Considering that we live under one of the oldest political systems on the planet which affects every aspect of our everyday lives, it's surprising how little we really learn about it at school.
This guide will explain:
• The UK’s electoral system and how it works in practice
• The main criticisms of our system
So, what system do we have?
First Past the Post
Under this system the country is divided into 650 constituencies (areas). There is one Member of Parliament (MP) for each constituency. Unlike in a presidential system where you vote directly for a president/prime minister, voters in this system only elect their local MP. The leader of the party which wins the most seats then becomes prime minister.
Proportional representation means that the number of candidates from each party in parliament is proportionate to the party’s percentage of the vote (i.e. if 35% of voters vote for Party A, Party A would get exactly 35% of seats in Parliament). This system is used in Germany, for example.
Some countries combine the two options (e.g. electing more than one candidate per constituency).
Since MPs can only get elected by receiving more votes than every other candidate, votes for smaller parties are often ignored and the representation of larger parties is inflated.
The graphics to the right show the actual share of seats for each party (top) and what it would look like if seats were allocated proportionately (below).
The UK legislature (Parliament) is divided into two chambers: the House of Commons & the House of Lords.
House of Commons - this is made up of 650 elected MPs, one from every constituency. This can also be referred to as the Lower Chamber and is where most key debating, such as Prime Minister’s Questions, takes place.
House of Lords - this is currently made up of 87 hereditary peers, 660 life peers and 26 Bishops. The main power for appointing new life peers lies with the Prime Minister. Unlike in the House of Commons, the 773 members in this chamber (the Upper Chamber) are not elected.
Check out our cheat sheet to learn more about the UK Parliament
What is a majority?
A Government needs a majority of at least 326 MPs in the House of Commons or it could be very difficult for them to get anything done.
A ‘hung Parliament’ means that no party has a majority (e.g. under David Cameron 2010-15 & Theresa May 2017-2019). This usually forces the largest party to form a coalition with another party or call another election for instance, in 1974.
MPs do not have to support their party on every decision and often vote against it. However, if this happens too frequently, they can be removed from the party. This is referred to as ‘losing the whip’.
In the 2019 election, the Conservative Party won 365 seats, a huge majority.
What about the actual elections?
When? - Every 5 years unless the Prime Minister calls a ‘snap election’ before this (e.g. 2017 and 2019 elections).
Where do you vote? At a polling station in your local area to vote for your local MP.
Who can vote? To vote, you must be at least 18 years old, registered to vote and one or more of the following:
A British or Irish citizen
A qualifying commonwealth citizen
A resident at a UK address
Over 18 years old
Click here for more information.
Councillors are elected in the same way as MPs, just on a much smaller scale. This means that you vote for the representative of your local area (maybe your village or your part of town).
In London, each borough has its own council. These councils include one representative for each ward.
Local elections take place every 4 years.
Councils usually elect either the entire council every 4 years or half the council every 2 years.
Devolution means decentralising power away from Westminster.
Scottish & Northern Irish Parliaments
Since the late 90s, Scotland and Northern Ireland have had their own parliament which is elected independently and make their own laws in areas like housing, education, and health.
Wales also has an independent parliament which has less power.
Many people feel we should introduce Proportional Representation in order to offer voters better choice and give fair representation to smaller parties.
This is the name for large parties who represent many different views (e.g. Tory and Labour parties) – many people feel that these large parties don’t properly represent anyone.
A ‘safe seat’ refers to constituencies where the same party wins every election. People in these constituencies often feel that their vote is wasted.
Who decides what?
Devolution has led to the creation of Scottish, Welsh & Northern Irish parliaments. This means that there are MPs who can vote on issues which don’t affect their constituency.
For example, MPs elected in Glasgow can vote in the House of Commons on housing policies even though the Scottish Parliament has a separate housing policy which these MPs can’t vote on. There is also lots of conflict about what should and shouldn’t be decided by regional parliaments (e.g. food production standards).
There are some demands for devolution to regions with local governing bodies taking on more responsibility.
Want to learn more? Take a look at our insightful guide on the UK Government.