Discover The Facts

Electoral Process

This section contains non-partisan factual information about the Electoral Process. It has been compiled by the site editor and is updated periodically. It cannot be re-edited by site users. If you believe any of this material is factually incorrect or politically biased please contact the editor.

Key Questions

Should we use a different electoral system at general elections?

In recent years, the electoral system - first past the post (FPTP) - has come under increased scrutiny.  There have been a number of reports discussing electoral reforms, including the 1998 Independent Commission on the Voting system, the 2003 Independent commission on proportional representation, and the 2007 Electoral Reform Society’s report on Britain’s experience of electoral systems.  More

Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System Independent Commission on Proportional Representation Changed Voting Changed Politics Electoral Reform Society’s report: Britain’s Experience of Electoral Systems

There are a number of reasons for the increased scrutiny of the electoral system.

  • The growing sense that the FPTP system was and is creating disproportional results More
    for instance, in 1974, Labour had 301 seats, but 37.2% of the total vote, while the Conservatives won 297 seats, but had 37.9% of the total vote, or 226000 more votes than Labour; and the Liberals won only 14 seats, but had 19.3% of the total vote.


  • The rise of third parties — in particular, the rise of the Liberal Democrats, who have long campaigned in favour of some form of proportional representation because FPTP prejudices results against them.



  • The concern that FPTP encouraged the formation of strong governments able to dominate Parliament with ‘false majorities’. The Labour administration elected in 2005 only got 2.8% more of the total vote than the Conservatives, but held a clear majority of 66 in the Commons.


As a result of the political compromise agreed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, which was embodied in the Coalition Agreement, a referendum was held in May 2011 to ask the electorate whether they wished to replace the FPTP system with a system of Alternative Voting.  The result was a significant majority (almost 70%) voting No to AV.  Although the impact of this decision will undoubtedly mean that it is unlikely that further electoral reform will be brought forward in the near future, the debate about the need for electoral reform is not likely to be over.   More

For more information on the background to the referendum and views of experts on the proposals see here.

What does the 'no' vote really mean?


In considering the need for or desirability of electoral reform the following approach may help:

What are the objectives of an electoral system?  Many argue over the specific weight to
be given to various objectives, but some of these objectives can be at least set out:

  • Stable government
  • Proportionality
  • Voter choice
  • MP-constituency link
  • Voter participation
  • Legitimacy


There are a number of different voting systems in use around the world, but those that are most discussed in the UK are FPTP and Proportional Representation (PR).



  • Produces clear results: it is rare that FPTP leads to a ‘hung parliament’ where there is no obvious majority
  • Produces a clear relationship between constituency and MP
  • Is easily understood by voters

Against FPTP

  • Distorts the popular vote and produces ‘false’ majorities More
    for instance, in 1983, the Conservative won 397 seats (61.1% of the total seats in Parliament) but only had 42.3% of the popular vote; similarly, in 1997, Labour won 418 seats (63.4% of the total seats in Parliament) but only had 43.2% of the popular vote
  • Produces ‘wasted’ votes, and thus may discourage voter participation More
    Votes are 'wasted' in safe seats, ones where the majority of the incumbent political party is so large that there is no real prospect of an opposing candidate winning the seat.
  • Works to the disadvantage of third parties, unless those parties are concentrated geographically
  • Intensifies adversarial politics

For PR:

  • Provides a closer reflection of the popular vote
  • Reduces the number of 'wasted' votes
  • Encourages consensus-based politics because, usually, no one party has a majority
  • Encourages voter participation, because ‘every vote counts’ towards proportionality

Against PR:

  • Almost always produces multiparty politics and a hung parliament - arguably encouraging unstable and weak government
  • Can be confusing to the voter, both in terms of the system itself and the complex ballot papers required                      
  • Can give a voice and a share of legislative power to extremist parties
  • Blurs the relationship between constituency and MP


Is it 'unfair' that some constituencies are larger than others?

A variation in the size of constitencies can add to the perception that a government is elected with a 'false' majority.  More

A distinction needs to be made between the impact of variations in the size of different constituencies and variations in the electoral turnout between constituencies.  For example, if Party A wins 3 seats in constituencies where the turnout was very low, and Party B wins 2 seats in landslide victories with a very high turnout, then Party B may well poll in total more votes than Party A, but Party A will be the party entitled to form a government because it has won the most seats.  The size of the constituencies is almost irrelevant.  It is the variation in the size of the turnout in the various constituencies in the election that has produced the unexpected result.
The Boundary Commission reviews all constituencies on a regular basis to try as far as possible to keep the size of constituencies roughly equivalent, but there remain considerable differences. More
For example, historically Scotland had been over-represented at Westminster but a review in 2005 resulted in the reduction of Scottish constituencies by 13.  A more recent review has resulted in the creation of 4 new constituencies in England, which will come into force at the next general election. 

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 provides for the number of constituencies to be reduced from 650 to 600 by the 2015 election and requires the size of each constituency to be within 5% of the national average.

There is, however, a tension between the desire to create constituencies of roughly equivalent size and the desire to have a system where an MP represents the views of and issues that affect his constituents. In other words, when drawing boundary lines should greater priority be given to grouping together distinct communities, rather than just looking at the head count in each constituency?  And are we sufficiently protected from gerrymandering?

The Colaition government argues that we have too many MPs and that there ought to be fewer constituencies, but this would mean that constituencies would become larger.  Would this detract from the ability of MPs to be able to take soundings of 'local' opinion? 


Should more issues be decided by a referendum?

There are a number of arguments for and against the use of referendums.


  • Referendums provide a form of direct democracy, and thus may encourage political participation.
  • They provide a means of legitimising a particular course of action.
  • They can be used to provide a sense of finality.


  • In bypassing Parliament, referendums undermine representative democracy. For instance, they allow politicians to avoid the responsibility to make controversial decisions by shifting the burden onto the electorate.
  • Referendums are too crude, reducing complex issues to a yes/no answer (which itself raises a difficulty regarding the wording of the question, which is of great importance).
  • They can be manipulated by governments to achieve a particular end, because it is the government proposing the referendum which decides what the question should be and who interprets the meaning of the response to that question. More
    A favourite way of demonstrating the inherent ambiguity in referendum style questions is the apocryphal question 'Have you stopped beating your wife yet?'  The answer 'yes' implies that the respondent used to beat his wife, the answer 'no' implies that the respondent still beats his wife.  Neither response admits of the possibility that he has never beaten his wife, or that he does not have a wife.
  • The rules on when a referendum should be held are unclear: whether or not a referendum is held seems to be in a government’s discretion. More
    For example, the recent referendum on AV was only called due to a deal struck in the Coalition agreement, whilst other major constitutional legislation like the boundary review, fixed-term Parliaments and House of Lords reform are to be passed without referendums


There are also a number of technical issues regarding referendums:

  • Should a referendum be held before the introduction of legislation into Parliament (as in the 1979 referendums), or after (as with the 1997 referendums)?
  • Should there be a minimum threshold in order for a referendum result to be successful?


Should voting be compulsory?

In view of the fact that in general as a nation we appear to cherish our democracy and that the right of universal suffrage for men and women was hard fought for over many years, it may seem a little perverse that turnout levels in some elections are very low. 

Compulsory voting would compel the participation of the entire electorate and might therefore be thought to produce more accurate outcomes in elections.  It is argued, however, that if voting is to be compulsory, all ballot papers should also include the option to vote for 'none of the above' - the point being that failure to attend and vote, far from being an act of complacency, can instead be a way of sending a message to all politicians that none of them is worthy of a vote. According to this argument, low turnout figures are said to be a clear sign to all politicians that they need to work harder to earn our votes, whereas  the introduction of compulsory voting would let politicians off the hook of bearing responsibility for the willingness of citizens to vote.


This section last updated May 2011

What you need to know

Elections are the key means by which the public holds government and parliament accountable.  An electoral system is a set of rules for translating the public's votes into seats in the legislature.  Political parties attempt to persuade voters of their ability to govern Britain with policies and principles set out in their respective election manifestos.

  • In UK general elections, electors vote using the ‘first past the post’ electoral system to determine the composition of the UK Parliament at Westminster.
  • The political party (or group of parties) which gains a majority of constituency seats in Parliament gets to govern Britain - it is ‘the government’ as it has ‘the confidence of the House’.
  • There are currently 5 different electoral systems in operation in the UK. Almost  all levels of sub-state government are now determined by some form of proportional representation
  • Many areas in Britain have elections for up to 4 tiers of government.

Why does it matter?

The electoral system is fundamental to Britain’s democracy:

  • it is the key means of holding governments and parliaments accountable to the public
  • it determines which political party is appointed to be the government, and the extent to which that government can enact legislation and implement its policies
  • Even though the May 2011 referendum resulted in the AV system being rejected, debate will continue as to whether our existing system ought to be reformed.

What are the key dates?

Abolition of rotten boroughs; reduced property qualification for voting.
Greater proportionality of representation; further reduction of property qualification.
Replaced open elections with secret ballot elections.
Reduced property qualifications; created voting population of 5m, or 25% of the adult population.
Property requirement removed; women over 30 allowed to vote; created voting population of 21m, or 75% of the adult population.
Voting age of women lowered to 21.
Voting age reduced to 18.
Northern Ireland referendum held.
Referendum on Europe held.
Referendum on Scottish and Welsh devolution held; first direct elections for the European Parliament held in the UK.
Referendum on Scottish and Welsh devolution held; introduction of proportional representation at devolved level.
Referendum on Greater London Authority held; referendum on Good Friday Agreement held.
Establishment of Electoral Commission to regulate elections and referendums; new rules on party financing.
Referendum on Northern England devolution held.
Referendum held on the adoption of the AV system of voting

What are the key facts?

Types of electoral systems

These can be divided into two kinds: majoritarian and proportional representation.  Some electoral systems involve aspects of both systems.  Voting systems are many and varied and the following is a summary of the most widely used, or discussed.


Majoritarian systems require one candidate to win a majority of the votes cast in the election; usually no recognition is given to candidates who come second or third.  In majoritarian systems, electors are generally voting for an individually-named candidate rather than for a political party.

First Past the Post (FPTP)

This is the electoral system known to most people in the United Kingdom. Electors in a single constituency vote for a candidate who may, but do not have to, belong to a political party and the candidate with the highest number of votes in that constituency is the winning candidate and becomes the MP for that constituency or 'seat'. Depending on the number of candidates, the person winning the most votes will not necessarily have more than 50% of all the votes cast.  The political party with the most MPs in Parliament then becomes the Government.

This system is used to elect MPs in the UK House of Commons and in the English and Welsh local government elections.

Supplementary Vote (SV)

This is very similar to the AV system, in that voters on their ballot papers are required to select their first and second choice of candidate (although they do not have to select a second choice).  If any candidate wins more than 50% of the first choice votes cast, he is the winner. The key difference between SV and AV systems is that under the SV system if no candidate wins outright on the initial vote, then all but the top two candidates are eliminated, and all the second preferences of the eliminated candidates are allocated to those two candidates (as appropriate).  The candidate with the most votes is then the winner. Depending on the number of candidates and whether or not electors opt to indicate a second preference, the winning candidate may or may not have the support of more than 50% of the total votes cast.

This system is used to elect the London Mayor if there are more than 2 candidates and in mayoral elections at local government level.


Alternative Vote (AV) and Alternative Vote Plus

The winning constituency candidate is required to gain over 50% of the votes cast.  On their ballot papers, electors have to rank their candidates in order of preference (first, second, third and so on); any candidate gaining outright more than 50% of the first preference votes wins the election.  If no candidate wins on first preferences, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is removed and the second preferences indicated on the ballot papers of those who voted for the removed candidate are transferred to the remaining candidates.  This process repeats until one candidate gains more than 50% of the votes cast.

AV Plus is very similar to the Additional Member System (AMS), which is explained below.

AV and AV Plus are not used in the UK, but AV plus was recommended for introduction into the UK by the Independent Commission on Electoral Reform.  The May 2011 referendum decisively rejected AV. More

For a full rundown on the arguments for and against the system of AV proposed in the May 2011 referendum, the background to the referendum and views from the experts see here.  For links to slightly more in depth briefing paper, including a worked example showing how AV functions link here. And for links to other briefings, see here.


Proportional Representation

There are many forms of proportional representation, but all are aimed at ensuring that a political party is given seats in the legislature according to the proportion of the total votes received by that party. Proportional representation is used at European, devolved and local levels of government.

List systems

In systems of proportional representation, every party provides a list of candidates for selection on a regional or national basis. These lists may be open or closed: an open list means electors have the ability to indicate some preference over which of the candidates they choose from the party list; a closed list means electors must vote for the party as a whole and the list is presented to them as a fait accompli.  Each party standing for election wins seats in accordance with the proportion of votes it receives.

A closed list system is used for European parliamentary elections.

Single Transferable Vote (STV)

This is perhaps the most ‘pure’ version of proportional representation.  It is also quite complex and difficult to explain simply, because of the different formulae that can be used to calculate what the minimum quota of votes is that each candidate is required to achieve.  In summary, electors in each constituency rank the candidates for their constituency in order of preference. Candidates must reach a ‘quota’ of votes in order to be elected.  If no candidate reaches that quota, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is removed and those votes are redistributed to remaining candidates according to electors’ secondary preferences.  Surplus votes for a candidate who reaches that quota are transferred to the remaining candidates until other candidates also reach the required quota necessary. This continues until there are no seats remaining. More

A more detailed explanation of how this system works can be found either on the website of the UK  Office of the European Parliament or on  the Northern Ireland Assembly website

This system is used in Northern Ireland in elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly and for the European Parliament.

Additional Member System (AMS)

Also known as mixed member proportional (MMP). Electors have 2 votes: a constituency vote and a party list vote.  Constituency MPs are chosen by FPTP; the party vote is used to ‘top up’ seats to give each party proportionality within the legislature.  As with STV, the system by which this is done is complex and difficult to explain simply. More

The Electoral Reform Society website explains it as follows: Each voter has two votes, one vote for a single MP via First-Past-The-Post, and one for a regional or national party list. Half the seats or more are allocated to the single-member constituencies and the rest to the party list. The percentage of votes obtained by the parties in the party list vote determines their overall number of representatives; the party lists are used to top up the First-Past-The-Post seats gained by the party to the required number. So if a party has won two seats in the constituencies but in proportion to its votes should have five, the first three candidates on its list are elected in addition.

A slightly easier way to understand this system may be found here

This system is used in Scottish Parliament elections, Welsh National Assembly elections and London Assembly elections.  It is also used in Germany and New Zealand.



Electoral systems in the UK

There are a variety of electoral systems used in the UK. Many areas have elections for up to 5 tiers of government or administration: local government; local mayoral administration; a devolved legislature; the UK Parliament and the European Parliament. More

The Electoral Commission’s website usefully summarises the different electoral systems used at different tiers of government within the UK:

The UK Parliament - General Elections at Westminster

The composition of the House of Commons is determined by the first past the post system (FPTP).  There are 650 MPs in the House of Commons, each elected in a constituency.  There is currently no fixed parliamentary term, though the coalition agreement includes the commitment to introduce fixed parliamentary terms of five years. Under the current system, the Prime Minister has the power to choose the date for an election.  Once the date for a general election is fixed, there are usually 3-4 weeks of campaigning before election day.  By convention, general elections are always held on a Thursday.

Registered electors may either vote via the post or at a polling station.  The votes are counted and the candidate having the most number of votes in his or her constituency is identified as having won that constituency seat.  A political party which gains the greatest number of seats in Parliament is declared to be the winner of the election, and is invited by the Queen to form the Government.

If no political party gains a majority of seats in the Commons, this is known as a ‘hung parliament’.  In this situation, there may need to be negotiations between political parties to see if they can come to an arrangement which will give them a majority in the House: that is, political parties may band together and form a 'coalition' government.  If this fails, one political party or a group of parties may agree to form a 'minority' government — one which has no majority in the House.  If no agreement can be reached at all,  there may need to be a second election.

Hung parliaments are not very common at Westminster; until 2010, the most recent example of a general election resulting in a hung parliament was in 1974.  However, there have been a number of hung parliaments at a devolved level. More

ie Cornwall is currently a hung council.   For more on the current state of the UK Parliament:

Under FPTP, electors have no means of ranking their preferences.  It may be that their most preferred candidate or party has very little chance of winning in their particular constituency.  Tactical voting is one means by which electors can maximise the value of their vote.  Tactical voting involves people voting, not for their most preferred candidate, but rather voting in order to prevent their least favoured candidate from winning.  So, for instance, a Labour supporter might vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate in their constituency in order to prevent a Tory candidate from winning the seat.  This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in marginal constituencies—where the margin between candidates is very slim. More

In recent years tactical voting has become more sophisticated. There are now even websites set up to facilitate ‘vote swapping’—where one elector agrees to swap his or her vote with that of another elector in another constituency. See the following article from the Guardian for an account of the phenomenon.

FPTP puts smaller parties at a disadvantage.  It is a ‘winner takes all’ system.  The candidate who gains the majority of votes in his or her constituency wins the constituency seat, and the losing candidates receive no recognition at all, no matter how many votes they might have received.  This is hardest on small parties whose support is not geographically concentrated, but spread out across the country.  The Jenkins Commission suggested this was also perverse: a party’s breadth of appeal should be something which counts towards its electoral success—instead it is under-rewarded.


The UK currently has no fixed parliamentary term, though this does not dictate that a Parliament may endure indefinitely. The maximum duration of any Parliament is limited to 5 years by the Septennial Act 1715 (as amended by the Parliament Act 1911). The Queen exercises the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament before the maximum five-year period, though this is normally done on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill, introduced by the coalition on the 22nd July 2010, aims to change the current system by introducing fixed parliamentary terms of five years- meaning that the date of the election would be automatically set for the fifth anniversary of the last general election. More


Proponents of change argue that the current system is unfair as the incumbent government is advantaged in any election by the fact that it is able to choose the date which most favours it and thereby plan more effectively in the run up to the election campaign. It is also thought that the current system creates too much uncertainty before elections because politicians, third party organisations and the public have insufficient notice of the election date.   This makes it difficult for political parties and pressure groups to organise their campaign finances, as well as distracting politicians from everyday politics and creating economic uncertainty

The Bill currently before Parliament also proposes measures for dissolving Parliament before the end of the fixed term. The current convention is for Parliament to be immediately dissolved following a vote of no confidence, which requires a simple majority in order to be passed. Under the new bill, a vote for immediate dissolution would require a two thirds majority of MPs, including vacant seats. A simple majority would be sufficient for a vote of no confidence but there would then ensue a period of two weeks in which the House would have the opportunity to pass a vote of confidence in a new government, and so avoid a general election. Parliament would only dissolve if a new government had not been endorsed in this way within fourteen days.  
Opponents fear that the new rules for dissolution combined with fixed parliamentary terms could result in the entrenchment of any government, limiting Parliament’s power to hold the Executive to account.  See the following article for reference to this debate:
For the full text of the Bill see: For greater detail on conventions for dissolution see: This Parliamentary briefing paper is also a useful source for further information on fixed-term Parliaments

Britain is presently divided into 650 constituencies, each constituency having one seat each in Parliament.  The drawing of constituency boundaries is an important issue, because inequalities in the size of constituencies can have a distorting effect on the outcome of a vote. 

By way of example: in 3 constituencies A, B and C, constituency A has 100 electors and constituencies B and C have 60 electors.  Two political parties contest an election, Orange and Brown.  In constituency A, Orange wins 90 votes, Brown 10.  In each of Consituencies B and C Orange wins 29 votes and Brown 31.  Orange will have one MP, Brown will have 2 and therefore will form the government, even though, overall it has polled much less than half of the votes cast in all 3 constituencies.  If there are more than two parties standing in each constituency, the results tend to be more exaggerated, with an even smaller proportion of the vote being able to secure a victory.

Another issue is the question of so-called gerrymandering - the process whereby constituency boundaries are drawn in order to gain a political advantage, for example by splitting an area known for its strong sympathies to a particular political party into two or more constituencies and mixing the voters together with voters of different political views in adjoining constituencies.  

The existence of the Boundary Commission an 'advisory non-departmental public body funded by the Ministry of Justice' is designed to ensure that boundaries will be drawn by reference to a set of impartial rules and thus to ensure fairness in the relative sizes of constituencies and to outlaw gerrymandering.  Nevertheless, it requires the cooperation of the government of the day to act promptly on recommendations to ensure the integrity of constituencies.  Moreover, the remit of the Commission is to maintain a broad-brush surveillance on boundaries on a permanent basis, but it only formally reviews all Parliamentary boundaries at 8-12-year intervals.  This means that general elections may be fought on data that is 10 years old.  This has lead some to call for greater scrutiny and more regulation of the way constituencies are drawn.  More

The Ordnance Survey provides maps showing the geographical areas of constituencies
  As at 2007, the constituencies by nation were

  • England = 529
  • Scotland = 59
  • Wales = 40
  • Northern Ireland = 18

The average size of constituencies by nation:

  • England = 69900
  • Scotland = 65400
  • Wales = 55800
  • Northern Ireland = 58000

Source: FN Forman and NDJ Baldwin Mastering British Politics (fifth edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007)

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2010  contains provisions to reduce the total number of constituencies and thus of MPs from 650 to 600 by the time of the 2015 election.  It wil equalise the size of constituencies so that all have the same number of registered electors (approximately 76,000) plus or minus 5%. More

An explanatory note accompanying the bill can be found here.

Those who may vote in general elections in the UK are British nationals and citizens of Ireland and the Commonwealth resident in the UK over the age of 18 who are registered on the electoral roll.  Those who cannot vote include members of the House of Lords, sentenced prisoners, those convicted of corrupt or illegal electoral practices, and those not on the electoral register.  


If a person is legally eligible, he or she can apply individually to be added to the electoral register.  In addition, in autumn there is a canvass of every household to check for eligible voters.  The householder must give details of all eligible occupants, as well as those who will turn 18 within the next year.  The process differs for Northern Ireland, which has a history of electoral fraud. More

  Under the new Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, the UK will move from a system of household registration to a system of individual electoral registration in mid-2010. From 1 July 2010, people will be asked by Electoral Registration Officers to provide on a voluntary basis their signature, date of birth and National Insurance Number, partly as a means of security.
Postal voting

A postal vote option is now available on demand to all registered voters.  This was seen as a means of increasing election turnout. A person who is already on the electoral register can apply to vote by post. This can be done by filling out and signing an application form and returning the completed form to the local electoral registration office. Ballot papers are then sent about a week before election day. These must be filled in, signed and sent back so that they are received on or before election day. Electors can specify the time for which they wish to vote by post: for one election, a specific time period, or permanently if in the UK.


Postal voting has been the subject of some controversy after it became available on demand because of the lax security requirements and the potential for voter fraud.  In 2005, a judge found that six Labour Party representatives in the 2004 Birmingham local elections had committed systematic fraud with at least 3500 votes cast fraudulently.  They were able to do this because the postal voting system had a number of flaws, including:

  • The registration process, which could not guarantee that the application had been made by the voter in question; and allowed the ballot paper to be sent to an address different to that of the registered elector
  • There were no means of verifying signatures, or the names and addresses of witnesses
  • Easily identifiable returning envelopes
  • Returning officers had no powers of investigating fraud; and the police had limited knowledge of electoral law
  • The means by which fraud could be investigated was seen as unwieldy


These flaws led to the enactment of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which in particular set out offences for postal fraud, and gave greater powers to police to investigate such allegations.  It also set out new requirements for postal voting, such as requiring that signatures and dates of births to be provided on postal vote applications and statements, so that checks can be carried out (electoral administrators are required to check at least 20% of all postal votes); and introduces a marked register of postal votes received. The Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2006 also made changes to the postal registration process, including requiring reasons for the re-direction of postal votes and outcomes of applications for postal voting be confirmed in writing. More

Source: Stuart Wilks-Heeg Purity of Elections in the UK: Causes for Concern (2008)  


Since the Birmingham controversy, there have been other allegations of postal voting fraud. More

See: House of Commons Library Standard Note “Postal Voting and Electoral Fraud”

See generally on the right to vote  


Anyone who is a British national, a citizen of Ireland or the Commonwealth and who is resident in the UK over the age of 18 may stand as a candidate at a general election.  Those who cannot stand as candidates include members of the House of Lords, lunatics, bankrupts, civil servants, senior government officials, judges, members of the armed forces and the police. More

Some of these restrictions are for constitutional reasons: for instance, it would violate the separation of civil and military government to have a member of the armed forces in Parliament, where he or she could influence the work of his or her fellow soldiers; similarly, it would be a violation of the separation of powers to allow a judge to be part of the legislature.

4134 candidates stood in 649 constituencies in the general election in 2010. More

For more on women candidates in the recent election see: Election 2010: where the women candidates are:  A report from the Centre for Women and Democracy
Political Parties

Most candidates — but not all — belong to a political party.  Membership of a political party is not a pre-requisite of standing as a candidate.  Political parties are associations of people bound together by history and ideology.  They organise candidates, provide funding and policy support.  For most of the post-war period, Parliament and government have been dominated by two major parties: the Labour Party and the Conservative Party.  But the last quarter of a century has seen the ascent of the Liberal Democrats as a third political party of influence in British politics.  There are other parties: at the 2010 election, these other parties gained 28 seats at Westminster, or just over 4% of Parliament, having polled just under 12% of the vote.


The administration of a general election is the responsibility of the returning officer of each constituency, a person chosen by the local council. The procedures for the administration of general elections are set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983. More

The administration of the general election in 2010 unexpectedly became a highly controversial issue when, in several constituencies, the administrators found themselves unable to cope with the numbers who turned up to vote.  This resulted in a number of people being turned away from polling stations and unable to vote, despite having arrived in good time to cast their ballot. More
The Electoral Commission is currently investigating this occurrence, and published an interim report on the 20 May 2010. This found tht the problems affected approximately 1,200 voters at 27 polling stations in 16 constituencies. Given that there are 14,000 polling stations across the UK, the problems cannot be considered widespread. However, they are still significant in that they undermined the democratic process. The major issue was that these people were all waiting in the queue by the time the polls closed at 10pm, and were then not allowed to vote even though they had been there in good time. The Electoral Commission has attributed this to a number of factors including poor planning assumptions, inadequate staffing arrangements and restrictive legislation. Their suggestions for improvement are to tackle each of these problems, and in particular that government should legislate to allow any member of the electorate in a polling station queue before the close of polls to cast their vote (even if this must be done after the polls have closed).  A Bill to this effect will receive its second reading in the House of Commons on 22nd October 2010.  See the interim  report from the Electoral  Commission  here:

Established in 2000, the independent Electoral Commission has a number of duties, including overseeing the registration of, donations to, and campaign expenditure of political parties.  It also advises government on proposed changes to electoral law, assists those involved in elections and determines the boundaries of local government constituencies. More

The Electoral Commission’s website is here:  There is also a useful discussion of the changing role of the Electoral Commission here:

The determination of constituency boundaries is dealt with by the Boundary Commissions of the 4 nations.  A regular review of constituency boundaries is needed to ensure that the relative size of constituencies remain roughly similar to preserve the principle of ‘one person, one vote’. More
The Boundary Commissions for the 4 nations:

Originally, responsibility for determining parliamentary boundaries was to be transferred to the Electoral Commission, but the Commission on Standards in Public Life has recommended that responsibility remain with the boundary commissions.  This has been accepted by Parliament—see:   


The cost of administering the 2005 general election was £80 million. More

There are strict limits on the amounts that political parties can spend on electoral campaigning in the 365 days leading up to an election.  This is monitored by the Electoral Commission. More
Generally speaking, a political party can spend up to £30000 per constituency contested; if all seats were contested this would amount to a total spend of over £19 million.

Additionally there are separate limits on the amount that may be spent by individual candidates on their electoral campaigns in the lead-up to an election. More

At the 2005 election, candidate expenditure limits stood at £7150 plus 7p per named registered voter in a rural electoral register, or £7150 plus 5p per name in an urban electoral register.  Thus a candidate might have a permitted maximum expenditure of around £10000-£12000.

By way of example in the 2005 general election, political party election expenditure was as follows:


  • Labour = £17.94 million; number of constituencies contested = 627
  • Conservatives = £17.85 million; number of constituencies contested = 627
  • Liberal Democrats = £4.32 million; number of constituencies contested = 626 More
    Source: FN Forman and NDJ Baldwin Mastering British Politics (fifth edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007). More about party campaign expenditure canbe found at:


New rules on candidate expenditure are coming into force as a result of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, which applied in the 2010 general election. More

In essence, there is a spending limit imposed where Parliament has sat for more than 55 months (Parliament can only sit for a maximum of 60 months).  In the final 5 months, known as ‘the long campaign’, candidate expenditure is limited to a maximum of £25000 plus 5p per registered voter in a borough constituency and 7p per name in a county constituency; in the final month before the poll, known as ‘the short campaign’, the old limits remain, i.e., £7150 plus 7p per name in a rural electoral register, or £7150 plus 5p per name in an urban electoral register.  The Electoral Commission has issued a new briefing on this (see Part C):

The 2010 General Election Results were as follows:

  Votes Aquired Seats won % of seats % of vote % of electorate
Conservative 10.7m 306 47 36.1 23
Labour 8.6m 258 39.6
29 18.5
Liberal Democrats 6.8m 57 8.7 23 14.6
Others 2.96m 28 4.3 11.8 7.5
Total 29.6m 649 99.84 100 63.8
Non-voters 16.8m        
Total 46.4m        

Note, the vote in the Yorkshire constituency of Thirsk and Malton will not take place until May 2010, as a result of the death of one of the candidates during the campaigning period

The 2005 General Election Results were as follows:

  Votes Aquired Seats won % of seats % of vote % of electorate
9.55m 355 55.0 35.2 21.6
Conservative 8.77m 198 30.6 32.3 19.9
Liberal Democrats 5.98m 62 9.6 22.1 13.6
Others 2.82m 31 4.8 10.4 6.4
Total 27.12m 646 100 100 61.5
Non-voters 16.99m        
Total 44.11m        
Sources: FN Forman and NDJ Baldwin Mastering British Politics (fifth edition, Palgrave
Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007

The European Parliament

The composition of the European Parliament is determined by proportional representation, although the exact form of proportional representation differs from member state to member state.  In the UK we use the Single Transferable Vote system.  There are 785 MEPs in the European Parliament, elected by 27 EU countries.

The UK is represented by 72 MEPs in the European Parliament.  The UK is divided into 12 constituencies, each constituency having between 3-10 MEPs.  The nine English regions elected 59 MEPs, Scotland elected six MEPs and Wales four MEPs.  In Northern Ireland three MEPs were elected under its own system of proportional representation.  Residents in Gibraltar vote in the South West Region.

The European Parliament is a fixed term parliament, with elections constitutionally required every 5 years. More

The Scottish Parliament

The composition of the Scottish Parliament is determined by a proportional representation system (AMS).  There are 129 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament: 73 are elected by constituency vote and the remaining 56 by party vote.  Elections are fixed—constitutionally required—every 4 years. More

The Welsh National Assembly

The composition of the Welsh National Assembly is determined by a proportional representation system (AMS).  There are 60 AMs (Assembly Members): 40 are elected by constituency vote and the remainder by party vote.  There is a fixed 4-year electoral term. More

The Northern Ireland Assembly

The composition of the Northern Ireland Assembly is determined by a proportional representation system (STV).  There are 108 MLAs (members of the Legislative Assembly), representing 18 constituencies.  Each constituency is represented by 6 MLAs.  There is a fixed 4-year term. More

For more on the Northern Ireland Assembly:

Current state of the Northern Ireland Assembly:

The Greater London Authority

The London Mayor and the London Assembly are determined by 3 different electoral systems.  The Mayor is elected by first past the post where there are only 2 candidates; if there are more than 2 candidates, the SV system is used.  The London Assembly is determined by proportional representation (AMS).  There are 25 London Assembly members: 14 Assembly Members each represent one of the 14 constituencies; the remainder represent London as a whole.  There is a fixed 4-year term for the Assembly and Mayor. More

For more on the Greater London Assembly, see:

Current state of the Greater London Authority:

Local Government

The nature and structure of local government depends on location. In England and Wales, the electoral system is FPTP, but the individual constituencies for councillors (often referred to as 'wards') are much smaller than the constituencies used in a general election; in Scotland and Northern Ireland the STV is used.  Elections are held every 4 years. More

One easy way of finding out who represents you at the local, devolved, Westminster and European levels is through

To see whether there are any upcoming elections which affect you, visit:

Unelected officials

Members of the House of Lords are not elected, but are either hereditary peers or are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister.  European Commissioners are not elected, but a Commissioner for each member state is appointed by his or her government.  In the UK this means that the European Commissioner is appointed by the Prime Minister.  The President of the European Commission is chosen by a majority vote of European Commissioners, whilst the 14 vice Presidents are usually nominated by informal agreement without a vote.  The President of the European Union is chosen by informal agreement between the heads of the states comprising the European Union, as are the appointments to the other senior positions created by the Lisbon Treaty, such as the EU Trade Commissioner. 



Referendums require a direct vote of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by the electorate on a particular issue.  Most Western nations have the machinery for referendums, but use them infrequently. Referendums are generally used to resolve issues relating to the constitution, territory and self-determination, and morality.

In Britain, there have been 10 referendums held on ‘constitutional’ issues, involving proposed shifts in power to a particular tier of government.  Only two of these were nation-wide: the referendum on whether or not Britain should remain within the European Community and the AV referendum. More


The 9 referendums

  • 1973: Should Northern Ireland remain in the UK? (yes) (voters:Northern Irish)
  • 1975: Should the UK remain within the European Community? (yes) (voters:UK)
  • 1979: Should there be a Scottish Parliament? (no) (voters:Scots)
  • 1979: Should there be a Welsh Parliament? (no) (voters:Welsh)
  • 1997: Should there be a Scottish Parliament? Should it have tax-varying powers?
  • (yes; yes) (voters:Scots)
  • 1997: Should there be a Welsh Assembly? (yes) (voters:Welsh)
  • 1998: Should there be a Greater London Authority with a London mayor? (yes) (voters:London)
  • 1998: is there support for the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland? (yes) (voters:Northern Irish to ratify the agreement; Irish Republic on amendments to Irish constitution to give effect to the Good Friday Agreement)
  • 2004: should there be an elected regional assembly in North East England? (no) (voters:North East)
  • 2011:  should the alternative vote system be used instead of first past the post? (no) 

Until recently, referendums have been rarely held, the key reason being the belief that Parliament, rather than the people, ought to make major political decisions.  In practice, referendums have only been held because the governing political party has been split internally over an issue, although this may be changing. 

It should be noted that the outcome of any referendum is not necessarily binding on the government, or Parliament.


This section last updated May 2011


References and Links

General - electoral process


Alternative Voting

Fixed-term Parliaments

Constituency boundaries





General - electoral process

Research papers

Voting Systems in the UK House of Commons Library

UK Election Statistics 1918-2004 House of Commons Library

The Parliamentary Boundary Commissions House of Commons Library

Parliamentary reports

Choosing an Electoral System  British Academy; Simon Hix, Ron Johnston FBA and Iain McLean FBA 

Changed Voting Changed Politics Independent Commission on Proportional Representation

The Experience of New Voting Systems in the United Kingdom since 1997 Ministry of Justice

Key Websites

House of Commons Library

The UK Electoral Commission

About My Vote

The UK Office of the European Parliament

The Boundary Commissions for the 4 nations:
*    England
*    Scotland
*    Wales
*    Northern Ireland

UK Polling Report

Further reading

John Curtice “The Electoral System” in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)

Rodney Brazier Constitutional Reform: Reshaping the British Political System (third edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)

Anthony King The British Constitution (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)

Adrian Blau “Majoritarianism under Pressure: The Electoral and Party Systems” in Robert Hazell (ed) Constitutional Futures: Britain’s Constitution till 2020 (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2008)

Vernon Bogdanor The New British Constitution (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2009)

Alternative Voting


Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Select Committees

Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee

            - First report -Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

            - Third report - Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

            - Summary of written evidence

Briefing papers

"AV and electoral reform" briefing paper, House of Commons Library

"Alternative Voting" briefing paper, The Constitution Society

Public opinion on AV and the referendum- results of YouGov poll, The Constitution Society

TCS articles

Referendum campaign funding rules

71% think independent body should draft referendum question

Fixed-term Parliaments


Fixed-term Parliaments Bill

Select Committees

Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee

             - Second report - Fixed-term Parliaments Bill

Briefing papers

"Fixed-term Parliaments", House of Commons Library

Briefing Paper on Fixed-term Parliaments, The Constitution Society

TCS articles

The unseemly haste to introduce fixed-term Parliaments


Vernon Bogdanor on Fixed-term Parliaments, Lords Constitution Committee

Robert Blackburn on Fixed-term Parliaments, Lords Constitution Committee

Constituency boundaries


Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Select Committees

Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee

            - First report -Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

            - Third report - Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Research papers

Can the Boundary Commissions Help the Conservative Party? Constituency Size and Electoral Bias in the UK, Ron Johnston, Iain Mclean, Charles Pattie, David Rossiter in The Political Quarterly, December 2009.

Parliamentary Constituency Boundary Reviews and Electoral Bias: How Important Are Variations in Constituency Size?, Ron Johnston, Galina Borisyuk, Colin Rallings, Michael Thrasher in Parliamentary Affairs, December 2009.

Drawing a new Parliamentary Constituencies Map for the UK, Michel Balinski, Ron Johnston, Iain McLean and Peyton Young, with research assistance from Angela Cummine, The British Academy

Briefing Paper 'Reduce and Equalise' Constituency Boundaries, The Constitution Society

How strong is the case for having fewer MPs?, Democratic Audit Article by Lewis Baston & Stuart Wilks-Heeg