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Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to a school in Bathpool this week. PA Images

Explainer: A basic guide to how voting works in the UK (and why Brexit has changed the game)

It’s as much about Leave/Remain as Left/Right.

THE UK GENERAL election is taking place in just under four weeks’ time on 12 December.

The election was called after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson succeeded in his fourth attempt at convincing enough MPs to hold one. 

Johnson blamed ‘parliamentary obstructionism’ in the face of his government’s efforts at finalising Brexit and said the election was needed to end it

Although the issue is the dominant one ahead of the rare winter vote, there’s much more at stake and will be keeping you updated with all the developments as they happen.

Ahead of that, we wanted to give you a brief recap on exactly how UK general elections are held and how Brexit is affecting the vote.  

It’s huge by Irish standards

There are 650 House of Commons constituencies across the UK and over 47 million registered voters.

British, Irish and Commonwealth residents aged 18 and over and who live in the UK can vote in the election, plus British citizens living abroad who have been registered to vote in the UK within the last 15 years.

The breakdown is 533 seats in England, 59 in Scotland, 40 in Wales and 18 in Northern Ireland.

There is just one MP representing each constituency meaning that 326 MPs are needed for an absolute majority in parliament.

UK Parliament / YouTube

When Theresa May called a snap general election in April 2017, her party had a slim majority in parliament but ended up losing 13 seats and held only 318, meaning she was short of a majority. 

Johnson has since fallen further away from a majority after some MPs left the party and others were sacked.   

The Big Two 

Despite some arguments from the leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson, there are only really two people with a chance of becoming Prime Minister after the coming general election

They are current Prime Minister and Conservative leader Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

This is because the UK’s electoral system, First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), which hugely benefits the big parties.

Under FPTP, the candidate who wins the most votes is deemed elected. There is no quota, no eliminations, and no second or third counts.

The effect of the system is that big parties gain a disproportionately larger share of seats, while small parties get a disproportionately smaller share of seats.

For example, in the 2015 general election Nigel Farage’s former party Ukip won 12.6% of the vote and took just 1 seat while Labour won 30.4% of the vote and took 232 seats. 

Seats in which a party holds enough support to make it almost certain that they will win are referred to as ‘safe‘ seats. Constituencies in which the result is more competitive and thus the result far from certain are referred to as ‘marginal‘ seats. 

This system may strike you as terribly unfair but the British public have previously had the chance to change it. A 2011 referendum to switch to an alternative vote system was defeated.

FPTP brings a degree of certainty in that theoretically you have a strong, single-party government that can implement its policies without needing to compromise on its manifesto pledges. Since 1945, 16 of the 19 UK governments have been single-party majorities.

The problem with a party not needing to compromise is that it has the ability to force through its agenda. In the case of Brexit this has become particularly crucial. 


general-election-2019 Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Lancaster University yesterday. PA Images PA Images

While elections are traditionally fought along ideological lines with voters choosing between left and right policies, Brexit has changed the game somewhat. 

Instead, a voter may see a party or candidate’s position on Brexit as being the most important factor in deciding how they’ll vote.

There are some shades within this, but in general Leave and Remain are referred to as the two Brexit positions. This matches the two options on the ballot paper in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Because of this, pro- and anti- Brexit activists have been encouraging parties to work together to ensure that as many MPs on their side of the Leave/Remain divide are elected. 

Because of the FPTP system, this often means a candidates from one party stepping aside so that a candidate from another party but with the same Brexit position has a better chance of winning.  

We’ve put together a separate explainer on Brexit stances of the main parties, but it general they are as follows: 

Labour wants another referendum with Remain on the ballot paper, the Liberal Democrats unambiguously want to Remain and both the Conservatives and Brexit Party want to Leave, with the latter two disagreeing on how clean the break is. 

This throws up the potential for the first two parties and the last two parties working together but actually convincing them to do so has proven difficult. 

Some of the smaller Remain parties have done so, with the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens agreeing not to run against each other in 60 seats across England and Wales.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats haven’t as yet been able to come to a wider deal. 

Instead, ‘tactical voting’ has become a key component of voting on the Remain side. 

New projections by the pro-European Best for Britain group suggest that if 30% of Remain voters cast their ballots strategically, a coalition committed to a so-called People’s Vote could take office and force another referendum. 

Best for Britain has developed a website to help people work out how to cast their vote in the most strategic way.

On the Leave side there has – kind of – been an agreement, even if it has been a ‘unilateral’ one. 

Nigel Farage, now of the Brexit Party, announced on Monday that he will not run any candidates in constituencies where the Conservatives currently hold seats.

It means that in any of the marginal seats in which Labour may have been looking to challenge the Conservatives, the latter party is likely to benefit from Brexit Party votes. 

Johnson has denied that any actual deal has been made with the Brexit Party. 

How long will counting last?

Not long.

Due to the simplicity of the British system, vote-counting begins immediately after the polls close and there’ll be a clear picture of who has won well before dawn on Friday 13 December.

As soon as possible, the head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, asks the person most likely to command the confidence of the Commons to become prime minister and form an administration.

If there is a majority party this will be quite clear, but if not there will be some horse-trading about coalitions and confidence and supply arrangements.

Exactly how long this will take is anybody’s guess.

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