Guide to UK General Election

The United Kingdom General Election takes place on Thursday, 7 May to elect 650 members of the House of Commons, the primary legislative chamber in Parliament.


Unlike in other countries with Presidential systems (such as the United States and France), the outcome also determines the Executive – in effect, the House of Commons is also the “Electoral College” which will endorse or reject a prospective Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet of Ministers.

Typically, since the War, a single party has held the majority of seats in the House of Commons and has therefore been able to form a single-party government with its Leader as Prime Minister. Where no single party has a majority (as was the case at the last election and in February 1974), it is said to be a “hung parliament“.


The electoral system is simple yet controversial. 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected individually from 650 “constituencies” of roughly equal size (533 in England, including 73 in London; 59 in Scotland; 40 in Wales; and 18 in Northern Ireland – London is under-represented and Wales over-represented currently). The candidate achieving the highest number of votes is elected directly – there are no “run-offs” or preferential voting, nor is voting compulsory.

In practice, this system favours larger and regional parties (Conservative, Labour, SNP, DUP) and frustrates smaller parties with evenly spread support (Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP).

Results in each seat are often shortened to give the name and party of the winning candidate plus the number of votes they won by – so, if he/she wins by a gap of 1,000 votes, this is referred to as a “majority of 1,000” (a specifically electoral term – no doubt it jars with mathematicians!)


The constituencies are identical in 2015 to those in 2010. This means that, during Election Night, it will be possible to predict the overall outcome even from early results, depending on whether each party’s vote share is generally up or down – this includes a concept, for comparing Conservative versus Labour performance, known as “swing” which shows how many seats each party would take from the other if each of the two parties’ vote shares changed similarly across Great Britain.

Results are generally declared compared to the previous election. Where the same party wins the seat, it is declared a “hold“. Where a different party wins the seat, it is deemed a “gain” (this equates to the American “pick-up“). Where specifically an incumbent MP loses a seat, he/she is said to be “unseated“. (Occasionally, where a seat has been lost during the term, for example through a defection or by-election, other terms are used – “win” for if the seat is retained by the party holding it at dissolution of the last parliament if that is different from the one which won it at the last General Election; “regain” if it is regained by the party which won it at the last election but lost it during the term. Nevertheless, the overall scores are now typically tallied solely by “holds” and “gains” versus the previous General Election, regardless of what happened in between.)

A constituency which is close is said to be a “marginal” (equivalent of an American “swing state”). A constituency which is predominantly urban (known as a “borough constituency”) has different spending limits from one which is predominantly rural (a “county constituency”) – as well as being smaller, urban areas typically see lower turnout and thus declare their results much earlier.

Parties or candidates which form a common “faction” in the House of Commons are said to “take the whip“, meaning that they agree to vote the same way on every issue where there is an agreed party line. This is most notable with regard to Northern Ireland: the Ulster Unionists traditionally “took the Conservative whip” until 1973 (and expressly would have done so again in 2010 had they won any seats); the SDLP does “take the Labour whip” (although has not absolutely committed to it from 2015); the Alliance Party, although aligned in Europe, currently does not “take the Liberal Democrat whip”.

The final UK General Election outcome is declared usually in terms of the largest party and how many seats it is above or below an absolute majority (for which 326 of 650 seats are required). The 2005 result, therefore, is stated as “Labour victory with a majority of 66 – meaning that Labour had 66 more seats than all the other parties put together; the 2010 result is stated as a “Hung Parliament with the Conservatives short by 19″ – meaning that the Conservatives were the largest party, but needed another 19 seats to have a majority over all the other parties.

Typically, a majority of over triple figures (as in 1945, 1959, 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001) is referred to as a “landslide“, giving the winning Prime Minister huge freedom and leeway in Parliament; a majority of between 20 and 100 (1955, 1966, 1970, 1979, 1992 and 2005) is referred to as “working“, giving the winning party enough room to lose a few seats during the term and still serve for the full five years; any majority of less than 20 is referred to as “narrow” and is seen as unstable and usually precipitates an early election (which is possible even under fixed parliaments by losing a Vote of No Confidence, as last happened in 1979).


In 2010, the outcome was:

  • Conservatives 307 (including one delayed by-election) – Conservative whip 307;
  • Labour 258 in Great Britain only, plus SDLP 3 in Northern Ireland – Labour whip 261;
  • Liberal Democrats 57 in Great Britain only – Liberal Democrat whip 57;
  • SNP 6 in Scotland and Plaid 3 in Wales – Nationalist whip 9;
  • DUP 8 in Northern Ireland – DUP whip 8; and
  • Greens 1 in England, Alliance Party 1 in Northern Ireland, an Independent in Northern Ireland, and the Speaker (from England) – non-aligned 4.

This adds up to 645 – Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland won five seats in 2010 but does not sit in the House of Commons.

This outcome gave the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition subsequently formed a “majority of 76″.

Versus 2010, therefore, this means the Conservatives need 19 net “gains” for an absolute majority and Labour needs 68 (perhaps a couple fewer if the SDLP in Northern Ireland continues to take its whip, as it has since foundation in 1970). With Sinn Fein likely to retain four of five seats (not actually taken) and the Speaker retaining one (bound by convention to vote with the government, with minor exceptions), in practice 322-323 seats would theoretically suffice for a majority.

So, with the Conservatives needing 19 net gains and Labour 65-68, where are the marginals and how will Election Night run?

2200 BST – Polls Close

Polls close at 10pm across the UK, and instantly broadcasters will provide the result of an “Exit Poll” taken in marginal seats, announced in terms of seats won (as opposed to vote share).

This is generally extremely accurate – in 2010 it projected Conservative 307 (actually 307), Labour 255 (258), Liberal Democrat 60 (57). Likewise in 2005, it had the Labour total absolutely accurate and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats within 10. Even as long ago as 1970, the exit poll in a single constituency proved more accurate than the pre-election polls taken across the country.

The most notorious exit poll was in 1992. It was about to project a Labour majority but was changed within seconds of 10pm to declare a “likely hung parliament, Conservatives short by 23” – in fact, the Conservatives had won with a 21-seat majority. Nevertheless, this was a highly unusual election and, in any case, exit polling has improved vastly since.

2245 – First Declaration

Sunderland South (actually now “Houghton and Sunderland South”) has been first to declare since 1992, and will likely be so again.

In 2010, this seat was: Labour 50.3%; Conservative 21.4%; Liberal Democrat 13.9%; Independent 6.4%; BNP 5.2%; UKIP 2.7% – giving Labour a lead of nearly 29 points over the Conservatives.

There is little doubt that UKIP will surge here (they are likely to more in the east than the west), most likely to around 20%. Much of that will come by taking the BNP and Independent vote from last time, but some of it will be at the expense of what were the three “main parties”. The first question will be who the UKIP votes have come from.

If Labour is still above 50%, it could be looking at an overall majority, as its vote will have held with UKIP taking votes only from the other two parties (in effect). Around 47% may be regarded as par, particularly if the Conservatives are also down at least three points (and thus in third place). Much below 45% and Labour could be in some difficulty (particularly if the Conservatives remain above 20%), although the scale of that difficulty would be hard to assess accurately from just one result.

0100 – Next Declarations

By now, other northeast constituencies such as Sunderland Central, Washington & Sunderland West, Durham North West and Durham North should have declared – all safe Labour seats with vote shares last time ranging from 42% to 52%. Again, UKIP should surge to 15-20% in each, meaning that all three main parties would expect to lose share (if there are any which do not, they are doing well).

Nevertheless, until we hear from the London seat of Dagenham & Rainham, we will still only be hearing from one part of the country. This will be the first seat to declare which is in anyway marginal (held by Labour 40.3% versus Conservative 34.3%). As it is still in the east of England, a UKIP surge is again to be expected (the BNP alone had over 11% in 2010) and should secure the seat for Labour – if somehow the Conservatives win, an absolute majority for them should not be ruled out; if UKIP wins, a serious breakthrough is likely and a Hung Parliament is certain.

0200 – Early declarations

A lot of the declarations around now should be from borough constituencies in Northern Ireland – and are therefore almost irrelevant to the overall election resultOne to watch is Belfast South, held by the Labour-whipped SDLP incumbent who won last time unopposed by Sinn Fein but now is facing a challenge from the DUP and (at the outside) the Alliance Party – all three parties were in the 19-24% bracket at both elections since 2010.

Also declaring around now still in the North East of England are Darlington (held by Labour since 1992 and perhaps thus far the least vulnerable seat to a UKIP surge; Labour won by eight points last time), Durham City (the first clear indication of the LibDem retreat outside core marginals, having scored 37.7% here last time) and Easington (where they tend to weigh Labour votes rather than count them…)

About now we may also get the first seat in the English Midlands, Nuneaton – the first true marginal of the night particularly if Labour is hoping to gain ground. Labour lost it to the Conservatives last time but is still under five points behind, meaning that a win for Labour here would be a clear indication that the parties are about level overall in terms of votes, setting Labour up to be at least the largest party.

It is possible that around now we will also get the first seat in from Wales, probably Vale of Clwyd – Labour holds this by almost exactly seven points over the Conservatives and it would herald nothing short of a disaster if there were any problem for it here.

In Scotland, Na-hEileanan an Iar (Western Isles) may declare first (depending on the weather), but it is entirely a-typical and always has been (it is held comfortably by the SNP yet returned a strong vote against independence in September); the first mainland declaration is likely in Angusalthough as this too is held by the SNP with the Conservatives in second place, it may not tell us much about any SNP surge against Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the rest of the country.

Some seats in the south of England may begin to drift in around now. Of interest would be Battersea in London, a classic bellwether constituency historically and still one, having been gained by the Conservatives from Labour last time by twelve points.

The swing from Conservative to Labour in London is likely to be greater than in the rest of the country, meaning that even seats held by the Conservatives by twelve points (around 6,000 votes typically) are in play as “marginals”, even in the event that Labour does not secure an overall majority.

0300 – Hunt for Marginals

Unless there has been a particularly high turnout, results should be flashing in regularly now.

Remember, Labour will be well ahead at this stage regardless of the final result, as urban Labour-leaning constituencies tend to declare first.

In Scotland, we may by now have the first indication of the SNP surge. Can they take Lanark & Hamilton East or East Kilbride just south of Glasgow (overturning a Labour lead of 28-29 points and nearly 15,000 votes in each), Glenrothes (surely not, from fully 40 points and 17,000 votes back), or even Fife North East (currently held easily by the Liberal Democrats with the other three main Scottish parties all about even well behind)? A real indicator may be Gordon Brown’s old seat of Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath where the new Labour candidate defends a 50-point lead which should mean the seat is held, but where the margin for a non-incumbent Labour candidate will tell us much.

In Wales, Carmarthen East should provide a first seat for Plaid (held by nine points from Labour) unless Dwyfor Meirionnydd (another safe Plaid seat) counts particularly quickly, and Carmarthen West for the Conservatives (also by nearly nine from Labour). If Nationalists are having a very good night, Plaid may also fancy its chances of overturning a seven-point deficit to Labour in Ynys Mon (Anglesey).

In Northern Ireland, the first (and perhaps only) Independent win of the night should by now have been declared in North Down.

Further south, Northampton North and South were both Conservative gains from Labour last time – if Labour takes the former, it will be a sign that it is approaching largest party status; if it takes both an overall majority is in prospect. Oxford East may give us some idea of the Liberal Democrat demise in seats they do not hold; they targeted this one last time but should fall much further than nine points behind this time; Thornbury & Yate may be the first declaration from a Liberal Democrat-held marginal – a loss of this seat to the Conservatives, where the margin is currently 14 points, would herald real disaster. Castle Point is an oddity, taken by the Conservatives from an Independent last time but actually one which should fall safely in the Conservative column.

In London, Putney was long a standard marginal but should really remain Conservative unless Labour is on for a working majority. On the other hand, if the Conservatives were to overcome a five-point deficit to take Tooting from Labour, the Prime Minister may safely begin planning his next five years.

For an absolute majority, the Conservatives would probably need to have taken the lead in total seats won by about now.

0400 – Outcome apparent

The outcome should be now be apparent.

In England, seats such as Chester may by now have indicated the Conservatives are losing too many seats in the north to Labour to hold their current position or even to remain the largest party; Carlisle, a later declaration, will also be interesting from this point of view. On the other hand, Labour’s hopes of largest-party status may well by now have been hindered by losses such as Dundee West and even Inverclyde in Scotland to the SNP. This will turn seats such as Kingswood near Bristol into real bellwether Conservative-Labour marginals; if Labour is to become largest party it will also need to take at least some seats in the South East declaring by now, such as Hastings & Rye (where a UKIP incursion would help, surely).

The Liberal Democrats should by now have some seats, such as Bermondsey and Yeovilon the board thanks to well-known and widely respected incumbents.

Labour’s failure to guarantee office may have been confirmed by now in the south, such as again in Basildon South and perhaps even Bedford, where the Conservatives are just three points ahead; it would also want to take Peterborough for any chance to govern alone. The Liberal Democrats’ losses should begin to mount up, by now including Brent Central and perhaps Hornsey & Wood Green to a Labour Party now rampant in inner London. A real Liberal-Labour bellwether will be Bristol West, where the Liberal Democrats defend a 20-point (11,000-vote) lead, but may even sneak back in with “lent” Conservative votes (watch for that candidate going well below the 18.4% scored last time).

In Scotland also, towards this time, the Glasgow seats may well all have declared – safe Labour may have become safe SNP, or it may not, but either way a tale will be told!

By now also we may have individual stories too. Can UKIP take Great Grimsby from Labour? What will the Leader of the Opposition have been able to say at his own Doncaster North count? Will the Conservatives have held their only Scottish seat in Dumfriesshire or even picked one up on a split in Edinburgh? Will the Liberal Democrats have held on to that eternal Liberal-Conservative marginal of Sutton & Cheam?

We will probably not yet know, however, whether UKIP has won Clactonwhether the former Scottish First Minister has gained Gordon for the SNP from the Liberal Democrats; whether the Conservatives have benefitted again from a Labour-Green split in Norwich North; what the Prime Minister has had to say at Witneyor, perhaps most eagerly anticipated of all, whether the Deputy Prime Minister has held Sheffield Hallam for the Liberal Democrats from Labour.

0500 – Stories still being told

It will probably be longer yet before we know whether UKIP has taken Boston & Skegness or Thanet South from the Conservatives (the latter is their own Leader challenging); and whether the Greens have held their only seat in Brighton Pavilion. We will also not yet have heard from the two genuine three-way marginals in England at this election – Cambridge (currently Liberal Democrat-held) and Watford (currently Conservative-held but with a directly elected Liberal Democrat Mayor challenging in a seat which was Labour before 2010). We will also not yet know the fate of the most senior Liberal Democrat Cabinet Minister in Inverness defending from the SNP, nor of his party colleagues in places like Taunton Deane or Torbay trying to fend off Conservatives.

An unusually late declaration also is expected from that standard Labour-Conservative marginal of Birmingham Edgbaston, which often gives a clear indication as to whether or not the Conservatives can win a majority.

0600 – A new dawn?

We will still be awaiting some interesting results such as Berwick upon Tweed (Liberal Democrat defence but without incumbent) and Hexham (the northernmost Conservative seat in England), and we may even still have recounts in the closest seat last time, Fermanagh & South Tyrone (Sinn Fein against a jointly endorsed Ulster Unionist candidate).

We should, however, have a clear idea by now how it has gone – at least in terms of which is the largest party.

The very last declaration may well be St Ives, where the Liberal Democrats will hope to defend a lead of below four points (1,800 votes) from the Conservatives.

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