UK Elections

There are a number of different elections that happen in the UK which are used to elect representatives to different institutions.


General Election – Used to elect members to the House of Commons called MPs. The UK is divided up into 650 regions called constituencies. At a general election all of these constituencies become vacant and an election poll is used to elect a new member from a list of candidates standing for the election. Constituency boundaries are kept under review by four permanent Boundary Commissions, one each for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Commissions make reports at regular intervals, usually every 5 years, recommending any necessary changes due to population change or changes in local government boundaries. Any changes must be agreed by both Houses of Parliament.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 provides that general elections  must take place once every five years on the first Thursday in May. Previous to this Act, the Prime Minister could call a general election at any time within the five year period and not all Parliaments lasted the full five years. The Act also states that Parliament must be dissolved 25 days before the general elections.  There are however two provisions that trigger an election other than at five year intervals.

  • A motion of no confidence is passed in Her Majesty’s Government by a simple majority and 14 days elapses without the House passing a confidence motion in any new Government formed.
  • A motion for a general election is agreed by two thirds of the total number of seats in the Commons including vacant seats.

Seats in the election are allocated using the First Past The Post voting system.

If an MP dies, or retires, a by-election is held in that constituency to find a new MP for that area. If an MP changes party between elections they are not required to hold a by-election however they often decide to.

You can vote in a UK parliamentary general election if you’re registered to vote and:

  • aged 18 or over on polling day
  • a British citizen, Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Irish Republic
  • not legally excluded from voting (eg because you’re in prison)

You can’t vote in a UK parliamentary general election if you don’s satisfy the requirements mentioned above and are:

  • a member of the House of Lords
  • a European Union citizen (and not also a British, Irish or Commonwealth citizen)
  • in prison (apart from remand prisoners)




Local Elections – These local elections are used to elect Councillors to represent your ward on the local council and mayors in certain areas (if the local authorities have decided to elect a mayor to replace the council leader).

There are a number of different types of councils that each elects different representatives for a different length of time, and also using different voting systems. The type of councils also differ between Enlgland, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  For more information on all the different types of local councils, click here.

Each councillor is elected for four years, but when you have an opportunity to elect them depends on the type of council you have in your area and what voting method it uses. Some elect using thirds where a third of councillors are elected every year over a four year cycle (with no elections in the fourth year), some by  halves where half of councillors are elected every two years and other local authorities, such as the London boroughs, elect all of their councillors every four years.

The number of councillors in a particular area depends on the type of council and the number of people living in that area. The Local Government Boundary Commission for England keeps numbers under review to make sure that every voter has a vote of equal weight. Different commissions are used for the rest of the UK.

In these elections you are able to vote twice if you spend time living in 2 different local authority areas (eg because you’re a student), to do this you will need to register 2 separate times.

You can vote in a UK local government election if you’re registered to vote and:

  • aged 18 or over on polling day
  • British, Irish or a Commonwealth or European Union citizen living in the UK
  • not legally excluded from voting (eg because you’re in prison)


Police and crime commissioner – Police and Crime Commissioner Elections take place in 41 police force areas covering England and Wales (excluding London and policing in Scotland and Northern Ireland has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly so do not have the same system).  Each area has one Police and Crime Commissioner. It is a new role that started in 2012 to replace the local police authority. The Police and Crime Commissioner is responsible for holding the Chief Constable and police force to account on the public’s behalf and also oversees how crime is tackled in their area and aims to make sure the police are providing a good service.

They will generally serve 4 year terms, and are elected using the Supplementary vote system, however if there are only 2 candidates then the First Past The Post voting system is used.


EU Parliament
The European Parliament. The directly elected parliamentary institution of the European Union. Source – Wikipedia

European Elections – The European Parliament represents people living in the 28 member countries of the European Union (EU). It has powers in a range of areas that affect member countries and can approve, change or reject new European laws.  Electing members to this institution is slightly different to the general election, and more similar to council elections. The UK is not electing a ‘government’ or someone to rule the European Parliament as such. Rather, it is electing members to ensure that the UK’s interests in the European Parliament are represented.

In the UK, there are 12 European electoral regions and each region is represented by between three and ten MEPs, currently the UK is represented by 73 MEPs.

Elections happen every 5 years in all countries. England, Wales and Scotland use a proportional closed list system, while Northern Ireland use the Single Transferable Vote system. Other country’s also use a variety of other electoral systems.


National Assembly for Wales – As a result of the Government of Wales Act 2006 the National Assembly for Wales can now make laws in these areas, known as Assembly Bills. These laws are unique to Wales and will reflect the specific needs and concerns of people in Wales. The UK Government does however retain control of certain public services and areas of legislation, such as responsibilities for the police service, social security and employment.

There are 60 elected Assembly Members (AMs) and you are represented by five of them. One AM represents your Assembly constituency and the other four all represent your region.

Elections use the Additional Member system, which uses the First Past the Post system to return constituency members and a party list system to return region members, and make the system more proportional (number of votes per party, better relates to the number of seats they win). Elections are held on a four year cycle.


Scottish Parliament – Similar to Wales, the Scottish Parliament also has the power to make certain laws, on area’s called devolved matters.

There are 129 elected Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). This means if you live in Scotland, you are represented by eight MSPs – one represents your Scottish Parliament constituency and the other seven all represent your region.

It is elected every 4 years using the same Additional Member system as Wales.


Northern Ireland Assembly – The Northern Ireland Assembly also has some powers to pass laws on certain matters, called transferred matters. These laws again are unique to Northern Ireland and do not affect the rest of the UK.

There are 108 elected Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). Six MLAs represent each of the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland.

Elections take place every 4 years, and the voting system used is called the Single Transferable Vote.


For more information on how the different electoral systems mentioned above work, follow the link