A guide to a UK general election

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Since starting University or returning to Manchester in September we’ve been reminding you to register to vote so, if you choose to, you can have your say and vote in local and general elections in the UK.

As of last week the UK government called for a General Election to take place on Thursday 12 December. Normally General Elections take place every 5 years, however as most of you remember the last General Election was in 2017 – so this one is coming a bit early. For some students this will be the first election you’ll be eligible to vote in, but in order to vote you need to make sure you are on the electoral register.

Got five minutes?

Registering to vote only takes 5 minutes and all you need is your National Insurance number and the postcode of your term time address. If you want to vote in the upcoming general election then you need to make sure you’ve registered to vote by 11:59pm on Tuesday 26 November.

Who can register?

You can register if you are:

  • Over the age of 16 (but you can only vote if you’re 18 or over)
  • a UK citizen, or an Irish, EU or Commonwealth citizen with a permanent UK address (to find out more about who is eligible visit the government website)

You only need to register once, and not for each election you want to vote in.

As a student, you’re eligible to register to vote in two places – at your term time address and your home address. However in a General Election you can only vote once – but it’s up to you whether you vote at home or in Manchester.

Register to vote

What exactly is a General Election?

Over the past few years there have been several elections and votes taking place in the UK. In fact there seems to be one all the time – as Brenda from Bristol aptly commented on during the last General Election.

But what exactly is a General Election? And how does it work? It may seem like this would be common knowledge however with all the ‘fake news’ and un-checked social media out there we thought we’d go back to basics to understand what a general election is – and why it’s so important to register to vote.

How the UK is run

The UK Parliament represents all the people of the UK and makes decisions and passes laws for the country on a whole range of issues from transport to healthcare, education and taxes. Parliament is made up of two houses – the ‘House of Commons’ and the ‘House of Lords.’

House of Commons

The House of Commons is made up of 650 members of parliament (MPs) who debate topics and propose new laws. Each MP holds a seat or constituency, and MPs get their seats during a general election, when  each constituency votes for an MP to represent them.

House of Lords

The House of Lords has over 700 members who are unelected and it’s their responsibility to scrutinise the work of the House of Commons and improve the way the country is governed. The Lords were traditionally made up of ‘hereditary peers’ who inherited their title through their family. However, since 1999 the ability to pass seats on to family members was stopped, and now Lords can be appointed as ‘life peers’ based on their life experience and knowledge in a particular field.

Electing the Commons

The 650 MPs in the Commons are chosen during a General Election. At a general election you have one vote to choose a candidate to represent the constituency you live in. In the UK we use a voting system called ‘First Past the Post.’

In First Past the Post voters receive a ballot paper with a list of candidates standing for that constituency seat. As only one MP will represent an area, political parties choose one member to stand in that area. Alternatively, candidates can choose to stand independently.

Voters then choose which candidate they want to vote for – or you can ‘spoil your ballot’ and choose note to vote for anyone.

In a general election, the UK’s 46 million people are invited to vote. Anyone 18 or over and eligible to vote can vote as long as they are on the electoral registration. Older people are more likely to vote than younger ones. In 2017 59% of 20-24 year olds voted compared to 77% of 60-69 year old.

During Election Day each of the 650 constituencies hold a vote and at the end of the day those votes are counted. The candidate with the largest number of votes wins the seat and becomes the MP – the candidate ‘first past the post.’

“Even if millions of voters support the same party, if they are thinly spread out they may only get the largest number of votes in a couple of these contests. Tens of thousands of voters supporting the same party and living in the same area will end up with more MPs.” (Electoral Reform Society)

This means that the number of MPs a party has does not necessarily match the number of votes from the population. Two larger parties in the commons tend to be created (minimising the possibly of a hung parliament – where no one has majority), generating a party large enough to form a majority government – and another party to form an opposition.

Another effect of first past the post is to create what are called ‘safe seats’ and ‘swing seats.’ Safe seats’ are those unlikely to change and tend to have a lots of support for one particular party in that area. ‘Swing seats’ are those where the vote could go either way, and parties tend to concentrate campaigning in these areas. It also means that votes can ‘count more’ in certain areas where the chance of changing hands is higher.

How do I vote?

In order to be able to vote on 12 December you must have registered to vote by 26 November. You will then be sent through a polling card to your registered address which will give you the location of your polling station. On the day of the general election you then head along to polling station, are given a ballot paper and you vote.

If for whatever reason you are unable to vote in person, you can apply for a postal vote or to vote ‘by proxy’ which means someone else can vote on your behalf. In order to receive a postal vote or vote by proxy you need to have applied for this type of voting when you registered.

So there you have it, a quick(ish) guide to a UK general election. So if you are eligible to vote and wish to vote in the election on 12 December, make sure you have registered to vote.

To find out more information about registering to vote visit

To find out more about elections visit

To find out more about political jargon visit the BBC website

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