Stazjia’s Commentary

We elect our government differently here in the UK to USA

Posted on: November 4, 2008

We vote for our government quite differently here in the UK to the way it’s done in the USA.

For a start, we don’t vote for the Prime Minister. We vote for a member of Parliament (MP) from the people who are standing in the constituency where we live. We have a ‘first past the post’ system here meaning that each constituency counts the votes for all the candidates running for Parliament and the party that wins the largest number of seats (gets the largest number of MPs) forms the government. The leader of that party, like Tony Blair, is invited by the Queen to form a government and so becomes Prime Minister.

Election campaigns  are relatively short compared to the USA. Usually no longer than 6 weeks but they can be much shorter.

The other big difference is that, if the former party of government loses the election, the winning party immediately forms the government and its leader becomes Prime Minister. Usually, the ex-Prime Minister moves out of 10 Downing Street the day after the election and the new Prime Minister moves in. It’s quite brutal, really.

The way we actually cast our votes is different too – more primitive, I suppose. There are postal votes but these are a minority. Most people go along to a polling station in their constituence. This is usually a room in a school or town hall, or a village hall, even pubs are used in some places where there isn’t another suitable venue.


polling booths
Originally uploaded by knautia

When I vote, which I do in all elections, I go to the polling station, give my name and address to the polling officer who finds it on the electoral list for that constituency. I’m given a polling slip which has a list of all the candidates on it and the officer marks the register to show I’ve come in to vote. I take the slip to a flimsy little booth, knocked up from plywood but shielded on 3 sides so no one can see me vote with a horizontal, flat surface. There’s a pencil in the booth tied to the flat surface and I use that to put a cross in the box next to my choice. I fold it in half, take it out and put it in a big locked metal box. That’s it – my democratic right exercised!

Polling stations open at 7am and close at 10pm. During that time, no politicians or political party members may canvass for votes or try to influence voters. There are no discussions in the media of the issues or the chances of any of the parties. All the UK media is an election free zone – a blessed relief, usually. There will be party workers sitting outside the polling station but they are not allowed to talk to voters on the way in. On the way out they can ask who you voted for so they can compile an exit poll to see how it’s going for their parties.

No votes are ever counted before the polls closed. At 10pm, when the polling stations close, the boxes are taken, by high security transport, to a central place in the constituency. There bank tellers sit and physically sort and count the voting slips. The candidates are usually there trying to guess how they’ve done by the height of the piles of slips for each of them. There’s a race for which constituency counts the votes first. Of course it’s the smallest constituencies that win. When the poll is counted in a constituency, the returning officer gets all the candidates together behind him, on a platform, and announces the result. The winner makes a speech of thanks and the loser is magnanimous in defeat – that’s the British way.


Cambridge: Local elections
Originally uploaded by Michiel2005

The first results usually come in about an hour or so after polls close. After that, they continue to come in throughout the night. Some constituencies are bellwethers. I can always remember the May 1997 election when Tony Blair became Prime Minister and the Tories were defeated.  The first result came  through from one of these before midnight and it went to Labour. I was in bed watching TV and I bounced, punched the air and screamed “Yeeesssss!” I felt pretty silly a moment later. After that, it was like a massacre as prominent Conservative politicians lost their seats one after another. One was Michael Portillo who had been an important Cabinet Minister. For weeks afterwards people said, with a merry grin, “Did you see Portillo’s face?”

The next day, Tony Blair, with his wife, Cherie, were shown on TV going through the crowds in Downing Street to take up office. He did a speech in front of number 10 and I know that I wasn’t the only one watching who was in tears. We were so fed up with the Conservative government and the country were very happy to see the back of it. Who says the British have a stiff upper lip and don’t show emotion?

Of course, we didn’t know then he would take us to war in Iraq.

We vote for our government quite differently here in the UK to the way it’s done in the USA.

For a start, we don’t vote for the Prime Minister. We vote for a member of Parliament (MP) from the people who are standing in the constituency where we live. We have a ‘first past the post’ system here meaning that each constituency counts the votes for all the candidates running for Parliament and the party that wins the largest number of seats (gets the largest number of MPs) forms the government. The leader of that party, like Tony Blair, is invited by the Queen to form a government and so becomes Prime Minister.

Election campaigns are relatively short compared to the USA. Usually no longer than 6 weeks but they can be much shorter.

The other big difference is that, if the former party of government loses the election, the winning party immediately forms the government and its leader becomes Prime Minister. Usually, the ex-Prime Minister moves out of 10 Downing Street the day after the election and the new Prime Minister moves in. It’s quite brutal, really.

The way we actually cast our votes is different too – more primitive, I suppose. There are postal votes but these are a minority. Most people go along to a polling station in their constituence. This is usually a room in a school or town hall, or a village hall, even pubs are used in some places where there isn’t another suitable venue.

When I vote, which I do in all elections, I go to the polling station, give my name and address to the polling officer who finds it on the electoral list for that constituency. I’m given a polling slip which has a list of all the candidates on it and the officer marks the register to show I’ve come in to vote. I take the slip to a flimsy little booth, knocked up from plywood but shielded on 3 sides so no one can see me vote with a horizontal, flat surface. There’s a pencil in the booth tied to the flat surface and I use that to put a cross in the box next to my choice. I fold it in half, take it out and put it in a big locked metal box. That’s it – my democratic right exercised!

Polling stations open at 7am and close at 10pm. During that time, no politicians or political party members may canvass for votes or try to influence voters. There are no discussions in the media of the issues or the chances of any of the parties. All the UK media is an election free zone – a blessed relief, usually. There will be party workers sitting outside the polling station but they are not allowed to talk to voters on the way in. On the way out they can ask who you voted for so they can compile an exit poll to see how it’s going for their parties.

No votes are ever counted before the polls closed. At 10pm, when the polling stations close, the boxes are taken, by high security transport, to a central place in the constituency. There bank tellers sit and physically sort and count the voting slips. The candidates are usually there trying to guess how they’ve done by the height of the piles of slips for each of them. There’s a race for which constituency counts the votes first. Of course it’s the smallest constituencies that win. When the poll is counted in a constituency, the returning officer gets all the candidates together behind him, on a platform, and announces the result. The winner makes a speech of thanks and the loser is magnanimous in defeat – that’s the British way.


The first results usually come in about an hour or so after polls close. After that, they continue to come in throughout the night. Some constituencies are bellwethers. I can always remember the May 1997 election when Tony Blair became Prime Minister and the Tories were defeated. The first result came through from one of these before midnight and it went to Labour. I was in bed watching TV and I bounced, punched the air and screamed “Yeeesssss!” I felt pretty silly a moment later. After that, it was like a massacre as prominent Conservative politicians lost their seats one after another. One was Michael Portillo who had been an important Cabinet Minister. For weeks afterwards people said, with a merry grin, “Did you see Portillo’s face?”

The next day, Tony Blair, with his wife, Cherie, were shown on TV going through the crowds in Downing Street to take up office. He did a speech in front of number 10 and I know that I wasn’t the only one watching who was in tears. We were so fed up with the Conservative government and the country were very happy to see the back of it. Who says the British have a stiff upper lip and don’t show emotion?

Of course, we didn’t know then he would take us to war in Iraq.

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