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UK General Election Campaigns – The Result and Government Formation

The voting process still involves putting a cross on a bit of paper and stuffing it into a ballot box, which astonishes visiting Americans used to electronic voting machines, but it is pretty much fool proof, and there are no problems like the hanging chads of the 2000 Presidential election when it was not clear which votes had been registered by the machine.

There are now many more postal votes as voters can ask for one without restrictions. Polls close at 10pm and the ballot boxes are taken to a central counting centre. All the votes have to be mixed together before counting.

Although the vote became secret in 1872, when the Liberals extended the vote to agricultural workers in 1885 they were worried that Conservative landlords would take out reprisals against villages that voted Liberal if they were counted for each ballot box. So mixing has always happened since and, for political scientists, it means there are not the small area voting statistics that are available in the US.

The results for over two-thirds of constituencies are declared overnight. In 2010, some local authorities wanted to change to counting the next day to save on labour costs, this is likely to continue as local authorities are facing further cuts in central government grants, but in the end there was a feeling that people wanted to know the result straight away. Next day counting however is now common for local elections.

Exit polls of people coming out of the polling stations are made public shortly after 10 pm and have given a very good national picture, in comparison with opinion polls during the campaign which have a more chequered record, and in 2010 showed clearly that the Liberal Democrat surge had not happened. It also showed in 2015 that the Conservatives had a clear majority and would form the next government alone.

The Process of Government Change

If the incumbent Prime Minister loses and the leader of the other party has a majority in Parliament the process of Government change is brutal with the new Prime Minister coming in the front door of No 10 Downing Street the day after the election, while the papers and belongings of the outgoing Prime Minister are remove by the back door (Edward Heath had acquired a grand piano which made the move in 1974 more problematic).

The constitutional convention is that the Queen always has a Prime Minister and so if no leader has a majority the existing Prime Minister has to stay in No 10 until things have been sorted out between parties, and they might hope to be able to sort out a deal that keeps them in office, as Heath tried to in 1974 and Gordon Brown half-heartedly tried to in 2010. David Cameron, following his resignation after the 23rd June referendum result, said that he would stay on until a new leader had been selected and no later than their party conference in the Autumn. Within days, with Theresa May as the only remaining candidate and therefore a membership election unnecessary, David Cameron had to pack up sooner than he expected.

The British Election Study sampling voter’s views has covered every election since 1964 and contains a wealth of information.

The Nuffield Election Studies are a series of books, one on every election since 1945, and are titled The General Election of (date)