Different levels of government in the UK

The electoral process in the UK is based on the 'first past the post' rule. This means that a candidate wins a constituency simply by gaining more votes than any other candidate. However, this does not necessarily mean that the successful candidate received the majority of votes. For example, should four candidates compete, their seat in The House of Commons could be won with as few as 26% of the overall votes cast.

Similarly no government elected since nineteen-forty-five has secured over fifty percent of the national vote.1 These results arise because the British electoral system permits minority rule, not simply majoritarianism. The more candidates that stand and the more evenly balanced their support, the fewer votes are needed to win. Ultimately there will always be a mismatch between votes cast and seats won unless every voter supports one candidate, since there is only one seat to win.

Each candidate must consent to nomination and must be supported by at least ten registered electors who live in the constituency. There are few prohibitions on candidacy but a potential candidate must be at least twenty-one years old, a British citizen and have their name on the electoral register. Those who may not stand include members of the House of Lords, those with criminal convictions of a certain nature, those of unsound mind, and certain clergymen. These rules also apply to those eligible to vote. Each application must be accompanied by a deposit of �500 which is returnable if the candidate achieves five percent of the votes cast.

Members of Parliament (MPs) are chosen at general or Parliamentary elections. A by-election is held when the local MP resigns or dies during their term in office. Local elections are held to vote for councillors standing for the various tiers of local government. General elections are held every five years, although the Prime Minister may ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament at any time in the life of a government. County councils and unitary authorities elect councillors for seats every four years and other local authorities hold elections for a third of their members at a time. When a general election is called, each one of the UK's constituencies holds a local election and returns one MP. There is no limit to the number of candidates who may contest any one seat.

The government in power has the authority to alter the electoral system. This ability was closely scrutinised when the Labour Party's 1997 election manifesto included a commitment to hold a referendum in which voters would be presented with a choice between the existing system and a system of proportional representation, which embraces characteristics of many electoral systems.2

The elected MPs sit in the House of Commons which has around six-hundred-and-fifty members, each representing a given geographical area, or constituency. It exists as much to protect local interests as to define national issues and representation is divided broadly between counties and boroughs. An elected MP must represent all the people in the constituency, not just those who voted for the party they support. Most MPs spend the majority of their time dealing with letters and meeting constituents in regular 'surgeries'. They also present petitions to Parliament on behalf of the public.

Government is led by the cabinet (senior ministers) who must be a member of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords and they are more often than not comprised of members of the party in power. Although members of the House of Commons earn their seat through the electorate, members of the House of Lords are not elected to their position but rather attain their position through or appointment. Another arm of the government is the civil service which is a non-political yet permanent arm of the government. The various departments of central government are administered by the secretary of State.

Devolution is the means by which power is transferred throughout the government. The powers acquired by the government are essentially provided by the Queen, they are commonly referred to as the 'royal prerogative powers.'3 They are effectively devolved from the Monarch to her ministers. The main prerogative powers exercised by the government are to deploy and use the armed forces overseas, make and ratify treaties, acquire and concede territory, organise the civil service.

In formal terms the Monarch, as the head of state, possesses substantial powers. The Queen retains the legal capacity to veto any bill passed by the House of Commons and dissolve Parliament and call a general election. Such actions are elements of the royal prerogative. This could be essential if for example, that a government, fearing it will lose the next general election, passes a bill to extend the lifetime of Parliament without opposition party agreement. However these powers are rarely exercised and the Queen's role is essentially a purely ambassadorial and ceremonial one by way of 'rubber stamping' bills to give royal assent.

Central government are concerned with the day-to-day running of state affairs. Some of their responsibilities include: keeping levels of public expenditure under control through the budget, debating on points of law and scrutinising the language of the law to ensure that statutory interpretation is easier for the judiciary, they then initiate such legislation and implement it through the judiciary. They are also responsible for developing policy relating to the legal system, which includes providing public legal aid.