Read our useful facts to get you thinking about the different types of elections in the UK.
European parliamentary elections
- For the European Parliament the UK is divided into 12 regions. Each region has between three and 10 MEPs, a total of 73 being elected to the European Parliament. Elections take place every five years; the next is in 2019.
- No particular voting system is imposed on the member states for European Parliamentary Elections although it must be a form of proportional representation. The D’Hondt system is used in England, Scotland and Wales while Northern Ireland uses the Single Transferable Vote (STV).
- Residents in Gibraltar and the Isles of Scilly vote in the South West Region. Although the Isle of Man is associated with England for some purposes, it is not part of the European Union.
For more information on voting systems visit the European Parliament website.
Westminster parliamentary elections
- Westminster parliamentary constituencies are the areas used to elect MPs (Members of Parliament) to the House of Commons, which is the primary legislative chamber of the UK and is located in Westminster, London.
- Constituency boundaries are determined by the Boundary Commissions (one each for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). General reviews normally lead to large-scale changes, but the commission may also carry out localised interim reviews. These can occur at any time, but usually only lead to minor changes.
- Once the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 became law, each of the four Boundary Commissions in the UK commenced a review of the constituencies for which it had responsibility. The purpose of the four reviews was to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies and to bring the electorates of every constituency (with four exceptions) to within +/- 5% of the UK electoral quota (76,641 electors in 2011).
Only four constituencies are allowed to have an electorate outside the tolerance – Orkney and Shetland, Na h-Eileanan an Iar (formerly the Western Isles), and the two constituencies allocated to the Isle of Wight. Reducing the number of constituencies and bringing about greater electoral equality naturally resulted in a significantly greater degree of change to constituency boundaries than had been experienced at previous reviews.
- In all four parts of the UK, constituencies are generally based on local government district electoral wards or electoral divisions. However, the Boundary Commissions may divide wards between constituencies if they decide it is necessary. For the first of the new style of reviews, the reports of the Boundary Commissions were required to be submitted to the Secretary of State ’by 1 October 2013’ so that the new constituencies could be used at the 2015 general election. Subsequent reviews of all the UK constituencies will be conducted during each five year Parliament (fixed term).
- However, the recommendations within the reports of the four Boundary Commissions were voted down when they were placed before Parliament. Therefore the general election in 2015 will be contested on the same 650 constituencies used at the general election in May 2010. The sixth periodic review of Westminster constituencies has been effectively postponed until ‘not before 1st October 2018’ following the collapse of the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012 and the introduction of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 (section 6 refers).
- Constituencies are generally based on whole or part local authorities unless there is a strong case to straddle boundaries – each case is decided on its merits.
- In a general election, every area in the country votes for one Member of Parliament (MP) to represent them in the House of Commons. The Fixed-term Parliaments 2011 Act fixes the date of General Elections and provides for five-year fixed terms. It includes provisions to allow the Prime Minister to alter the date by up to two months by Order. There are also two ways in which an election could be triggered before the end of the five-year term:
- if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is found; or
- if a motion for an early general election is agreed either by at least two thirds of the House or without division
- Sometimes constituencies are referred to as either borough (burgh in Scotland) or county constituencies. Borough constituencies are predominantly urban whereas county constituencies are partly or mostly rural. Definitions are allocated by the Boundary Commission and affect candidates’ election expenses and also who can be the constituency’s returning officer. If used, the designation is suffixed to the constituency name and is generally abbreviated to BC or CC.
The Parliament UK website contains a number of useful facilities, including member (of parliament) and constituency searches by postcode, with details about the MPs, including their websites and contact addresses.
Local authority elections
- A ward is an electoral district represented by one or more councillors. It is the primary unit of British administrative and electoral geography.
- Scottish unitary authorities, the London boroughs, English metropolitan boroughs and the English non-metropolitan districts (including most unitary authorities) are divided into wards for local elections.
- Elections for Welsh unitary authorities and English county councils (including the Isle of Wight Unitary Authority) use the ‘electoral division’ as the geographical unit.
- Parish and community wards, which are subdivisions of parishes or communities and used for elections to parish and community councils, also exist. They need not bear any relation to district wards.
Parish council elections
- A parish in England is a sub-national entity forming the lowest unit of local government, lower than districts or counties.
- Civil parishes vary greatly in size: many cover tiny hamlets with populations of less than 100, whereas some larger parishes cover towns with populations of tens of thousands.
- Parishes are usually administered by parish councils, with various local responsibilities.
- If a parish has fewer than 200 electors it is usually deemed to be too small to have a parish council and instead will only have a parish meeting. Alternatively, several small parishes can be grouped together and share a common parish council, or even a common parish meeting. Ordnance Survey does not collect the boundaries of these grouped parishes and therefore the Election Maps website is not able to display them.
- The role played by parish councils varies. Smaller parish councils have only limited resources and generally play only a minor role, while some larger parish councils have a role similar to that of a small district council.
- Parish councils are run by volunteer councillors, who are elected to serve for four years.
- Only if there are more candidates standing for election than there are seats on the council will an election be held.
Scottish parliamentary elections
- The Scottish Parliament is the devolved national, unicameral (consists of a single legislative chamber) legislature of Scotland, located in the Holyrood area of the capital, Edinburgh. The Parliament, informally referred to as ‘Holyrood’, is a democratically elected body comprising 129 members known as Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). Members are elected for four year terms under the mixed member proportional representation system. As a result, 73 MSPs represent individual geographical constituencies elected by the plurality (first past the post) system, with a further 56 returned from eight additional member regions, each electing seven MSPs.
- The original Parliament of Scotland (or Estates of Scotland) was the national legislature of the independent Kingdom of Scotland, and existed from the early 13th century until the Kingdom of Scotland merged with the Kingdom of England under the Acts of Union 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.
- Following a referendum in 1997, in which the Scottish electorate gave their consent, the current Parliament was established by the Scotland Act 1998, which sets out its powers as a devolved legislature. The Act delineates the legislative competence of the Parliament – the areas in which it can make laws – by explicitly specifying powers that are ‘reserved’ to the Parliament of the United Kingdom: all matters that are not explicitly reserved are automatically the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament.
- The British Parliament retains the ability to amend the terms of reference of the Scottish Parliament, and can extend or reduce the areas in which it can make laws. Boundaries of Scottish Parliament and UK Parliament (Westminster) constituencies are subject to review by the Boundary Commission for Scotland, and prior to the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Act 2004 reviews of Scottish Westminster constituencies would have been also reviews of Holyrood constituencies.
National Assembly for Wales elections
- The National Assembly for Wales is a devolved assembly with power to make legislation in Wales. The Assembly comprises 60 members, who are known as Assembly Members, or AMs. Members are elected for four-year terms under an additional members system, where 40 AMs represent geographical constituencies elected by the plurality (first past the post) system, and 20 AMs from five electoral regions using the D’Hondt method of proportional representation.
- The Assembly was created by the Government of Wales Act 1998, which followed a referendum in 1997. On its creation, most of the powers of the Welsh Office and Secretary of State for Wales were transferred to it. The Assembly had no powers to initiate primary legislation until limited law-making powers were gained through the Government of Wales Act 2006. Its primary law-making powers were enhanced following a referendum on 3 March 2011, making it possible for it to legislate without having to consult the UK parliament, nor the Secretary of State for Wales in the 20 areas that are devolved.
- The National Assembly for Wales’s constituencies and electoral regions were first used for the 1999 elections. New boundaries came into use for the 2007 elections although the total numbers of constituencies and regions (40 constituencies and five regions) remained the same. The constituencies of the National Assembly for Wales (or Welsh Assembly) were created using the boundaries of the Welsh constituencies used in the United Kingdom general election, as they were in 1999.
- These new boundaries were also used for the 2010 United Kingdom general election and between the 2007 Assembly election and the 2010 United Kingdom general election, the two sets of constituencies, Assembly and Westminster, had differing boundaries.
- Unlike Westminster constituencies, Assembly constituencies are grouped into electoral regions, and an additional member system is used to elect four additional Assembly Members (AMs) from each region, in addition, that is, to AMs elected by the constituencies. At each general election of the Assembly, each elector has two votes; one constituency vote and one regional party-list vote. Every constituent is represented by one constituency AM and four regional AMs.
The Northern Ireland Assembly elections
- The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland. It consists of 108 elected Members – six from each of the 18 Westminster constituencies. It has power to legislate in a wide range of areas that are not explicitly reserved to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and to appoint the Northern Ireland Executive.
- Northern Ireland uses the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of Proportional Representation for all elections except those to the Westminster Parliament where the traditional first-past-the-post system is used.
- It sits at Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast.
- According to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, elections should take place every five years on the first Thursday in May.
- During the re-organisation in October 1973 Northern Ireland’s two-tier administrative structure was replaced by one of 26 districts known as ‘district council areas’ (although within Northern Ireland they are also known as ‘local government districts’).
- Reform of local government in Northern Ireland sees the replacement of the twenty-six districts created in 1973 with a smaller number of "super districts". The review process began in 2002, with proposals for either seven or eleven districts made before it was suspended in 2010. On 12 March 2012, the Northern Ireland Executive published its programme for government, which included a commitment to reduce the number of councils in Northern Ireland to 11. The first elections to these new councils were on 22 May 2014.
- The six historic counties (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone) are still referred to in common parlance but do not constitute a level of administration.