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Encyclopedia > United Kingdom general election

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 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.



Even though the election has not been called, the incumbent party already displays campaign posters. This one is seen in in mid-January, .
Even though the election has not been called, the incumbent party already displays campaign posters. This one is seen in Brighton in mid-January, 2005.

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 Monarch 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 (per Representation of the People Act 1983, s 23 and Schedule 1 (Parliamentary election rules), rule 1 (Timetable)).

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 as a citizen of the UK and 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 Monarch, 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 20 years thereafter. They would vote for the MP of the constituency in which they lived before they moved abroad. This is also applicable to people who were under 18 before they moved abroad; when they reach 18 they can vote. "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, either two or more parties will form a coalition government, with enough total MPs for a majority, typically with the leader of the larger party becoming Prime Minister, or a single party will attempt to form a government and survive through informal alliances and agreements with other parties. Passing government legislation without a majority in the House of Commons -- as happened in the last months of the John Major government -- can be difficult.

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.


a pre-election at the West and constituency
a pre-election husting at the Oxford West and Abingdon constituency

In the UK general elections are usually 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 power in parliament that has rivalled the legacy of Margaret 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 3-4 am; some constituencies do not declare their results until the following day. In Northern Ireland the count does not begin until the next morning with results being announced from early afternoon onwards.

When all of the results are known, or when one party achieves an absolute majority of the seats in the House of Commons, the first response comes from the outgoing prime minister. If a majority in the new parliament has been achieved by their party, they remain in office without the need for reconfirmation or reappointment. If a majority has not been achieved and it is obvious that the opposition has the numbers to form a government, the prime minister submits a resignation to the Monarch. The Monarch then commissions the Leader of the Opposition to form a new government. The prime minister has the option of attempting to remain in power even if seats have been lost. The subsequent Queen's Speech (ie, outline of the proposed legislative programme) offers 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 monarch has no role. Only if the Prime Minister resigns can the monarch then commission someone else to form a government. Thus Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990, was 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 before 1918

These elections occurred before the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave suffrage to most of the adult population (men 21+, women 30+)

  • UK general election, 1832
  • UK general election, 1835
  • UK general election, 1837
  • UK general election, 1841
  • UK general election, 1847
  • UK general election, 1852
  • UK general election, 1857
  • UK general election, 1859
  • UK general election, 1865
  • UK general election, 1868
  • UK general election, 1874
  • UK general election, 1880
  • UK general election, 1885
  • UK general election, 1886
  • UK general election, 1892
  • UK general election, 1895
  • UK general election, 1900
  • UK general election, 1906
  • UK general election, 1910 (January)
  • UK general election, 1910 (December)

Election results since 1918

Election Date Prime Minister Party Majority
UK general election, 1918 December 14, 1918 David Lloyd George (Liberal) (Coalition Government) 238
UK general election, 1922 November 15, 1922 Andrew Bonar Law Conservative 74
UK general election, 1923 December 6, 1923 James Ramsay MacDonald Labour
UK general election, 1924 October 29, 1924 Stanley Baldwin Conservative 210
UK general election, 1929 May 30, 1929 James Ramsay MacDonald Labour
UK general election, 1931 October 27, 1931 James Ramsay MacDonald National Labour (National Government) 492
UK general election, 1935 November 14, 1935 Stanley Baldwin Conservative (National Government) 242
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
UK general election, 2005/06 to be held some time before June 30, 2006

See also

  Results from FactBites:
United Kingdom general elections - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (295 words)
This is a list of United Kingdom general elections since 1802.
Until 1918, general elections did not occur on a single day and polling was spread over several weeks.
The date given in the table before 1918 is the date Parliament assembled after the election which could be in the year after the general election.
Elections in the United Kingdom - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (4222 words)
It is relatively easy to stand for election as an independent candidate, although wins are very rare and usually involve special circumstances (for example Martin Bell's 1997 victory against the discredited Conservative MP Neil Hamilton was aided by the major parties standing aside and not contesting the election).
United Kingdom general elections are the elections held when the Members of Parliament (MPs) forming the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom are elected.
In years with a general election it is usual practice to hold both general and local elections on the same day.
  More results at FactBites »



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