UK Democracy and elections

UK Democracy and elections Share

We began this month discussing one of the core British Values: democracy, and the various processes in place to facilitate this. And while the Brexit battle rages on to who knows what end, the one thing that seems to be pretty clear to those in the know, is that there is likely to be another general election fairly soon. Therefore, this week we’re going to take a look at how General Elections in the UK work, and what democratic systems are in place for local elections.

General Elections

A general election is an opportunity for people in every part of the UK to choose their MP – the person who will represent their local area (constituency) in the House of Commons for up to five years.

There is generally a choice of several candidates in each constituency. Some will be local candidates for national political parties, while some may be independent, and not attached to any party or group. The candidate that receives most votes becomes their MP.

Under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, the winning candidate may receive significantly less than 50% of the total votes for their constituency, which is why some parties form strategic alliances in order to back one candidate, rather than splitting the vote share between candidates and allowing another party’s candidate to win the most votes overall.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 aimed to ensure general elections were held regularly every five years, though it appears that for the second time since then, a general election will be called early. In order for this to happen, parliament must approve the motion with a two-thirds majority (at least 434 MPs voting in favour).

Who chooses the Prime Minister?

You can only vote to elect your local MP in a general election. You cannot vote for a new Prime Minister. The political party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons at a general election usually forms the new government, with its leader becoming Prime Minister, having been given authority from the monarch.

Each political party has its own process of electing their leader, and only members of that party can take part in those relevant elections.

Hung Parliament

A ‘hung parliament’ is a parliament in which no political party wins a majority (more than half) of seats. The largest party can either form a minority government or enter into a coalition government of two or more parties. Often these situations can take weeks or even months to resolve. Find out more about hung parliaments here.

Local Elections

The structure of local government varies from area to area. In most of England, there are 2 tiers – county and district – with responsibility for council services split between them. London, other metropolitan areas and parts of shire England operate under a single tier structure with councils responsible for all services in their area.

In total there are 343 local authorities in England made up of 5 different types:

  • county councils
  • district councils
  • unitary authorities
  • metropolitan districts
  • London boroughs

Local councils and elections

Members of councils – councillors – are elected for 4-year terms using the first past the post system, though a variety of electoral cycles are used so not all councillors are necessarily elected at the same time.

The 3 methods of holding elections to local councils are:

  • by whole council (all of the councillors are elected every 4 years)
  • by halves (half of the councillors are elected every 2 years)
  • by thirds (a third of the councillors are elected every year for 3 years, with no elections in the 4th year)

Electoral areas

In county councils (including single tier county councils) councillors represent electoral areas called divisions. In other types of council these areas are called wards. An electoral area (ward or division) may be represented by 1, 2 or 3 councillors.


Where a district council holds whole-council elections all councillors are elected at the same time. For example: electors in a 2-member ward cast 2 votes each and elect 2 councillors at the same time.

Where a district council holds elections by thirds, a third of the councillors for the whole council will be elected at each annual election. Electors in a 3-member ward will vote in each of the elections, electors in a 2-member ward will vote in 2 out of 3 and electors in a single-member ward will vote in 1 of the 3 elections.

Contact your local council office to find out more about elections specifically related to your area.