The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Politics

When they speak of the British Parliament they usually mean the House of Commons. It is this House that is elected at a Parliamentary election. This reflects the leading role of the House of Commons though there is the other House in Westminster Palace, the House of Lords.

Westminster is often referred to as ‘Mother of Parliaments’. But British public opinion is getting more and more concerned about the process of the shift of real power to Whitehall, a tendency of a decrease of the role of legislative organs as compared to that of executive. The most important ministries and departments of the civil service are in Whitehall, the broad street which leads down to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Just as the name ‘Westminster’ is often used to mean ‘Parliament’, so ‘Whitehall’ often means ‘the Government’ or ‘the civil service’. The British civil service suggests to many British people bureaucracy — government by paid state officials rather than by persons elected by the people.

The electoral system of Great Britain encourages the domination of the scene by two major political parties. The whole of the United Kingdom is divided into 650 electoral districts, called ‘constituencies’, of approximately equal population, and each constituency elects one member of the House of Commons. Practically no person can stand any chance of being elected except under the name of a party, and a little chance except as a candidate backed by either the Labour or the Conservative Party. In every constituency each of these two parties has a local organization, whose first task is to choose the candidate, and which then helps him to conduct his local campaign.

The choice of the candidates is often more important than it may seem to be at first sight- At least a quarter of the constituencies in Britain can be regarded as ‘safe seats’ for the Conservatives, and the same proportion for the Labour Party. In these places the person who has the nomination for the dominant party is almost sure of being elected to Parliament. If a person is elected to the House of Commons in a ‘marginal seat’ by a small majority, he knows that if the trend of public opinion at the next election is against his party he is quite likely to lose his seat, and that nothing he can do for his constituents will save him. The ruling classes make use of different means to push their people to the supreme organs of power. One of them is an artificial alteration in the boundaries of the constituencies or the disappearance of a constituency altogether. A member of Parliament in a safe seat is unlikely to be in any danger at all unless he offends the leaders of his own local association. So long as he votes with his party in Parliament, and does not express opposition to his party’s policies, he is unlikely to be rejected by the association. Now when an important bill is presented to Parliament, members must vote in line with party orders. But if they rebel, they run the risk of being kicked out of their party. Hence too much obedience to the party line gives too much power to the Cabinet and to the prime minister.

British subjects and citizens can vote provided they are aged 18 or over, resident in the United Kingdom, registered in the annual register of electors for the constituency and not subject to any disqualification.

Voting is on the same day (usually a Thursday) in all constituencies, and the voting stations are kept open from seven in the morning until nine at night.

The elected MPs represent 650 constituencies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The size of the constituencies varies, the average being about 60,000 electors. Although there is no limit to the number of political parties, in effect, Britain has a two-party system of government, since the Conservative Party and the Labour Party dominate and the system is unfair to other political parties. The last Liberal prime minister was the Welshman, Lloyd George, whose defeat in 1922 marked the end of Liberal power. Since that time few Liberal MPs have been elected.

In a British election the candidate who wins the most votes is elected, even if he or she does not get as many as the combined votes of the other candidates. This practice is known as the notorious majority electoral system.

A typical example is the result in the June 1987 General election when the Conservative party gained a third successive victory receiving the support of less than half of those who took part in the election. A quarter of the electorate ignored the election altogether.

The table illustrates that the Conservative party with the minority votes (42.3 per cent), as compared to the combined votes received by the rest of the parties, won an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons (375). But taking into account those who failed to come to the polling stations, it becomes clear that the Conservatives, though having sound reason to rejoice, gained the support of only about one-third of the British people eligible to vote. The

leader of the Conservative party Margaret Thatcher became the first Prime Minister for 160 years remaining in this position a third term.

Distribution of seats in the House of Commons after the 1987 General Election


As a % of those who voted

Number of seats







Liberal-Social Democratic Alliance









It is often argued that the British system of election is so unfair that it ought to be changed, by the introduction of a form of proportional representation. This is an election system which seeks to give minority parties representation in Parliament. It aims to give each party a proportion of seats in Parliament corresponding to the proportion of votes it receives in an election. For example, a minority party receiving 5 per cent of the votes at a general election should get 5 per cent of the seats.

As soon as the results of a General election are known, it is clear which party will form the Government. If the party which had a majority of seats in the House of Commons has a majority again in the new parliament, then the Government does not change; but if the majority changes from one party to the other, the defeated Prime Minister usually resigns at once, and the Queen appoints the leader of the new majority in his place. The new House of Commons then meets.

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