Electoral Systems

Elections in the UK

Elections are methods of filling an office or post through choices made by the people. In the UK, elections are based on the principles of universal suffrage (all adults can vote, with a few exceptions), one person, one vote (everyone’s vote is worth the same), secret ballot, and pluralist competition between parties. Types of elections in the UK are:

  • General elections- to choose members of the House of Commons (MPs)
  • Devolved assembly elections- to choose members of devolved bodies such as the Scottish Parliament
  • European Parliament elections- to choose the UK’s Members of the European Parliament (MEPs)
  • Local elections- to choose members of local councils and mayoral posts

UK Constituencies: the UK is divided up into 650 constituencies for the election of MPs to the House of Commons. The average amount of voters in a constituency is 70,000. The largest in terms of voters is 111,000, and the smallest 22,000. The geographical size of constituencies varies hugely. The largest is 12,000 sq km and the smallest 727 hectares. There are four Parliamentary Boundary Commissions, one for each part of the United Kingdom. Their job is to review, in a non-partisan way, the boundaries of constituencies, to ensure that they keep pace with population changes. Under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which required the commission to report at five-yearly intervals, a new set of recommendations should have been returned by October 2013, with the revised boundaries coming into force for the 2015 election. The Conservatives were expected to benefit by up to 20 seats.

In January 2013, however, this was halted by a Lords amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, backed by the Liberal Democrats in revenge for the Conservatives’ failure to support Lords reform. The amendment delayed the boundary review by five years.

Purposes of Elections

One purpose of elections is to form governments- the party which wins an overall majority of MPs in a general election is invited to form a government by the monarch, and its leader becomes Prime Minister. Where proportional electoral systems are used, however, the formation of government may take place after the election, as an overall majority is much less likely.

Another purpose is to ensure representation- by being chosen by the people, politicians take into account public opinion and act in the people’s interests. However, the way in which politicians represent the people is open to debate.

Another purpose is to maintain democratic legitimacy. Governments are legitimate because they have the ‘right to rule’- they have to people’s consent to govern. This can be criticised, however, due to declining turnouts and the nature of some electoral systems. UK governments win power with 35-40% of the vote, of a turnout in the region of 60-65%. This calls into question how far the government’s authority is based on the will of the people.

Types of Representation

Trusteeship: the idea that representatives (MPs, for example) use their superior knowledge and experience to act for the people- they don’t just do what the people would want, instead, they try to act in their best interests, because the people may not know what is in their best interests. This has been argued to be an out-of-date way of viewing representation.

Mandate: this means ‘an instruction or command to govern’ and is sometimes used to describe the right to govern. By winning an election. A government has had its manifesto (set of policy proposals) approved by the public, so they have the right to carry out those policies. This has been argued to be a misleading way of describing representation in the UK, as most voters are unlikely to have read manifestos in detail. Once in power, there is little to stop a government from breaking or not fulfilling manifesto pledges.

Descriptive: the idea that MPs should literally represent the people, for example by being from a similar background to most of their constituents, and think in a similar way. This may lead to a representative with a very narrow interest base, however.