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British Political System

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The British electoral system

Voter turnout in general elections has fallen dramatically in the last decades. The younger generation is the group that participates the least in the British elections. Most young people hold the complexity of the electoral system responsible for their refusal to vote. But the British election system is not difficult to understand, and political matters do concern everybody. In a time when there is much speculation about when Gordon Brown will call a new general election, young people should understand the election system and be well prepared. How does the British electoral system function? What is the simple majority system and how is it justified? Why should young people cast their votes in the general election? The answers to these questions will come to light in this article.

The prime minister decides when to hold a new general election, but no more than five years can elapse since the last general election. The prime minster asks the monarch to dissolve parliament, and all political parties begin their election campaign. A minimum of three weeks are held to campaigning.

Britain is divided into 646 constituencies and each constituency elects its own MP, Member of Parliament. The constituencies vary in size and population, and some constituencies have up to 65 000 residents while smaller constituencies can have 25 000 voters. The British electoral system is based on the simple majority system, also known as the plurality voting system. In the simple majority system, a candidate just needs more votes than its opponent in order to be elected to the House of Commons. Only one MP can be elected from the constituency. This system differs from the system of proportional representation used in Norway. In the system of proportional representation, the composition of the National Assembly is done according to the share of votes in the nation as a whole. For example, if the Labour Party wins 50 % of the popular vote, then the Labour Party would win 50 % of the seats in the House of Commons. However, this is not the reality in Britain. The first past the post system have no additional seats to the candidates at second and third place.

Supporters of the current electoral system argue that the simple majority system ensures strong majority governments. Majority governments most often do not depend on other parties in order to pass legislation and it guarantees a stabile political landscape.

A system of proportional government would lead to minority or coalition governments. A government without the majority of MPs would not last a day in the House of Commons. A minority government would be ineffective with weak or no legislation at all. A coalition government is not possible because the political parties are too distant from each other, and coalitions require tough compromises.

Supporters of the current electoral system also claim that the simple majority system ensures contact between the MPs and the people. MPs have always had close relations to their constituency, and they are expected to be committed to the local issues. Any adoption of the system of proportional representation would destroy the link between the MP and the people. The people are able to influence policies and can easily contact their local MP in order to get their voice trough. If multiple MPs from various parties would represent one constituency, the people would not know whom to consult, and the political battle between the rivaling parties would overshadow the local issues that need to be addressed.

The simplicity of the current electoral system is also a great advantage. The voters know what they are voting for and feel that their vote has a direct influence. The system of proportional representation disenfranchises the voter and removes power from the people, the supporters of the simple majority system claim. There are no confusing mechanisms such as leveling seats, as used in Norway.

However, the opponents of the current electoral system claims that it makes it difficult for medium size parties to enter the House of Commons. Some parties that win a large percentage of the popular vote only gets a few candidates elected. In the 2005 general elections, the Liberal Democrats won over 20 % of the votes in the nation as a whole, but had below 10 % of the seats in the House of Commons. Labour, however, won over half the seats in the Commons despite having fewer than 35 % of the votes in the nation as a whole.

The simple majority system also makes it possible for a party to win despite having fewer votes than one of the rivaling parties. In the 1974 general elections, the Labour Party won most seats in the Commons despite the fact that the Conservative Party won more votes in the nation as a whole. Most often the MP does not have the majority of votes, and have more votes against him. A government can not truly represent the nation if it does not have support from the public.

A small party can only win a seat if its popularity is centralized in certain areas. If the support of a small party is spread evenly throughout the UK, it can not win a seat. The current system also leads to many wasted votes. In constituencies where a change of MP is unlikely, the people feel that their vote has no value because it will matter little to the outcome. The safest seats are in constituencies with the lowest voter turnout. Voters end up voting for the candidate they do not like rather then voting for the party they truly support.

The party with most seats in the House of Commons is proclaimed the winner, and the monarch asks the party leader to form a government. The party leader becomes the Prime Minister and he appoints his cabinet. The most important posts in the cabinet are the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary.

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