General Elections for the House of Commons
The main United Kingdom legislature, the House of Commons, is made up of Members of Parliament (MPs) who each represent one parliamentary constituency, or geographical area.
In the General Election held in 2005, there were 646 constituencies, and in the forthcoming 2010 election, there will be 650.
Since coming to the throne, Queen Elizabeth II has had (so far) 11 Prime Minsters, starting with Winston Churchill.
This post is about the calling of a General Election, who does it and how it is done, and how often they are held.
How often are General Elections called?
There is no minimum term for a Parliament.
A General Election can be called at any time, the Queen then dissolves Parliament and a date is set.
The absolute maximum is 5 years, except if everyone agrees it should be longer (during the First World War and the Second World War, coalition Governments held power for longer than 5 years, but short of a serious national emergency, it’s 5 years max). The law is set out in the Parliament Act 1911.
In 1974, for example, there were two General Elections – in February and October.
Since I was born, the period between General Elections has been 4-5 years, tending to be 4 when the Government felt confident, and 5 when it did not. So there were General Elections in 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, and one must be held in 2010.
Who decides when to hold a General Election
It is the Queen who is responsible for both summoning a Parliament and dissolving it. She acts on the advice of her Prime Minister, so in effect, it’s the Prime Minister and his party who decide when to hold an election. So the Government can choose a time it feels is advantageous to hold the election, or if no such time presents itself, hold on until the bitter end of the 5 year period. The Official Site of the British Monarchy is here.
What happens once the Prime Minister decides to hold a General Election
Once the PM has decided to name the day, he pushes off to Buckingham Palace and asks the Queen to dissolve Parliament, and to summon a new Parliament to advise her.
The date for the General Election is 3-5 weeks after this – in 2010, for example, the Prime Minster (Gordon Brown) went to Buckingham Palace on 6th April to request the dissolution, and the General Election date was set for 6th May.
The BBC’s article on Gordon Brown’s visit to Buckingham Palace can be found here.
The Royal Proclamation
The Queen issues a Royal Proclamation, which sets out the most significant laws passed by her Government since the last General Election, dissolves Parliament, and summons a new Parliament, which will meet after at least 20 days have passed since the Proclamation (Representation of the People Act 1918). She then sends a Royal Messenger, suitably clad in scarlet, to the Houses of Parliament, and he reads the Proclamation to both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
Armed with a copy of the Royal Proclamation, the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery sends out Election Writs to the Returning Officer in each constituency, telling him to organise the election for that Member of Parliament. (A busy chap, with 650 of them to get out quickly).
And thus the General Election campaigns begin!