General elections

General elections

When Parliament is dissolved every seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant and a general election is held. Each constituency in the UK elects one Member of Parliament (MP) to a seat in the House of Commons. Usually the political party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons forms the Government.

A general election is an opportunity for people in every part of the UK to choose their MP - the person who will represent their local area (constituency) in the House of Commons for up to five years.

There is normally a choice of several candidates in each constituency, some of which are the local candidates for national political parties. People can only vote for one of the candidates and the candidate that receives most votes becomes their MP.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 sets the interval between general elections at five years. At the end of this time a new House of Commons must be elected.

The date of the next general election will be 7 May 2015, unless an election is triggered earlier.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 provides for general elections to be held on the first Thursday in May every five years.

However, there are 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 (currently 434 out of 650)

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.

Before 2011 a general election could be called earlier for a number of reasons. For example, the Prime Minister could decide to call an election at a time when he or she was most confident of winning the election (getting more MPs than any other party) or if a government was defeated on a confidence motion, a general election could follow.

Do general elections have to be held on Thursdays?

Not necessarily. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 sets the date of the next general election at Thursday 7 May 2015 and subsequent elections to be held on the first Thursday of May at five year intervals. However, if an earlier general election is triggered the Act does not state that the election has to be held on a Thursday.

Before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 the Prime Minister could choose any weekday for a general election, according to a fixed electoral timetable. However, Thursday has become the traditional day for general elections.

The last general election not to be held on a Thursday was on Tuesday 27 October 1931.

Election results are widely reported in the local and national media, with many providing rolling coverage of the results as they are announced.

Each local authority with responsibility for running elections publishes the results for parliamentary constituencies in their area.

The Electoral Commission publishes the overall election results as well as those for individual constituencies.

Can I vote for a new Prime Minister?

No. You can only vote to elect your local MP in a general election. Even if you live in the constituency represented by the current Prime Minister or the leader of another political party, you are still only voting on whether he or she will be your local MP in the next Parliament.

Who chooses the Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister is appointed by the Queen, who is guided by constitutional conventions.

The Cabinet Manual sets out the main laws, rules and conventions affecting the conduct and operation of government, including the role of the Sovereign.

Usually the political party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons at a general election forms the new government and its leader becomes Prime Minister.

If no party wins a majority of the seats, a situation which is known as a 'hung Parliament', then the largest party may form a minority government or there may be a coalition government of two or more parties. The Prime Minister appoints ministers who work in the government departments, the most senior of these sit in Cabinet.

The House of Commons Library produces briefing papers to inform MPs and their staff of key issues. The papers contain factual information and a range of opinions on each subject, and aim to be politically impartial. The Library has published the following briefing papers on general elections and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011:

Related information

Read current parliamentary material available on general elections, including select committee reports, briefing papers on current legislation and other subjects produced by the parliamentary research services.

Are you registered to vote?

The general election will take place on Thursday 7 May 2015. To vote in an election you must be on the electoral register. You can register online or by post.

Election timetables

The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 increased the length of Parliamentary election timetables, both for general elections and by-elections.

Constituencies

The UK is currently divided into 650 areas called parliamentary constituencies, each of which is represented by one MP in the House of Commons.