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A Quick Guide To The UK Election

The main headline in the UK today is the announcement of a general election on 4th July. The announcement has led to hundreds of memes, thanks to some very poorly managed staging. 

Rishi Sunak, our current Prime Minister, stood outside 10 Downing Street in the rain getting soaked while protesters played ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Both his voice and his suit were somewhat drowned by his surroundings. 

So, here is a quick explanation to those who aren’t as familiar with the UK election system.

Parliamentary Terms

Elections must happen no more than 5 years apart, however it it isn’t uncommon for elections to be called before that 5-year deadline. To call an election the Prime Minister must inform the British monarch that they intend to dissolve parliament and call an election.

The campaigning process is much shorter than in countries like the USA, so elections are usually announced just 6 weeks before the voting day. 

This timeframe and the ability to dissolve parliament early allows the government to try and time the election to coincide with when they believe they are most likely to win. 

If they are in the middle of a crisis the government might wait and hope that they regain some popularity. On the flip side, leaving it too late might mean they have no choice but to call an election at a time when they are trailing their opposition in the polls. Choosing an election date is a strategic process.

Who Is Being Elected

In the UK we don’t technically vote for the Prime Minister in an election. We are electing a Member of Parliament (MP) to represent our local constituency in the House of Commons. So, on 4th July every constituency will vote to decide who their MP will be for the next 5 years. 

There are 650 constituencies, each represented by one MP – the party with the most MPs forms a government, and the leader of that party becomes PM. 

If no party has an outright majority, the party with the most MPs will form a coalition with a smaller party, but this isn’t the typical result in UK elections.

In practice, most people vote for the party knowing who will become PM and are less concerned about who their local MP will be. 

This system of government also has another effect. As we vote for our MPs rather than the Prime Minister, the party in government can replace the Prime Minister without calling a general election. 

This has happened several times in recent years – when a Prime Minister is failing they can have a leadership contest. The replacement Prime Minister is then chosen by a very small subsection of the population – registered members of the party in power. 

Several recent Prime Ministers have taken the top spot through this process – Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak all started their terms through leadership contests, not general elections. 

For many UK residents today’s announcement is a welcome one – a chance for us to choose our own Prime Minister again rather than the result depending on a very small percentage of the population.

Voting Day

Voters must be 18 or over on polling day and registered to vote. Voters can apply and send in a postal application in advance, vote by proxy, or attend a polling station. Polling stations are usually community buildings such as schools and church halls.

The voting ballot will list each candidate standing in that constituency, showing their name and party. Voters choose one candidate, there is no ranking system for voting.

Voters must also now bring photo ID to the polling station. This is a new rule, and although it has been widely communicated, the former PM Boris Johnson still forgot his during the May local elections. 

There are plenty of polling stations so you don’t typically see the long queues that have been present in the last few US elections. 

Elections are held on Thursdays, and the result should be announced during the day on Friday 5th July.

UK Political Parties

The UK has several political parties, including ones that only serve a specific region in the UK. The two major parties are the Conservatives and Labour. 

Other significant parties include the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru (a Welsh party which only stands in Wales) and the Green Party. 

And because we like the absurd in the UK, there are also political groups such as the Monster Raving Loony Party which usually has a handful of candidates in a few different constituencies.

The Likely Outcome

It is almost certain that the Conservative Party will lose the July 4th election and the Labour Party led by Keir Starmer will form the next government. The Conservatives have been delaying the inevitable for several months, hoping that they would be able to fix their terrible polls. 

Several Conservative MPs announced during the first few months of 2024 that they would not stand for re-election, knowing they would probably lose their seat. A few others have defected to other parties, hoping to keep their seat if they join Labour. 

Conclusion

So there you have it, a quick explanation of the main talking point for the next few weeks in the UK! If you are spending any time in the UK in the next few weeks, or talking to any Brits, you now have a better idea of what’s going on.

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