General elections

All change: The 25 seats belonging to the DUP, Sinn Féin, the Greens and Change UK add up to make 650. © Tutu

The UK is heading to the polls on 12 December for what is set to be one of the most divisive and fiercely fought elections in the country’s history. How exactly does a general election work?

  • What is a general election?

    It’s when Members of Parliament are elected to form a new government. There are 650 constituencies (or voting districts) that each elect one Member of Parliament. Once elected, these 650 MPs make up the House of Commons in Parliament.

    General elections involve the whole of the United Kingdom.

  • Who decides when to have a general election?

    Usually, the Prime Minister decides when to call a general election – although, legally, they have to do it within five years of the last one. But they are free to call one at any time before then. Technically, they need to ask the Queen — but since she can’t really refuse — it is ultimately the Prime Minister’s decision.

    In 2011, Parliament passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act which changed things. The act said that parliaments had to last five years except in special circumstances. And any decision to have an early election was for the House of Commons, not the Prime Minister anymore.

  • Can anyone stand to be an MP?

    Yes. If you are eligible to vote, you can usually stand to be an MP.

    Unless you are a member of the House of Lords, the Queen, or one of various public servants like the police or military.

    You can stand as an individual without being part of a political party, but very few people do so. At the next election, however, there may be quite a few independents because some current MPs have resigned or have been expelled by their political parties. There are currently 35 MPs who are listed as independents.

    In one constituency – that of the Speaker of the House of Commons (whoever they happen to be) – it is traditional for the main parties not to put up candidates against the Speaker.

  • Who votes?

    Every body over the age of 18 who has registered to vote (with a few exceptions).

    Citizens of Ireland, Cyprus, Malta and some commonwealth countries living here can vote, but citizens of other EU and other non-EU countries cannot, although they can vote in local and European elections.

    British citizens living abroad can also vote as long as they have lived here in the past and been registered to vote in the past 15 years.

    Prisoners cannot vote — although they can stand for Parliament and be an MP if they were in prison for under one year.

    There is a long-running argument about whether the voting age should be lowered to 16.

  • What does ‘winning’ mean in a General Election?

    At a constituency level, the candidate with the most votes wins – this is known as a “first past the post” system.

    At a national level, a party wins the election if it has enough MPs to form an effective majority in the House of Commons.

    There are 650 MPs, but a majority is not 326 — though you might think that was just over half the vote.

    The speaker and their three deputies do not vote. Nor do Sinn Fein MPs from Northern Ireland (currently seven). So, there are really only 639 voting MPs, not 650.

    The lowest effective number of MPs a party needs to win a majority is 320. Anything lower than that and any government has to be either a “minority government” or a coalition between more than one party.

    This briefing is produced by The Day in association with ENGAGE Public Policy.

You Decide

  1. Is first-past-the-post an outdated electoral system?


  1. Stage a mock election in your class. A representative from each of the major parties should give a short speech, followed by a class vote.


Word Watch

United Kingdom
Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
An individual
Known as independents.
In September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson expelled 21 MPs from the Conservative Party after they voted for legislation to block a no-deal Brexit. Ten of these MPs have now been readmitted to the party to stand as Tory candidates in next month’s general election.
Currently John Bercow. The Speaker is in charge of maintaining order in the House of Commons.
Lowered to 16
Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats have been pushing for 16 and 17-year-olds across the UK to get the right to vote before the next election, but their efforts have so far been unsuccessful.
Effective majority
A government needs to command more than half of the House of Commons in order to pass legislation smoothly.
Minority government
When a political party or coalition of parties does not have a majority of seats in Parliament.
A group formed by two or more parties.

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