The English Election System
Once the Queen has appointed a person to the office of Prime Minister, he can remain in office only for so long as he has majority support in the House of Commons. If he is defeated there, he may resign and leave the Queen looking for a new one. According to law the period between general elections must never be more than five years. Within these five years the Prime Minister may choose the date for a general election, this gives him and his party a great advantage, because then he can choose a time when the opinion is high for his party.
A Brittish Government consists of the Prime Minister and other ministers, all of whom are collectively responsible for every part of the Government?s administration. The ministers are all choosed by the Queen, but they are choosed entirely on the PM?s advice. All the ministers must be members of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords, and a minister may only speak in the house of which he is a member. Some of the ministers and the offices have special titles such as the “Minister of Agriculture” and as the “Chancellor of the Exchequer. A politicial assistant to a minister is called, for example, the “Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture”. If the Minister?s title is “Secretary of State” his assistant is called for example, of “Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland”.
The Cabinet consists of the heads of the most important Departments together with a few ministers without departments. The PM decides which ministers will be included, but there is some, like the Foreign Secretary, whom he could not leave out. The number of members has varied in peacetime between 15-23. The Government is a wider term including ministers, ministers of state and junior ministers, plus 4 legal members and about twelve Government whips.
The PM lives and works at No. 10 Downing Street. This is a pretty large house in a small street off Whitehall, where many of the departments have their offices, a very short distance from the Houses of Parliament. One of the rooms in the PM?s house is the Cabinet-Room. This is where the Cabinet-Members meets usually once a week, but sometimes more often.
The Cabinet itself is not recognized by any former law and it has no formal powers, but only real powers. It takes the effective decisions about what is going to be done, but in many cases the formal order embodying the Cabinet?s decision must be made later, either by a particular minister, or by the Queen in her Privy Council, or when the Cabinet?s decision involves the making of a new law. The Cabinet is technically an informal committe of Privy Councillors. Whenever a person is made minister of Cabinet rank, he is made a member of the Council and continues as a member for the rest of his life.
The Privy Council has the formal power to make certain executive orders and proclamations. In 1968 Mr Wilson set up an inner committee of the seven most important Ministers. The intention seemed to be that the main part of the work should be done by this committee. Apart from this, much of its work is done in a number of special commitees, which are groups of ministers, including some who do not belong to the Cabinet, dealing with particular sections of policy, like the defence.
The Cabinet and its commitees work in great secrecy. No outside person is allowed to see any Cabinet papers until they have become only of historical interest. It seems that it is almost unknown for any decision of the Cabinet to be made by a vote of the ministers, but whatever decision is made, every office-holder must be prepared to share the responsibility for it and to defend it outside. If he doesn?t or if he isn?t prepared to do this he must resign.
Although each minister only can speak in the House to which they belongs, the Government is “responsible” only to the House of Commons. Each department has a large staff of professional civil servants who do most of the work of running the department on the minister?s behalf.
The Civil service is wholly non-politicial.
Until about 1920 the two main parties were the Conservatives and the Liberals, but during the period of politicial confusion that followed the First World War the Labour Party replaced the Liberals as the second main party. Some people, both in Parliament and outside, who are really indistinguishable from Conservatives, are called by other party-labels–Unionist in Scotland, Ulster Unionist, in Northern Ireland until 1973, but the name “Conservative” can quite properly be used so as to include all these groups. The Conservatives and their allies are opposed to great changes in society, they uphold private enterprise and freedom from state control, and they stand for the maintance of order and authority at home and the protection of the national interest in foreign relations. The Labour Party believes actively in the pursuit of greater social and economic equality, and in foreign affairs it is, in sentiment if not in practice, more “internationalist” than “nationalist”.
Quite simply we may say that the Conservatives are the “RIGHT” and the Labour Party the “LEFT” in politics. Both of the parties are commonly regarded as class parties. It has been found that about 2/3 of all manual workers tend to vote for the Labour Party, and that the majority of middle class people vote for the Conservatives and the little group that can be called upper class is is the support for the Conservatives as high as 80%.
The Conservatives can claim to be less of a class party than Labour in that about half of all the votes cast for Conservative candidates are cast by manual workers. With the Labour Party the greater part of the support comes from the manual workers.
Each of the two parties holds a conference at some seaside town in October every year. The Labour Party conference is intended to be an occasion on which the main lines of party policy are decided by a democratic process. It is attended by delegates from the trade unions and the local associations which together make up the whole party, and the conference votes on the questions of policy. The delegates are often bound in advance to vote according to decisions made by the bodies which they represent. Conference decisions are supposed to indicate to the Labour Members of Parliament the direction which they should follow, but the Labour Members of Parliament decide by their own majority vote on the line which they will all follow in Parliamentary buisiness.
The Conservative Party conference is attended by “representatives” of local associations, and the effect of the conference votes is not clearly defined. In practice the Conservative conference is not a device for making the party?s policy, but rather an occasion when the faithful meet together, see and hear the party?s leaders, and express their opinions for the leader?s guidance.
The whole United Kingdom is divided into electoral districts, called “constituencies”, of approximately equal population, and each constituency elects one member for the House of Commons. The number of seats, and of constituencies is not fixed by law, though it is assumed that there ought to be about 625. In 1974-80 there will be 635. The task of fixing the boundaries between the constituencies is entrusted to impartial experts.Each of the constituencies ought to have not more or less than 60,000 voters. The impartial commissions propose changes at intervals of not more than fifteen years. Each voter may only vote for one of the candidates, and the candidate who receives most of the votes is elected. Any person can stand as an independent candidate, but there seems to be a very little chance of being elected except under the name of a party. And a little chance except as a candidate backed by either the Conservative or the Labour Party. In every constituency each of these two parties has a local organisation, whoose first task is to choose the candidate, and which then helps him to conduct his local campaign. The central organisation of each party keeps a list of people who would like to be nominated as candidates, and will supply a local association with names from the list if it is asked to do so.
With the Conservatives, the choice of the candidates is very oligarchical. A small commitee, consisting of a few from the leading active members of the local association, chooses a few from the people who aspire to the candidature, these few are called to be interviewed by the association?s executive council, which selects one of them, the person selected appears, without any rivals, before a general meeting of the association, which almost invaribly adopts him.
With the Labour Party, the selection meeting looks
much moore democratic,because the different unions and other bodies which make up the local association are all represented according to their membership. But in reality a few personalities have great infuence here too.
If a person is elected to the House of Commons in a “marginal seat” by a small majority, he knows that if the trend of the puplic opinion at the next election is agains his party he is quite likely to loose his seat.
Any British man or woman aged over eighteen years may vote in parliamentary elections. The age was reduced from 21 to 18 in 1969. The only exceptions are the obvious ones, such as lunatics, and also peers, who already have seats in the House of Lords. Anyone that may vote may also be a candidate for election to the House of Commons, but certain classes are forbidden to sit in the house. These include all Government employees, or “holders of offices of profit under the Crown”, and also all clergymen of the Church of England, ministers of the Church of Scotland and Roman Catholic priests.
A general election is organised as it were 635 separate elections in the 635 constituencies.
Each voter must go to his particular voting station – normally a school or other puplic building near his home – to cast his vote.
When he comes in, an official gives him his ballot paper, and his name is recorded as having voted. On the ballot paper the names of all the candidates are printed. The voter must take his paper to a screened cabin, where he puts a cross against the name of the candidate for whom he wishes to vote. He then folds the paper, so that nobody can see it, and puts it folded into a large box. It is forbidden for any voter to show how he has voted for another person, he may go out and tell his friends how he has voted, but the rules ao the voting-process is very strict.
Voting is on the same day, usually a Thursday, in all the constituencies, and the voting stations are kept open from 7.00-23.00. If a member dies or resigns, a by-selection is held to replace him, there are usually about 10-15 by-selections every year.