general elections


general elections
   People eligible to vote in British general elections are British citizens and Irish citizens resident in the UK aged over eighteen years, provided they are not peers, imprisoned criminals, bankrupts or lunatics, or have been convicted of electoral malpractice over the previous five years. Around 7 percent of the population usually fail to get on the electoral roll, however. Unlike the fixed-term parliaments in most other Western democracies, the British Prime Minister can choose the date for a general election (unless s/he suffers a vote of no confidence) at any time during the five-year term, usually when it is politically expedient to do so. The UK has 659 electoral constituencies, averaging around 65,000 eligible voters per singlemember seat, although this hides significant variations. Constituency boundaries are decided every ten to fifteen years by a Boundary Commission appointed by the government. The Commission tries to prevent large discrepancies in constituency size and population, but usually also takes geographical and administrative factors into account. The Labour Party in opposition in 1983 and 1997 complained about the Commission’s recommendations, alleging that gerrymandering had occurred in the redrawing of constituency boundaries.
   The British Parliament is elected by a ‘first past the post’ electoral system. The advantage of this system is that it usually provides for strong majority government and does not give disproportionally large amounts of power to minor parties. However, it magnifies small national shifts between the two main parties, and disadvantages third parties and alternative parties. This was particularly evident in the 1983 and 1987 elections, when the SDP/Liberal Alliance gained around one-quarter of the votes but only one-thirtieth of the seats. In the 1992 election only sixty seats changed hands, and most seats are generally considered to be safe. Campaign resources are therefore directed at marginal constituencies.
   The Conservative Party won an unprecedented four consecutive general elections from 1979 onward, and served eighteen years in office. The population favoured its tax-lowering agenda and the strong leadership provided by Margaret Thatcher until 1990. However, by the 1997 election the party had been damaged by divisions on Europe and allegations of ‘sleaze’. Labour achieved a landslide victory, gaining their best-ever majority of 179, with 417 seats and 44 percent of the vote, while the Liberal Democrats increased their tally of seats to 46. There were 114 women MPs, more than ever before.
   Further reading
    Punnett, R.M. (1994) British Government and Politics, 6th edn, Aldershot: Dartmouth.
   COLIN WILLIAMS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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