by e-mail as a scanned attachment.
Special category electors do not register through the annual canvass procedure. Instead, they submit applications at any time during the year and have to renew their electoral application periodically (every one year for overseas electors and voters with a declaration of local connection and every three years for service voters).
After applications are received by the Electoral Registration Officer, he/she must add them to a list of applications (except if they are applications to register as an anonymous elector). The list is open for inspection for five working days, during which any other elector may raise an objection to an application. The Electoral Registration Officer can initiate an application hearing if he/she considers that there are reasonable integrity concerns about the application.
In Northern Ireland, there is no annual canvass, and instead people register individually at any time during the year. Applicants must supply their National Insurance number or, if they do not have one, make a declaration to that effect. Proof of identity, address, three months' residency in NI and date of birth must also be included with applications, which are submitted by post to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland.
Each district council or unitary authority has an Electoral Register which is compiled by the Electoral Registration Officer listing all registered electors. The Electoral Register contains the name, qualifying address and electoral number of every ordinary elector, the name of every special category elector (such as service voters) and the electoral number of every anonymous elector. Any elector who was not aged 18 yet at the time of registration will also have his/her date of birth printed. Each district's Electoral Register is subdivided into separate registers for each polling district.
Because the franchise differs between individual voters, a variety markers will be placed next to voters' names to help to identify which elections they are entitled to vote in. European Union citizens who are not Commonwealth or Irish citizens have their entry prefixed either with the letter G (meaning they can only vote in local government elections) or K (meaning they can only vote in European Parliamentary and local government elections). Overseas electors are prefixed with the letter F, meaning they can only vote in European and UK Parliamentary elections. Members of the House of Lords residing in the UK are prefixed with the letter L, meaning they can only vote in European Parliamentary and local government elections, whilst peers who are overseas electors are prefixed with the letter E, indicating that they can only vote in European Parliamentary elections.
The Register is published every year on 1 December following the 'annual canvass' period (except if there has been an election during the annual canvass period between 1 July and 1 December, in which case the publication date is 1 February in the following year). However, in 2012, because of the Police and Crime Commissioner elections to be held on 15 November, the annual canvass in England and Wales (excluding London) will take place between July and October and the Electoral Register will be published on 16 October. Between January and September, during the 'rolling registration' period, notices of alteration are published on the first working day of each month to add, remove or amend names. Notices of alteration are also published 5 working days before an election at any time of the year and just before the close of poll at any election to correct any clerical errors or to implement any court decisions. With the exception of a deceased elector who is removed from the Register, any individual who is added or removed from the Register must be notified by the Electoral Registration Officer.
There are two versions of the Register - the full Register and the edited Register. The full Register can only be inspected under supervision at the office of the local Electoral Registration Officer, and must be supplied free of charge to the district's Returning Officer, the British Library, the Electoral Commission, the Office for National Statistics (only English and Welsh Registers), the General Register Office for Scotland (only Scottish Registers), the National Library of Wales (only English and Welsh Registers), the National Library of Scotland (only English and Scottish Registers) and the relevant Boundary Commission. The edited Register is available for general sale from Electoral Registration Officers and can be used for any purpose. Electors can choose to opt out from appearing in the edited Register by informing their local Electoral Registration Officer.
Traditionally (with the sole exception of 1923), the United Kingdom effectively has had a two party system arising from the use of the First-Past-The-Post system for general and local elections. Duverger's law certainly seems borne out in the history of British parliamentary politics. Before World War I, the United Kingdom 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 parliamentary majority, although Johnston et al. wrote of the elections from 1950 to 1997, "Increasingly, a number of smaller (or third) parties has won a substantial proportion of the votes cast."
However, some have challenged the view that the United Kingdom 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 62 of the 646 seats in the House of Commons in the 2005 general election, and several nationalist (regional) groupings hold seats as well, leading some spectators to regard the Westminster parliament as a "two and a half" party system.
Smaller parties receive many 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 United Kingdom 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.
It is relatively easy to stand for election as an independent candidate, although wins are very rare and usually involve special circumstances (for example Martin Bell's 1997 victory against the discredited Conservative MP Neil Hamilton was aided by the major parties standing aside and not contesting the election). Following the 2005 general election, there were three independent MPs, the highest number since 1945, however only one of these was returned in the 2010 election. To stand as a candidate in a particular constituency, a British citizen needs the signatures of 10 people registered to vote there, and pay a deposit of £500 (which is returned if he/she gains more than 5% of the vote in that seat).
A person may only cast a vote if he/she is on the Electoral Register - even if he/she would otherwise qualify to vote. If, because of a clerical error, an elector's name has been left off the Electoral Register, the Electoral Registration Officer can amend the Register up to 9pm on polling day. Because the franchise between electors varies (for example, EU citizens who are not Commonwealth or Irish citizens cannot vote in UK Parliamentary elections), ballot papers are only issued after checking the marker in the Electoral Register before an elector's name which helps to identify which elections the individual is eligible to vote in.
Votes can be cast either in person at a polling station, by post or by proxy. British citizens residing abroad and registered as overseas electors cannot vote at British high commissions, embassies or consulates - their votes can only be cast either in person in the constituency where they are enrolled in the United Kingdom, by proxy (who must reside in and be eligible to vote in the UK) or by post (although this option is less popular as postal ballot packs are only despatched by returning officers at 5pm 11 working days before polling day at the earliest and must be received by the returning officer by the close of poll to be counted).
Polling stations are usually open from 7am to 10pm on polling day. Voters receive a poll card from the returning officer at their local authority with details of their allocated polling place. They are not required to show the poll card (unless they are an anonymous elector) or any other form of identification at the polling place in order to vote, except in Northern Ireland, where one piece of photographic ID must be presented at the polling station - a NI Electoral Identity Card, a photographic NI or GB driving licence, a United Kingdom or other EU passport, a Translink 60+ SmartPass, a Translink Senior SmartPass, a Translink Blind Person’s SmartPass or a Translink War Disabled SmartPass.
Having verified and marked off the voter's name and address on the list of electors, the presiding officer or poll clerk issues the ballot paper, calling out the voter's name, elector number and polling district reference, unless the voter is an anonymous elector, in which case only his/her elector number is called out. All ballot papers contain both an official mark (e.g. a watermark or perforation) and a unique identifying number; any papers issued without both these features (even if it is the presiding officer/poll clerk's mistake) will be invalid and rejected at the count. On a separate list (called the corresponding number list) the presiding officer or poll clerk writes the voter's elector number next to the unique identifying number of the ballot paper issued. However the secrecy of the vote is usually maintained, as at the close of the poll this list linking voters to their ballot paper numbers is sealed inside a packet which may only be opened by the order of a court in the event that the election result is challenged. The ballot paper is folded and then handed to the voter unfolded.
The voter marks the ballot papers in the privacy of a voting booth. If the ballot paper has been spoilt, the presiding officer/poll clerk can issue a new one after the old ballot paper is cancelled. Before placing the ballot papers in the ballot box, the voter has to show the presiding officer or the poll clerk the official mark and the unique identifying number printed on the reverse of the ballot papers.
If a voter requests a ballot paper but someone has already voted in their name, or they are listed as having requested a postal vote, they can only cast a tendered ballot. After marking the tendered ballot in private, the voter must not place it in the ballot box. Instead, it must be returned to the Presiding Officer who will endorse it with the voter's name, elector number and polling district reference, before placing it in a special envelope. The voter's name and elector number is then written down in the 'List of Tendered Votes'. Although tendered ballots are not included at the count, they serve as a formal record that a voter has tried, but has been unable, to cast a vote and is evidence of a voter's concern about the conduct of an election. If a voter wants to make a complaint, marking a tendered ballot is the first step in pursuing the complaints procedure.
At the close of poll, the slot at the top of the ballot box is sealed by the presiding officer or poll clerk (the election and polling agents appointed by candidates can also apply their own seals to the boxes) before being transported by the presiding officer to the central counting location.
Voters can apply to receive a postal ballot either for specific elections or on a permanent basis until further notice without having to give a reason (except in Northern Ireland, where voters have to give a specific reason explaining why they cannot physically attend their allocated polling station). Applications for postal ballots close at 5pm 11 working days before polling day - this is also the earliest time the returning officer can despatch postal ballot packs. Postal ballots can be sent anywhere within and outside the United Kingdom, although if they are not sent to a voter's registered address, a reason must be provided to the Electoral Registration Officer as to why the postal ballot is to be sent to an alternative address.
Voters return their postal ballots together with postal voting statements filled in with their date of birth and signature either by post or by hand directly to the returning officer, or by hand to the presiding officer on polling day at a polling station situated within the constituency/ward printed on the postal ballot return envelope. However, for the postal ballot to be counted, the returning officer (or the presiding officer if returned at a polling station) must receive the ballot paper by the close of poll (usually 10pm on polling day).
Any person who is eligible to vote (he/she does not necessarily have to be on the Electoral Register already) can be appointed by another voter as his/her proxy, but for the proxy to be able to vote in an election the proxy application must be received by the Electoral Registration Officer at the voter's local authority by 5pm 6 working days before polling day. The proxy can either vote in person, or can apply for a postal proxy vote (though a postal proxy vote applicaion has an even earlier deadline - any such request must be received by the Electoral Registration Officer by 5pm 11 working days before polling day at the latest). A voter who has become ill or disabled after 5pm six working days before polling day can make an emergency application to vote by proxy as long as the application is received by the Electoral Registration Officer by 5pm on polling day. Unless a close relative, a person can only vote as a proxy on behalf of a maximum of 2 other voters in any single election in each constituency/ward. When applying to vote by proxy for more than one particular election, the application must be accompanied by a relevant attestation and must be justified based on one of the following reasons: blindness; other disability; employment; on an education course; registered as a service, overseas or anonymous elector. If only applying to vote by proxy for one particular election, the elector only needs to explain why he/she cannot vote in person, but does not need an attestation. If it is only possible to get to the polling station from the registered address by air or by sea, the elector can apply for a permanent proxy vote without an attestation.
All polling stations are legally required to be wheelchair-accessible and be equipped with a tactile voting device and at least one large print display version of the ballot paper to assist visually impaired voters. Though the large print version cannot be marked, it can be used for reference. Disabled voters can also request the Presiding Officer in the polling station or bring along a family member to mark their ballot papers for them if they wish. If a voter is unable to enter the polling station because of a disability, the Presiding Officer can take the ballot paper to him/her.
Although the Electoral Commission provides electoral registration forms in a number of foreign languages , by law all voting materials (e.g. ballot papers) are only printed in English (and also in Welsh in Wales).
United Kingdom general elections are held following a dissolution of Parliament. All the Members of Parliament (MPs) forming the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom are elected. Following the Parliament Act 1911, parliamentary sessions last a maximum of five years, and are ended by the dissolution of Parliament. Traditionally the dates of general elections are not fixed in advance, and the time is chosen by the governing party to maximise political advantage. The 2010 election was held on 6 May 2010.
Candidates aim to win particular geographic constituencies in the United Kingdom. Each constituency elects one MP by the first past the post system of election. At the 2005 general election, there were 646 constituencies, thus 646 MPs were elected to Parliament. Boundary changes in Scotland reduced the number of MPs from 659 at the 2001 election to 646. The party with the most seats, i.e. the most MPs, usually forms the government, and the second largest party forms Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Almost all successful candidates are members of a political party, with only one independent elected in the 2010 election and only four independent candidates in the entire country gaining more than a hundred votes.
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 (a total of typically around four weeks). 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 then the election is often "called" after around four years in power.
After the 2010 general election, the coalition government enacted the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 which set fixed term parliaments of five years. As such, the next general election will be held on 7 May 2015, with subsequent elections held every five years on the first Thursday of May. The act also contains provisions for parliament to be dissolved and an early election to be held if no government can be formed within 14 days after a vote of no confidence in the government. Similarly, the act allows for an election to be triggered by a vote of two-thirds of MPs in the House of Commons calling for one.
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, as regulated by the 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 18 general elections between 1945 and 2010, five were held in May, four each in June and October, and two in February and one each in March, April and July.
The 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).
Polls close at 10 p.m. and the votes are, in most constituencies, counted immediately. The earliest results are declared by about 11 p.m., with most having been declared by 3 or 4 a.m.; some constituencies do not declare their results until the following day.
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 current (and possibly 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—no new "term" of office is started. If a majority has not been achieved, and it is obvious that another party has the numbers to form a government, the Prime Minister submits a resignation to the Monarch. The Monarch then commissions the leader of the new majority party 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 (i.e., outline of the proposed legislative programme) offers a chance for the House of Commons to cast a vote of confidence or no confidence in the government through accepting or rejecting the Queen's Speech.
By precedent, and by the absence of any formal written constitutional objection, the Monarch could dismiss the incumbent Prime Minister and seek to appoint a replacement. However, this has not occurred since the dismissal of Lord Melbourne in 1834, and would almost certainly trigger a crisis, similar to that experienced in the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis.
The most recent Prime Ministers who, having failed to win a majority, opted not to resign immediately are Edward Heath, in 1974 and Gordon Brown in 2010. In 1974, after initial negotiations with the Liberal Party failed to provide a coalition deal, Heath 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 was only ever 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, although such a reshuffle may occur at any time so wished by the PM.
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".
Any vacancies created in the House, due to death, ennoblement, or resignation are filled by by-election. The time-frame for these is not automatic and they can be months after the vacancy was created, or even abandoned if there is a pending general election.
Elections to national parliaments and assemblies
Scottish Parliament elections
Scottish Parliament elections occur every four years to elect the Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). The first election to the unicameral Scottish Parliament that was created by the Scotland Act 1998, was held in 1999. Elections to the Scottish Parliament are by the Additional Member System, which is a hybrid of single member plurality and party list.
2011 Election results
|Parties||Additional member system||Total seats|
|Scottish Senior Citizens||1,618||0.08||±0.00||0||±0||33,253||1.67||−0.23||0||±0||0||±0||0.00|
|Ban Bankers Bonuses||—||—||—||—||—||2,968||0.15||+0.15||0||±0||0||±0||0.00|
|Scotland Homeland Party||—||—||—||—||—||620||0.03||+0.03||0||±0||0||±0||0.00|
|Angus Independents Representatives||1,321||0.07||+0.07||0||±0||471||0.02||+0.02||0||±0||0||±0||0.00|
Welsh Assembly elections
Welsh Assembly elections normally occur every four years. They elect the Members of the National Assembly for Wales (AMs). They began in 1999, when the unicameral Welsh Assembly, created by the Government of Wales Act 1998, began its first session. However AMs have voted to hold the next election in 2016 to avoid a clash with the UK parliamentary general election in 2015. For elections to the Welsh Assembly the Additional Member System is used, which is a hybrid of single member plurality and proportional representation.
2011 Electoral results
- Overall turnout: 42.2%
(First past the post)
(Additional Member System)
|Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts||N/A||N/A||N/A||0||0||1,639||0.2||N/A||0||0||0||0||0.0|
|Monster Raving Loony||N/A||N/A||N/A||0||0||1,237||0.1||N/A||0||0||0||0||0.0|
|Putting Llanelli First||2,004||0.2||N/A||0||0||N/A||N/A||N/A||0||0||0||0||0.0|
- Welsh Assembly Election 1999
- Welsh Assembly Election 2003
- Welsh Assembly Election 2007
- Welsh Assembly Election 2011
Northern Ireland Assembly elections
Northern Ireland Assembly elections occur every four years on the first Thursday in May. They began in 1998, when the assembly created by the Northern Ireland Act 1998 began its first session. For elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Single Transferable Vote system, is used. The system uses preferences, and was chosen to attempt to give adequate representation to the different sectarian groups in Northern Ireland. Elections continued even when the assembly was suspended between 2002 and 2007.
2011 Assembly election results
|DUP||Peter Robinson||44||38 (37)||+2||198,436||29.3%||–0.1%||27.2%||4 (5)||—|
|Sinn Féin||Gerry Adams||40||29||+1||178,224||26.3%||+0.7%||24.8%||3 (4)||—|
|SDLP||Margaret Ritchie||28||14||–2||94,286||13.9%||–1.0%||15.0%||1 (1)||—|
|UUP||Tom Elliott||29||16||–2||87,531||12.9%||–1.7%||15.2%||1 (1)||–1|
|Alliance||David Ford||22||8||+1||50,875||7.7%||+2.5%||7.4%||1 (2)||+1|
|Green (NI)||Steven Agnew||6||1||—||6,031||0.9%||–0.8%||1.0%||-||—|
|People Before Profit||N/A||4||-||5,438||0.8%||+0.7%||0.3%|
|Workers' Party||Mick Finnegan||4||-||1,155||0.2%||+0.1%||0.1%|
- Northern Ireland Assembly Election 1998
- Northern Ireland Assembly Election 2003
- Northern Ireland Assembly Election 2007
- Northern Ireland Assembly Election 2011
European Parliament elections
Since the 1999 election, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) representing England, Scotland and Wales have been elected in regional constituencies using the party list, a closed list (i.e. candidates are chosen by parties). In Northern Ireland the Single Transferable Vote system has been used since 1979.
The use of proportional representation greatly increased the representation of minor parties. Until the 1999 election, the First Past the Post system was used, which had prevented parties with moderately large, but geographically spread out vote shares from receiving any seats. For example, in the 1989 election the Green Party received 2,292,718 votes, constituting 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 United Kingdom 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). The number was reduced to 78 for the 2004 election, and to 72 for the 2009 election.
|European Parliament election, 1979||7 June 1979||81||79|
|European Parliament election, 1984||14 June 1984||81||79|
|European Parliament election, 1989||15 June 1989||81||79|
|European Parliament election, 1994||9 June 1994||87||85|
|European Parliament election, 1999||10 June 1999||87||12|
|European Parliament election, 2004||10 June 2004||78||12|
|European Parliament election, 2009||4 June 2009||72||12|
Regional and local elections
In local elections, councillors are elected forming the local administrations of the United Kingdom. A number of tiers of local council exist, at region, county, district/borough and town/parish levels. A variety of voting systems are used for local elections. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, the single transferable vote system is used, whilst in most of England and Wales the single member plurality system is used. The remainder of England (including all of the London Boroughs) and Wales use the plurality at-large system, except for the elections of the Mayor and Assembly of the Greater London Authority (GLA).
Local elections are held in different parts of the country each year. In years with a general election it is usual practice to hold both general and local elections on the same day. In 2004, for the first time, local elections were held on the same day as European elections, and London Mayoral and Assembly elections. The date was referred to as 'Super Thursday'.
The only Region of England which has a directly elected administration is London. London Assembly elections began in 2000, when it was created. The Additional Member System is used for elections to the Assembly. The Mayor is elected via the Supplementary Vote system.
Police and Crime Commissioners
Expansion of the franchise
The system of universal suffrage did not exist in the United Kingdom until 1928. From 1688 to 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 organised 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 consequences 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 Ballot Act 1872 replaced open elections with secret ballot system. The Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883 criminalised attempts to bribe voters and standardised the amount that could be spent on election expenses. The Representation of the People Act 1884 and the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 (the Third Reform Act) collectively increased the electorate to 56% of the adult male population.
The Representation of the People Act 1918 expanded the electorate to include all men over the age of 21 and all married women over the age of 30. Later that year, the Parliamentary Qualification of Women Act 1918 gave women over 30 the right to stand for election as MPs. The first woman to become an MP was Constance Markievicz in 1918. However, she declined to take up her seat, being a member of Sinn Féin. Nancy Astor, elected in 1919, was the second woman to become an MP, and the first to sit in the Commons. 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 five-year period after they had left the United Kingdom. The Representation of the People Act 1989 extended the period to twenty years and citizens who were too young to vote when they left the country also became eligible.
Labour (post-1997) reforms
Prior to 1997, and the Labour Party government of Tony Blair, there were only three types of elections: general elections, local government elections, and elections to the European Parliament. Most elections were conducted under the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, though in Northern Ireland local government and European elections were conducted under the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. The constitutional reforms of Labour drastically changed elections, introducing elected regional assemblies and elected mayors in certain cities. Proportional Representation (PR) was introduced outside of Northern Ireland 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 and STV was used for the newly created Northern Ireland Assembly. The regional party list (Closed list) system was introduced for European elections in Great Britain (which had previously used single member constituency FPTP) though Northern Ireland continues to use STV.
Labour passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which created the Electoral Commission, which since 2000 has been responsible for the running of elections and referendums and to a limited extent regulating party funding. It also reduced the period during which British expatriates can vote, from 20 years after they emigrate to 15.
In 2008 the Ministry of Justice delivered a report that failed to conclusively recommend any particular voting system as "best" and instead simply compared working practices used in the different elections. The Minister of State for Justice, Ministry of Justice (Michael Wills) issued a statement following its publication stating that no action would be taken on the various reports that, since 1997, have suggested a move towards proportional representation for the UK general election until reform of the House of Lords is completed. Critics have claimed that failure to move away from First Past the Post is disenfranchising voters.
New Labour also made many changes to the election administration underpinning the way that elections are run. Changes included postal voting on demand, rolling registration and some innovative pilots such as internet voting
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Some British parties, mainly the Liberal Democrats, have long proposed that the current First Past the Post system used for general elections be replaced with another system. The introduction of proportional representation has been advocated for some time by the Liberal Democrats, and some pressure groups such as Charter 88, Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society. In 1998 and 2003 Independent Commissions were formed to look into electoral reform. Following the 2005 election, in which Labour was elected with the lowest share of the national vote for any single party majority government in British history, more public attention was brought to the issue. The national compact newspaper The Independent started a petition, to campaign for the introduction of a more proportional system immediately after the election, under the title "Campaign For Democracy". The broad-based Make Votes Count Coalition currently brings together those groups advocating reform.
After the UK 2010 general election, the new coalition government agreed to stage a referendum on voting reform, which took place on 5 May 2011, with voters given the choice of switching to the Alternative Vote system or retaining the current one. The country overwhelmingly voted 'No', with only 10 districts out of 440 voting in favour.
Parliamentary and party positions
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Reform is a cross party group consisting of 150 MPs that support electoral reform, chaired by Richard Burden.
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. The Independent Commission on the Voting System, headed by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and known as the Jenkins Commission, was established in December 1997. It reported in October 1998 and suggested the Alternative vote top-up or AV+ system.
The government had expected a recommendation which could have been implemented within the Parliament and decided that it would be impractical to have a general election using First Past the Post after a referendum decision to adopt a different system, and therefore delayed the referendum until after the next general election. Those elements within the Labour Party opposed to any change persuaded the party not to repeat the pledge for a referendum in the 2001 manifesto, and therefore none was held once the party was re-elected.
After the 2005 election, Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer said there was "no groundswell" for change, although a Cabinet committee was given the task of investigating reform. John Prescott was made Chair; given his known opposition to change, proponents were critical and dismissive of the move. Several prominent Labour MPs have expressed a desire for investigating electoral reform, including Peter Hain (who made a speech in the House of Commons in March 2004 arguing for the Alternative Vote), Patricia Hewitt, Tessa Jowell and Baroness Amos.
As mentioned above, in January 2008 the government produced a "desk-bound" review of the experience to date of new voting systems in the United Kingdom since Labour came to power in 1997. This review was non-committal as to the need for further reform, especially as regards reform of the voting system used in General Elections.
The Conservative party in the 2005-2010 parliament were predominantly against PR.[clarification needed] Despite the fact that the Conservative party would have won significantly more seats in the 2005 election if PR had been used, some in the party[who?] felt it might find itself politically isolated on the right, and face Labour/Lib Dem coalition governments. Electoral reform, towards a proportional model, was desired by the Liberal Democrat party, the Green party, and several other small parties.
Arguments for proportional representation
- It would be more representative of the electorate, as votes cast would be roughly proportional to seats.
- No votes would be wasted if PR was used and there would be less tactical voting where people vote for a different party than they support in order to avoid candidates they dislike.
- It would widen voter choice as smaller parties would have a more realistic chance of winning seats.
- It would probably reduce the large majority that some governments enjoy, therefore it would produce weaker governments than with First-Past-the-Post because the governing party would have a smaller majority. This means that the effects of executive dominance would be reduced. The House of Commons would be less of a rubber stamp and the government might be forced to compromise in order to pass laws. Genuine debate, with meaningful impact on legislation, might be reintroduced in the Commons.
- It might produce coalition governments, as in the Scottish Parliament. Advocates argue this would lead to much more emphasis on consensus, and better represent the combined will of the electorate, because coalitions include several parties.
- PR is already used for the regional, European and mayoral elections; general elections should follow suit.
- PR constituencies may range in size, allowing more natural boundaries to be created and maintained over time.
Arguments for first past the post
- The direct link that the FPTP system provides - between voters and their local Member of Parliament - would be lost if certain Proportional Representation systems were adopted. However this would not be the case if a hybrid PR system were used, such as the Additional Member System (used for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly) or alternative vote top-up (suggested by the Jenkins Commission), or if a majoritarian system - such as the Supplementary Vote used for Mayoral elections, or the Alternative Vote - were selected. The Single Transferable Vote - used for elections within many organisations in the United Kingdom and for local elections in both Northern Ireland and Scotland - allows for multi-member constituencies elected via a proportional system but retains the constituency link because MPs are elected as individual representative as opposed to being elected from party lists. This system is used in the Republic of Ireland and means that every voter has a direct link to not one, but between 3 and 5 members, directly elected by their constituency.
- FPTP tends to produce strong governments, which supporters see as an advantage (coalition governments would be a rarity), and the only coalitions (prior to 2010) in the 20th or 21st centuries have happened at times of emergency, usually when one party does not have an overall majority in the House of Commons.
- Coalition governments cannot deliver a single party's electoral mandate, because there has to be consensus on policy with other parties. Coalitions could give small parties disproportionate power.
- Similarly, smaller parties may be constantly in government by changing their allegiances between larger parties despite having no real mandate themselves.
- Coalitions are not formed until after elections, thus unexpected combinations of parties and policies may emerge in negotiations after an election to form a coalition government.
- Parties seen as 'extreme' by the establishment parties, such as the British National Party, might be able to win seats and gain some political power if they had enough votes nationwide. Some think it would be irresponsible to give 'extremists' the opportunity to have any political power. (However, as in the case of Germany, parties are only allowed parliamentary representation based on voter percentage if winning at least 5% of the vote, and the Constitutional Court of Germany has the power to ban parties perceived as non-democratic, and has done so in a few occasions, hence limiting the possibility of extremists to gain meaningful power: A similar threshold or court could be adopted in Britain.)
As in many Western democracies, voter apathy is a current concern, after a dramatic decline in election turnout recently. Turnout fell from 77% in 1992, and 71% in 1997, to a historic low of 59% in 2001. It increased to 61% in 2005, and 65% in 2010. The main reasons identified for low turnout are:
- Lack of variation between the ideologies of the main parties.
- Decline in partisanship as many voters are no longer permanently loyal to one party.
- Reduction in the popularity of various party leaderships.
- Dissatisfaction with parties' record on public services, education, transport etc.
- Lack of interest in the election campaign.
- Voters believing their vote will have no effect on the overall outcome. There is an inverse relationship between turnout in a constituency and the winning candidate's majority in that seat.
- Unpopularity of First Past The Post amongst the many smaller political parties such as Liberal Democrats, Green Party, SNP etc. as well as amongst some political commentators and academics such as Medhi Hasan.
Possible measures to increase turnout include:
- Compulsory voting
- Electoral reform, towards proportional representation, advocated by the Liberal Democrats, Green Party and many other minor parties
- New voting methods such as post, telephone, and internet. There were several criminal proceedings after the last general election which highlighted weaknesses in the postal voting system and resulted in a cooling of enthusiasm for IT and proxy arrangements.
- Lowering the voting age, which has recently seen support, most notably the 'Votes for 16' campaign which was launched in 2003. Furthermore lowering the voting age to 16 is endorsed by independent commissions such as the Commission on Local Governance in England and the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland.
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- Representation of the People Act 1983, Section 4(5)
- As the Representation of the People Act 1983 was enacted after the British Nationality Act 1981, any reference to 'Commonwealth citizen' is defined as a British citizen, a British overseas territories citizen, a British National (Overseas), a British overseas citizen, a British subject or a citizen of a country listed in Schedule 3 of the latter piece of legislation, but not a British protected person.
- As the Representation of the People Act 1983 was enacted after the British Nationality Act 1981, any reference to 'Commonwealth citizen' is defined as nationals of countries listed in Schedule 3 of the latter piece of legislation (which includes Fiji and Zimbabwe despite the two countries' current suspension from the Commonwealth).
- including both the Republic of Cyprus and the semi-recognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but excluding the Akrotiri and Dhekelia sovereign base areas.
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