Friday, 19 March 2010

Hush, listen, what's that sound?

It's the sound of people getting ready to rumble, it's the sound of knives been sharpened - it's the sound of a general election in the UK. Here's a quick guide to the how, why and wherefore for my non-UK friends who read this, so that when I start using this to give my thoughts on the campaign you can see why certain things happen.

Why Now?

Under UK law, a parliament can only sit for a maximum of five years after the last Parliament first met. That was on 11th May 2005, after the elections held on 4th May. After that, there has to be a period of time to allow the electoral procedure to complete, of not less than 21 days. The tradition in the UK is to hold an election on a Thursday, so the latest possible date is 3 June 2010.

Running an election is a mammoth logistical exercise, however, and elections to the local councils in the UK take place in most places on 6th May - so that is the most likely date.

When will it be called?

That is entirely in the purview of the Prime Minister, who must inform the Queen before he announces the date. If it was 6th May, the most likely date for the announcement would be 15th April. Parliament is about to rise for the Easter recess, however, probably on 31st March after the Budget next week. There would be good money on putting the election being called then, or when they return on the 12th of April.

So who is being elected?

Contrary to what many people think, we do not vote in the UK for someone to be Prime Minister - we vote for a representative to the House of Commons for the constituency we live in to act as a Member of Parliament. There are 650 seats in the new parliament, and the leader of whichever party gets the most seats is likely to be invited The Queen to form a Government. At this time, we do not elect members of the other chamber of government, The House of Lords, but a key election issue this time may be reform of that system.

Having said that, the election always focuses on the leaders of the parties involved, so it looks like an election of the prime minister.

Who can stand for election?

Honestly - anyone who can get 10 people to sign a piece of paper and can find £500 for a deposit. If they get more than 5% of the total vote, they get the money back, otherwise it goes towards the costs of running the election.

Who wins?

We have a "First past the post" system in the UK - one vote for every eligible person on the Electoral Register who is over 18, and whoever gets the most votes wins. Voting is not compulsory either, unlike say Australia.

Who are the main contenders?

In recent years, the Labour Party (under Gordon Brown) and the Conservative Party (David Cameron) have been the largest groups, followed by the Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg). Labour have been the party in charge for the last 13 years. In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party have a substantial block, and in Wales Plaid Cymru. Northern Ireland has a slightly different structure.

What happens during the campaign?

Unlike the US, the moment an election is called something called the "Fair Airtime" rule kicks in, which means that all major parties have to have equal representation on television and radio news programmes and current affairs reports. Each party is also allocated a number of 5 or 10 minute election broadcast slots, dependant on how many seats they are standing for. If a party has candidates in fifty seats, say, they get one 5 minute free to air broadcast on all stations - and all the major terrestrial channels are obliged to show them as are Sky in the UK. The more seats, the more broadcasts.

This year, fro the first time, there will also be televised US style debates - one on the BBC, one on Independent Television and on on Sky.

The press are allowed to show support for one or other parties, and always do. In fact, half the fun of the campaign is seeing what they write about the candidates...

Individual candidates also have strict restrictions put on how much they are allowed to spend in terms of election materials, and must account for it all.

On the day?

Polling goes from 7 am to 10 pm. No party is allowed to actively campaign on the day - the most they can do is ask if you have voted. The second the clock hits 10, the polls close and, to put it mildly, all bets are off. Counting in most areas starts immediately - some rural areas and Northern Ireland start in the following morning - and the first constituency result is normally available by about 11.30. Most seats have announced by about 6 am.

Assuming one party gets 326 or more seats, they will call on The Queen in the early afternoon of the Friday to be invited to form a Government. The new Parliament meets the following week for the first time.

When was the last time no-one got a majority of seats?

1973 - February. The correct term for this is a hung parliament - and there is a very real chance that will happen this time. Expect fun if it does.

That oen lasted exactly 8 months...

Hopefully, that starts to set the scene. More as time progresses - the next big indicator is next week;s budget, when we see how much or little they want to do.

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