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United Kingdom general elections

United Kingdom general elections are the times when the Members of Parliament forming the House of Commons are elected. Terms last for a maximum of five years.

Candidates aim to win an election in a particular geographic constituency in the UK, and almost all are members of a political party. There are 659 constituencies, and thus 659 MPs. Most voters choose who to vote for based on the candidates' parties, rather than the personalities or opinions of the candidates.


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 (typically five to eight weeks). The actual election may be held at any time before the end of the five-year term. 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 the election is often "called" after around four years in power.

The Prime Minister asks the Queen 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. The election is held 17 working days after the date of the Proclamation.

Since 1935 every general election has been held on a Thursday. Of the 16 general elections between 1945 and 2001, four have been in October, four in June, three in May and two in February.

The UK's 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).


Anyone resident in the UK and is a citizen of the UK, the Republic of Ireland or of a Commonwealth country and is 18 or over on the date of the election is eligible to vote, unless they are a member of the House of Lords, imprisoned for a criminal offence, mentally incapable of making a reasoned judgement, or have been convicted of corrupt or illegal practices in connection with an election within the previous five years. Members of the Royal Family, including the Queen, are eligible to vote, although in practice it would be seen as unconstitutional if they ever did. UK citizens who have moved abroad remain eligible to vote for 15 years thereafter. "Service voters" - including forces personnel, diplomats and other public servants resident overseas - are also eligible. Voters must appear on the electoral register in order to vote; they can now be added to the register until eleven working days before the election. Voting is not compulsory.


It is a first-past-the-post election system, in terms of the number of MPs from a particular party. If one party has an overall majority of MPs, they will form the next government, and their leader becomes Prime Minister. If no party has an overall majority, then two parties form a coalition government, with enough total MPs for a majority, typically with the leader of the larger party becoming Prime Minister. Running a government without a majority in the House of Commons -- as happened in the last months of the John Major government -- is considered very unsatisfactory.

The system is not one of proportional representation (PR). A party with 20% of the vote nationally could easily end up with very few MPs. This aspect of the system attracts criticism, particularly from parties that would perform better under a PR system such as the Liberal Democrats. On the other hand, supporters of the system cite it as a reason for the lack of extremist parties from mainstream UK politics, the infrequency of coalitions, and the direct connection between constituencies and their MP.


In the UK general elections are generally affairs in which public opinion changes gradually from general election from election. However this can often have dramatic effects due to the first-past-the-post election system as support for a given political party tips sufficiently to give a landslide result. Currently the Labour party under Prime Minister Tony Blair has had two such landslides, giving him a strength in parliament that has rivalled the legacy of the Baroness Thatcher.


Polls close at 10 pm and the votes are, in most constituencies, counted immediately. The earliest results will be declared by about 11 pm, with most being declared by 3 am; some constituencies do not declare their results until the following day.

When all of the results are known, the first response comes from the outgoing prime minister. Where he or she has a majority in the new parliament, they remain in office without the need for reconfirmation or reappointment. Where he or she has lost a majority and it is obvious that the opposition has the numbers to form a government, she or she submits their resignation to the Queen. She then commissions the Leader of the Opposition to form a new government. Where a prime minister though they may have lost seats believes that they might still be able to continue in power they have that option, with the subsequent Queen's Speech (ie, outline of their proposed legislative programme) offering in effect a chance for the House of Commons to vote confidence or no confidence in the government through accepting or rejecting the Queen's Speech.

The last prime minister who having failed to win a majority opted not to resign immediately was Edward Heath in 1974. However after initial negotiations with the Liberal Party failed to provide a coalition deal, he 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 Queen has no role. Only where he or she resigns can the monarch then commission someone else to form a government. Thus Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990, was actually only asked to form a government once. Similarly, Tony Blair (1997-present) has only ever been 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.

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.

From the Electoral register (2000) there are 44,423,440 people registered to vote in the UK, 36,994,211 of them in England.

Election results since 1945

Election Date Prime Minister Party Majority
UK general election, 1945 July 5, 1945 Clement Attlee Labour 146
UK general election, 1950 February 23, 1950 Clement Attlee Labour 5
UK general election, 1951 October 25, 1951 Winston Churchill Conservative 17
UK general election, 1955 May 26, 1955 Anthony Eden Conservative 54
UK general election, 1959 October 8, 1959 Harold Macmillan Conservative 100
UK general election, 1964 October 15, 1964 Harold Wilson Labour 5
UK general election, 1966 March 31, 1966 Harold Wilson Labour 96
UK general election, 1970 June 18, 1970 Edward Heath Conservative 31
UK general election, 1974 (February) February 28, 1974 Harold Wilson Labour -
UK general election, 1974 (October) October 10, 1974 Harold Wilson Labour 3
UK general election, 1979 May 3, 1979 Margaret Thatcher Conservative 43
UK general election, 1983 June 9, 1983 Margaret Thatcher Conservative 144
UK general election, 1987 June 11, 1987 Margaret Thatcher Conservative 102
UK general election, 1992 April 9, 1992 John Major Conservative 21
UK general election, 1997 May 1, 1997 Tony Blair Labour 179
UK general election, 2001 June 7, 2001 Tony Blair Labour 167

See also