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general elections

general elections have changed over the years. Until the 17th cent., there was no statutory requirement about their frequency, and the Triennial Act of 1694, which laid down that a general election must be held every three years at most, was the first effective legal provision. In 1716 the Septennial Act lengthened the period to seven years, an interval which lasted until the Parliament Act of 1911 reduced it to five years. These periods were and are maxima and in practice the prime minister usually calls an election before the five years have expired. His right to decide when an election shall be held normally gives a considerable advantage to the party in power.

Many seats were uncontested right up until the end of the 19th cent. Even in 1900, 165 candidates in Great Britain were returned unopposed, and a further 69 in Ireland. Today it is normal for every seat to be contested. At the 2001 election, Conservative and Labour candidates stood in every constituency in Great Britain, save Glasgow Springburn (that of the Speaker); the Liberal Democrats did not oppose the Speaker, or the local independent in Wyre Forest, who won on a Health Service ticket.

In the 17th and 18th cents. general elections scarcely merited the term ‘general’. They were essentially struggles between magnates and other interests for local paramountcy, and national factors played little part. Indeed, as late as 1830 it was not clear whether the Whigs or the Tories had won the general election, since many MPs sat loose to party. Elections in the 18th cent. did not choose governments, which, with heavy powers of patronage, could normally expect to carry any election in the country as a whole. The decline of patronage made this increasingly hard and also created a vacuum which was filled by organized parties. Nowadays, general elections are held to choose a government and the choice of MPs is usually incidental to that decision.

Today there are two general election campaigns—one at national level, run by the headquarters of the various parties, and one at local level, run by the constituency associations. Each constituency now returns one member. At the national level the parties publish their manifestos setting out the policies they will implement if they win the election. The larger parties are alloted time on television and radio for their election broadcasts, and locally, candidates and their activist supporters canvass, distribute party literature, and hold (usually poorly attended) public meetings. The campaign proper lasts for three weeks and election expenditure at constituency level is rigorously controlled by law. The ballot is secret. Voting is not, as in some countries, compulsory and the turn-out is usually about 75 per cent, though in 2001 it was substantially lower at 59 per cent.

Britain uses the first past the post formula and the candidate receiving the most votes is elected, regardless of whether or not he has a majority of votes cast. The absence of any element of proportional representation makes it difficult for smaller parties with evenly spread support to breach the two-party domination. Nationally, what is decisive is the number of members elected for each party, not the total number of votes won. Normally one party will win an overall majority in the Commons and the monarch will ask the leader of that party (unless he is already prime minister) to form a government.

Hugh Berrington

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