Since moving to the UK in 2011, I’ve experienced a handful of elections: London Mayoral Elections in 2012 and 2016, the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the 2015 General Election, and of course, the referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union (“Brexit”) in 2016.
But what our Prime Minister Theresa May announced yesterday – that General Elections will be called ahead of their scheduled May 2020 date – will be my first Snap Election. What does this mean? Here are few key points, written especially for my friends and family who aren’t familiar with British politics &/or Parliamentary systems of government.
What is a snap election?
In the UK, General Elections are normally held every five years. They can be held earlier however, in what is known as a “snap election.” Put simply, a snap election is an election called earlier than expected. In this instance, three years earlier! They occur in Parliamentary systems to capitalise on a unique electoral opportunity, or to decide a pressing issue.
How is the Parliamentary System different from the Presidential System?
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand the difference between a Prime Minister and a President – it’s more than just the title! In Presidential systems, the President is chosen by the general public. Conversely, the executive leader of the Parliamentary system, the Prime Minister, is elected from the legislative branch directly.
In the Presidential System, it is more difficult to enact legislation, especially in the event that the President has different beliefs than the legislative body. The President is only really accountable to the people (and the Constitution, but again – the Constitution doesn’t vote, the people do). The only weapons that the Congress and President hold against each other is inaction, otherwise known as “gridlock” or “political stalemate.”
In the Parliamentary system, the executive is chosen from the party that controls the legislature. If Parliament doesn’t like the Prime Minister, they can cast a “vote of no confidence” and replace her. Why? Put simply, voters choose the MPs and the MPs forming the largest party in turn choose the PM. It is a fundamental principle of the British constitution that the Government must retain the confidence of its MPs, as it is not possible for a Government to operate effectively without the support of the majority of the legislature. The result is that legislation is pushed through more efficiently in Parliamentary systems, as there is relatively little gridlock.
Ok, so the Snap Election for 8 June has been approved. What happens next?
On May 2nd Parliament will be dissolved. All current MPs stop being MPs, lose their pay and privileges and, in a legal sense, there is no Parliament (May remains PM, so we won’t be totally leaderless if war breaks out…). May 3 begins the “short campaign” season, in which (unlike in America) candidates are subject to incredibly strict limits on campaign spending. Politicians will drain out of Westminster like water down a sink, activists will pound doorsteps, and posters will appear in terrace windows across the nation. On 8 June, the Polling stations will open across the UK from 7am to 10pm, with the first exit polls announced following poll closure.
What names and faces will be in the news?
Theresa May / Conservative Party.
PM Theresa May’s Conservative Party (“the Torries”) currently hold 330 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. Her party currently enjoys a majority, but only by 10 MPs, leaving little room for error.
Jeremy Corbyn / Labour Party.
Corbyn is the Leader of the Opposition Party. The Labour Party ranks behind the Torries with 229 MPs. They are the largest opposition party to the Conservatives, but polls have Labour at an all-time low due to Corbyn’s unconventional leadership.
Angus Robertson / Scottish National Party.
The SNP represents Scottish interests in Westminster. It would be similar to the states of Washington, Oregon and California grouping together to form a West Coast Party, whereby all six senators in Washington DC were members of the WCP, representing West Coast interests at the national level. There are currently 59 MPs from Scotland in Westminster, and 56 of those are members of the SNP. They are led by Angus Robertson. However, Nicola Sturgeon is the First Minister of Scotland – continuing with our metaphor, you could think of her as the Governor of the American West Coast states mentioned above.
Tim Farron / Liberal Democrats.
Before the General Election in 2015, the Liberal Democrats had 57 MPs. Today, they have nine. They are led by Tim Farron and are the most vocal pro-EU party in Parliament, although they have a very limited sphere of influence.
The Torries, Labour, SNP and LibDems are the four major parties out of the 12 parties represented in Parliament. The others are Democratic Unionist Party, Independent, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, Social Democratic & Labour Party, Ulster Unionist Party, Green Party and UKIP. Together these eight minority parties have 26 MPs.
Why has this been called?
In the last General Election of 2015, it was not Theresa May but David Cameron who was elected as leader of the Conservative Party and, therefore, the PM. However, after the Brexit vote, Cameron resigned. But rather than call another General Election, May got straight to work as Cameron’s replacement. She has enjoyed a good honeymoon period with the general public, who see her as confident, capable, and in-touch with the average person. She is considered capable of negotiating a good Brexit deal from the EU.
Conversely, the Labour party has collapsed in the polls since 2015, plagued by infighting over a divisive leftist leader, Mr Corbyn. As even longtime Labour voters consider voting Conservative, Ms May is jumping at the chance to gain an even bigger piece of the Parliamentary pie.
Know the lingo: what’s a manifesto?
A manifesto is a publication (usually in the form of a booklet) issued by a political party before a General Election. It contains the set of policies that the party stands for and would wish to implement if elected to govern. Breaking a manifesto promise is considered a big no-no in UK elections, although such pledges are not legally binding. (Obviously Parliament wouldn’t want to make it a crime to break campaign promises!)
Know the lingo: what’s a mandate?
I interpret this as “democratic legitimacy,” which is just another way of describing the authority a constituency gives to an individual to act as its representative. This is a central idea of any representative democracy. Put into context, Theresa May is attempting to solidify her mandate in the Brexit negotiations. Were she to attempt to introduce policies that were not up for public discussion or input, it could be said that she lacks a legitimate mandate to implement such policies.
And finally, who is Larry?
As the nation gears up for yet another election cycle, I cannot forget to mention Larry. The Office of the Prime Minister’s website describes Larry’s duties as “greeting guests to the house, inspecting security defences, and testing antique furniture for napping quality.” It should be noted that Larry doesn’t belong to Theresa May (nor David Cameron before her) – rather, he is the People’s Pet…