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The British Electoral System: Description & Structure

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  • 0:02 General Elections
  • 1:55 Constituencies &…
  • 4:01 First-Past-the-Post
  • 5:55 Forming a Government
  • 6:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the British electoral system. We will pay close attention to constituencies, political parties, and the First-Past-the-Post system.

General Elections

A British citizen and an American are sitting side by side on a long flight, and soon they start talking about the governments of their respective countries. The American quickly discovers that she doesn't know much about the British electoral system even though her British fellow passenger seems to know a quite bit about the American way of doing things. Curious, she asks her seat mate to explain how elections work in Britain. Since he is something of an armchair political scientist anyway, the Englishman is glad to oblige. He remarks, however, that he will stick to elections that cover the whole United Kingdom, just to keep things more focused.

The Englishman begins by explaining that the British hold general elections to select members of Parliament's House of Commons. 'It used to be,' he notes, 'that the prime minister could call a general election at any time by simply asking the monarch to dissolve Parliament, but usually, he prudently waited until his own party was strong enough to win. In any case, there had to be a general election at least every five years.'

The American is fascinated. 'The prime minister can just call an election whenever he feels like it?' she asks. 'Well,' her companion responds, 'he used to be able to do that. Things have changed a bit since the Fixed-term Parliament Act was passed in 2011. Now general elections are scheduled automatically every five years, on the first Thursday of May to be exact.' He looks thoughtful and then continues, 'Still, though, there is always the possibility of an election in-between if Parliament passes a motion of no confidence in the government or if two-thirds of the members in the House of Commons vote to hold a new election.'

Constituencies and Political Parties

'That seems like a good system,' the American replies. 'At least it gives you Brits a chance to get rid of a poor government should you happen to get stuck with one. Tell me more, please.' The Englishman grins and says, 'Let's see. The United Kingdom is divided into 650 constituencies, or districts, and each one of those sends a member of Parliament (MP) to the House of Commons.'

'Constituencies,' he continues, 'vary in size from about 22,000 voters up to about 110,000 voters, and they are usually redrawn every ten years or so as necessary to maintain balance. Before a general election, each political party selects a candidate to run for MP in each constituency. Ideally, the candidate should live in the constituency in which he or she is running for office and represent the interests of the citizens there, but it isn't strictly necessary.'

The American breaks in with 'So you have political parties in Britain, too?' 'Certainly,' her companion replies. 'The three major parties are the Conservatives, the Labour Party, and the Liberal Democrats. There are others, too, but they aren't nearly as powerful as the big three. Just for your reference, the Conservatives, who focus mainly on social issues, are led by David Cameron, who was appointed prime minister in 2010. The Labour Party, which values working together and placing power and resources in the hands of as many people as possible, is led by Ed Miliband. The Liberal Democrats, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, say that they want to create an open, free, and fair society concentrated on community, liberty, and equality.'

First-Past-the-Post

The American nods knowingly. 'Sound like your political parties would disagree with each other as much as ours do,' she says. 'That certainly is true,' the Englishman replies with a smile. 'Anyway, after the candidates have been selected, they campaign against each other much like candidates do at election time in the U.S. They debate issues, make speeches, and the like.'

'Elections themselves,' he goes on, 'are really quite simple. Citizens aged 18 and older cast their ballots merely by making an X beside the name of their selected candidate. The candidate with the most votes in the constituency wins. It's as easy as that. We often call the electoral system First-Past-the-Post because the winner takes all.'

'So the candidate doesn't even need the majority of the votes to win the election,' the American asks. 'That's right,' her seat mate responds. 'There are pros and cons to the system, of course. On the plus side, the system is very simple. Voters can understand it easily, and the process of counting votes is quick. Only rarely is there a recount or disputed ballots.'

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