Houses of Parliament: the British Election System

So how does the British election system actually work? This is a question that many people will be asking on Thursday – including many Brits. The British public is going to the polls following the call for a snap election by PM May on April 19. We will be covering the results when they come in but today we are looking at just how the British election system works.

The Structure of the Political System

Firstly, the British parliament consists of two houses – the House of Commons and the House of lords. Only members of the House of Commons are elected by the people. These members are known as MPs (Member of Parliament). Members of the House of Lords are appointed by an independent commission.

  • The House of Commons: The lower house of British election system. It consists of 650 members – MPs represent their constituencies and are elected by members from within their constituency. If one single party gains an in-house majority, they may ask the monarch to form a government. This is merely a formality as the monarch is obliged to grant their permission.
  • The House of Lords: The second or upper house within the British election system. It also meets within the Palace of Westminster and either accepts or rejects bills into the British legislation. Interestingly, membership of the House used to be hereditary, in that it was passed down within families. This system was only abandoned in 1999!

First Past the Post: the British election system

The British election system is notorious for being unwieldy and somewhat antiquated. Voters do not elect a government; they elect a local representative to go to Parliament and debate matters on their behalf. While this system is used the world over, it does not improve on its inability for voters to cast votes as they desire.

Party: Seats: Vote Share: Votes/Seat:
Labour Party 331 36.8%


Conservative Party 232 30.4%


UKIP 1 12.6%


Liberal Democrats 8 7.9%


SNP 56 4.7%


Green Party 1 3.8%


Other 20 4.8%


Above – 2015 Election Results

Take the green party for instance – their one seat was gained in Brighton Pavillion. The MP in question, Caroline Lucas, was elected with a majority in her constituency but only 22,871 votes for her in total. Similarly, with UKIP – they gained a significant 12% of votes, but only had one seat representing them in parliament in contrast to the Liberal Democrats who had 4% less of the popular vote but had 7 more seats.

Tactical Voting

All of this is due to tactical voting. This occurs when you live in a constituency where there are four candidates – the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and UKIP. Traditionally there this mysterious constituency is a battleground between the Liberals and the Conservatives. However, you as a voter really want to vote Labour but you know that they usually receive around 5% of the vote. However, you really hate both UKIP and the Conservatives. Therefore, you, decide to switch your support to the Liberal Democrats in order to keep the Conservatives out.

This type of voting happens every election and across the country. Voting becomes less about who you would like in power, but more about who you would not like to have in power. There are even websites where people can put their postcode or voting constituency in and find out which party has the best chance of defeating a conservative government.

As shown with the 2015 spike in Green and UKIP votes, many vote for smaller parties as a way of protesting against the larger ones. By and large, the system means that the smaller parties receive fewer seats in parliament and their voters are accordingly under-represented as protest votes remain exactly that – merely a protest.

How an election is called

Within the UK political system, tradition reigns supreme. In order for parliament to be dissolved, the PM of the day needs permission from the King or Queen. The UK is, after all, a constitutional monarchy and the PM and Parliament are just advisors to the ruling monarch. Permission always has been granted and since the introduction of fixed term parliaments in 2011, it has become merely a formality – an adherence to tradition.

We will bring you the results as they come in on Friday. Until then, enjoy pondering that one of the most influential democracies in the world is technically still run by a monarchy.