Unit I the constitution section Read and study



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Section 1. Read and study

1.1 Look through these questions before reading text 1.

  1. What is the historical background of the system of Parliamentary Elections in Great Britain?

  2. How many constituencies is Great Britain divided into? What does the number of constituencies depend on?

  3. Who is eligible to vote in a general election in Great Britain?

  4. Who is not entitled to vote in parliamentary elections.

  5. Who is disqualified from standing for election to Parliament?

  6. Is it necessary to belong to a political party to be a candidate?

  7. How often do general elections take place? Who takes the decision on when to hold a general election?

  8. Why is the majority system of voting adopted in Great Britain called the "First-Past-the-Post" system?

  9. State the advantages and disadvantages of the current voting system as its opponents and proponents see them?



The System. Unlike in any other country in the world, the system of political representation that is used in Britain evolved before national issues became more important to people than local ones. In theory, the House of Commons is simply a gathering of people who each represent a particular place in the kingdom. Originally, it was not the concern of anybody in government as to how each representative was chosen. That was a matter for each town or country to decide for itself. Not until the nineteenth century were laws passed about how election were to be conducted.

This system was in place before the development of modern political parties. These days, of course, nearly everybody votes for a candidate because he or she belongs to a particular party. But the tradition remains that an MP is first and foremost a representative of a particular locality. The result of this tradition is that the electoral system is remarkably simple. It works like this. The country is divided into a number of geographical areas of roughly equal population (about 90 000) known as constituencies. Britain is divided into about 650 parliamentary constituencies, the voter living within the area select one person to serve as a member of the House of Commons. Constituency boundaries are approved by Parliament following reviews by the four Parliamentary Boundary Commissions.

At the 2010 election, there were 659 constituencies and 659 MPs were elected. It was called a general election, and of course control of the government depended on it, but in formal terms it was just 659 separate elections going on at the same time.

Voters. British citizens may vote provided they are aged 18 or over and are not legally barred from voting. Subject to the same conditions, citizens of other Commonwealth countries and the Irish Republic who are resident in Britain may also vote at parliamentary election. All voters must be on the electoral register. This is compiled every year for each constituency separately. People who have moved house and have not had time to get their names on the electoral register of their new constituency can arrange to vote by post. Nobody, however, is obliged to vote. Voting is by secret ballot. It is also voluntary. On average about 75 per cent of the electorate votes.

The following people are not entitled to vote in parliamentary elections:

  • peers, and peeresses in their own right, who are members of the House of Lords;

  • foreign nationals, other than the citizens of the Irish Republic resident in Britain;

  • people kept in hospital under mental health legislation;

  • people convicted within the previous five years of corrupt or illegal election practices.

Candidates. Any person aged 21 or over who is a British citizen, or citizen of another Commonwealth country or the Irish Republic, may stand for election to parliament, providing they are not disqualified. Those disqualified include:

  • people who are bankrupt;

  • people sentenced to more than one year of imprisonment;

  • clergy of the Church of England, Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church;

  • A range of public servants, specified by law. They include judges, civil servants, some local government officers, full-time members of the armed forces and police officers.

Candidates do not have to live in the constituencies for which they stand. However candidates who are on the electoral register in the constituencies for which they are standing may vote in their own constituencies.

Candidates must be nominated on official nomination papers, giving full name and home address. The nomination paper must be signed by ten electors.

After the date of an election has been fixed, people who want to be candidates in a constituency have to deposit £500 with the Returning Officer (the person responsible for the conduct of the election in each constituency). They get this money back if they get 5% of the voters or more. The local associations of the major parties will have already chosen their candidates and will pay the deposits for them. However, it is not necessary to belong to a party to be a candidate. Until 2001, there was no law which regulated political parties. There was just a law which allowed candidates to give a “political description” of themselves on the ballot paper. However, this was open to abuse. (For example, one candidate in a previous election had described himself a “Literal Democrat” and it is thought that some people voted for him in the belief that he was the Liberal Democrat candidate.) So part of the job of the Electoral Commission, which was created in 2001, is to register party names.

However, parties can call themselves anything at all as long as it does not cause confusion. Among the 115 parties contesting the 2005 election were Rock ‘N’ Roll Loony Party; Death Dungeons & Taxes; Glasnost; Church of the Militant Elvis Party; Personality AND Rational Thinking? Yes! Party; Telepathic Partnership.

General election. General elections, for all seats in the House of Commons, take place at least every five years. In practice, elections are usually held before the end of the five-year term. In exceptional circumstances, such as during the two world wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945), the life of a Parliament has been extended beyond the five-year term.

The decision on when to hold a general election is made by the Prime Minister. The procedure involves the Queen, acting on the prime Minister’s advice, dissolving Parliament and calling a new Parliament. Formal Writs of Election are normally issued on the same day. The Prime Minister usually announces the dissolution of parliament and explains the reasons for holding the election. Voting takes place within 17 days of dissolution of parliament and explains the reasons for holding the election. Voting takes place within 17 days of dissolution, not including Saturdays and Sundays and public holidays: therefore, election campaigns last for three to four weeks.

The System of Voting. The simple majority system of voting is used in parliamentary elections in Britain. This means that the candidate with the largest number of votes in each constituency is elected, although he or she may not necessarily have received more than half the votes cast. There is no preferential voting (if a voter chooses more than one candidate, that ballot paper is ‘spoiled’ and is not counted); there is no counting of the proportion of votes for each party (all votes cast for losing candidates are simply ignored).

In the first place it has been increasingly questioned whether the electoral system provides an accurate reflection of political preferences. The system penalises at a national level those parties whose vote is inefficiently distributed across the country. Since smaller parties have never enjoyed such efficiently distributed support as the Conservative and Labour parties have, they seldom matter. In fact, the system is known as the "first-past-the-post" system (an allusion to horse-racing). The existing electoral system has attracted so much criticism that all the major parties have proposed some form of electoral reform. Labour has proposed a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote (AV) system for elections to the Commons.

Under the AV system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. The winning candidate must have 50% of the votes so the votes for lower-placed candidates are distributed in succession until one candidate has more than 50%. The AV system, as well as the First-Past-the-Post voting system, is a majoritarian one. The table illustrating how AV works is given below.

Alternative Vote (AV)


Voters fill in a ballot paper by marking their ballot paper 1, 2, 3 etc against their most preferred individual candidates in a single member seat. Winning candidates must get more than 50% of the votes as the second and later preferences of the least successful candidates are counted in turn.


Three parties stand for election – Party A, Party B and Party C. At the polling booth, voters list each party in order of preference. On election day, 120 people turn out to cast their vote. The votes are counted and tallied as follows (third preferences have been omitted for the sake of simplicity):

42 voters

17 voters

10 voters

51 voters

1st preference

Party B

Party A

Party A

Party C

2nd preference

Party A

Party B

Party C

Party A

The first preferences are counted and the results are:

Party A = 27, Party B = 42, Party C = 51

No candidate has the 61 votes needed to win an outright majority. Party A has the fewest votes, so is eliminated. The votes of those who put Party A as their first preference are then redistributed to their second preference nominations. In this example, 17 votes are transferred to Party B and 10 votes are transferred to Party C. After this process, the new result is:

Party B = 59, Party C = 61

Winning candidates have to get more than 50% of the votes under the AV system. So the Party C candidate is returned to Parliament.

The proposal to introduce AV was rejected by the electorate in the nationwide alternative vote referendum held on 5 May 2011. However, the Alternative Vote is used to elect the majority of chairs of select committees in the House of Commons. The AV is also used for the election of the Lord Speaker and by-elections for hereditary peers.


Arguments used in support of First-Past-the-Post

  • It's simple to understand and thus doesn't cost much to administer.

  • It doesn't take very long to count all the votes and work out who's won, meaning results can be declared a handful of hours after polls close.

  • The voter can clearly express a view on which party they think should form the next government.

  • It tends to produce a two-party system, which in turn tends to produce single-party governments, which don't have to rely on support from other parties to pass legislation.

  • People are often fearful of change and slow to adapt.

Arguments used against FPTP

  • Representatives can get elected on tiny amounts of public support. In 2005, for example, George Galloway polled the votes of only 18.4 per cent of his constituents, yet ended up in the House of Commons. Only three MPs elected in 2005 secured the votes of more than 40 per cent of their constituents.
  • FPTP in effect wastes huge numbers of votes, as votes cast in a constituency for losing candidates, or for the winning candidate above the level they need to win that seat, count for nothing. In 2005, 70 per cent of votes were wasted in this way – that's over 19 million ballots.

1.2 Give the English equivalents to the following words and word combinations:

  1. объявить себя кандидатом на выборы в одном из избирательных округов

  2. быть не допущенными до голосования

  3. быть включенным (состоять в) список избирателей

  4. избираться от какого-либо округа

  5. устанавливать дату выборов

  6. проводить всеобщие выборы

  7. предложить проведение референдума по…

  8. быть избранным в Парламент


Section 2

Look through these questions before reading text 2.

  1. Who is responsible for the administration of elections?

  2. What are the functions of election agents?

  3. Do British elections differ from what they have in the U.S.?

  4. What is canvassing?

  5. What are the main events of the polling day?

  6. Why is the period after voting called a television extravaganza?

  7. Why do by-elections appear to be so important in party politics?

  8. What inspired considerable public interest in the 2010 campaign?


Administration of elections. In each constituency a returning officer, usually a senior local government officer, administer the election. He or she arranges for notices of election to appear in public places and for all electors to receive a poll card giving details of the voting arrangements. Returning officers also make the necessary arrangements for voting on polling day, including setting up polling stations and providing staff to run them.

Election agents. Each parliamentary candidate must appoint an election agent. Although candidates may serve as their own agents, this is not usual. Agents are responsible for running the campaign, for controlling expenses in line with the legal restrictions on election campaign expenditure. If they are paid for their services, this must be included within the amount allowed for campaign purposes. Some agents are full-time salaried officials who act as party organizers in one or more constituencies in the period between elections.
British elections are comparatively quiet affairs. There is no tradition of large rallies or parades as there is in the USA. However, because of the intense coverage by the media, it would be very difficult to be in Britain at the time of a campaign and not realize that an election was about to take place. The 2010 campaign was the first to feature direct head-to-head televised debates between the leaders of the three largest UK parties. These debates changed the nature of the campaign and inspired considerable public interest in the campaign.

Local newspapers give coverage to the candidates; the candidates themselves hold meetings; party supporters stick up posters in their windows; local party workers spend their time canvassing.

Canvassing. Canvassers go from door to door, calling on as many houses as possible and asking people how they intend to vote. They rarely make any attempt to change people’s minds, but if voters are identified as ‘undecided’, the party candidate might later attempt to pay a visit.

If it looks as if these people are not going to bother to vote, party workers might call on them to remind them to do so. Canvassing is an awful lot of work for very little benefit. It is a kind of election ritual.

The amount of money that candidates are allowed to spend on their campaigns is strictly limited. They have to submit detailed accounts of their expenses for inspection.

But the reality is that all these activities and regulations do not usually make much difference. Nearly everybody votes for a candidate on the basis of the party which he or she represents, not because of his or her individual qualities or political opinions. Few people attend candidates’ meetings; most people do not read local newspapers. In any case, the size of constituencies means that candidates cannot meet most voters, however energetically they go from door to door.

It is at a national level that the real campaign takes place. The parties spend millions of pounds advertising on hoardings and in newspapers. By agreement, they do not buy time on television as they do in the USA. Instead, they are each given a number of strictly timed ‘party political broadcasts’. Each party also holds a daily televised news conference. All of this puts the emphasis on the national party personalities rather than on local candidates. Only in the ‘marginals’5 – might the qualities of an individual candidate, affect the outcome.

Party money. There is no law which regulates political parties, so there is no legal limit to the amount of money that national parties can spend on election campaigns. Nor is any money given to the parties by the state for their campaigns. (These are two more ways in which the British system differs from that in most other western countries.)

Furthermore, there is no law which obliges parties to say where they get their money too. This last point is a matter of heated debate among the parties. The Conservatives get a lot of their money from large single donations by individuals, sometimes from people outside Britain. The other parties would like to pass a law which forced parties to reveal the sources of large donations and which forbade donations from foreigners.

Polling day. On polling day (the day of the election), voters go to polling stations and are each given a single piece of paper (the ballot paper) with the names of the candidates for that constituency (only) on it. Each voter then puts a cross next to the name of one candidate. After the polls have closed, the ballot papers are counted. The candidate with the largest number of crosses next to his or her name is the winner and becomes the MP for the constituency.

General elections always take place on a Thursday. They are not public holidays. People have to work in the normal way, so polling stations are open from seven in the morning till ten at night to give everybody the opportunity to vote. The only people who get a holiday are schoolchildren whose schools are being used as polling stations.

Voting takes place in booths which are screened to maintain secrecy.

After the polls close, the marked ballot papers are taken to a central place in the constituency and counted. The Returning Officer then makes a public announcement of the votes cast for each candidate and declares the winner to be the MP for the constituency. This declaration is one of the few occasions during the election process when shouting and cheering may be heard.

The swingometer

This is a device used by television presenters on election night. It indicates the percentage change of support from one party to another party since the previous election – the ‘swing’. 
lection night.
The period after voting has become a television extravaganza. Both BBC and ITV start their programs as soon as voting finishes. With millions watching, they continue right through the night. Certain features of these ‘election special’, such as the ‘swingometer’ have entered popular folklore.


Individual constituencies can be placed at certain points along the swingometer to show how much swing is necessary to change the party affiliation of their MPs. The swingometer was first made popular by professor Robert McKenzie on the BBC’s coverage of the 1964 election. Over the years, it has become more colourful and more complicated. Most people enjoy it but say they are confused by it!

he first excitement of the night is the race to declare. It is a matter of local pride for some constituencies to be first to announce their result. Doing so will guarantee that the cameras will be there to witness the event. If the count has gone smoothly, this usually occurs at just after 11.00 p.m., experts (with the help of computers) will be making predictions about the composition of the newly elected House of Commons. Psephology (the study of voting habits) has become very sophisticated in Britain so that, although the experts never get it exactly right, they can get pretty close.

By two in the morning at least half of the constituencies will have to declared their results and, unless the election is a very close one (as, for example, in 1974 and 1992), the experts on the television will now be able to predict with confidence which party will have a majority in the House of Commons, and therefore which party leader is going to be the Prime Minister.

Some constituencies, however, are not able to declare their results until well into Friday afternoon. This is either because they are very rural, and so it takes a long time to bring all the ballot papers together, of because the race has been so close that one or more ‘recounts’ have been necessary. The phenomenon of recounts is a clear demonstration of the ironies of the British system. In most constituencies it would not make any difference to the result if several thousand ballot papers were lost. But in a few, the result depends on a handful of votes. In these cases, candidates are entitled to demand as many recounts as they want until the result is beyond doubt. The record number of recounts is seven (and the record margin of victory is just one vote!).

By-elections. Whenever a sitting MP can no longer fulfil his or her duties, there has to be a special new election in the constituency which he or she represents. (There is no system of ready substitutes.) There are called by-elections and can take place at any time.

A by-election provides the parties with an opportunity to find a seat in Parliament for one of their important people. If a sitting MP dies, the opportunity presents itself; if not, an MP of the same party must be persuaded to resign.

The way an MP resigns offers a fascinating example of the importance attached to tradition. It is considered wrong for an MP simply to resign; MPs represent their constituents and have no right to deprive them of this representation. So the MP who wishes to resign applies for the post of ‘Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds’. This is a job with no duties and no salary. Technically, however, it is ‘an office of profit under the Crown’ (i.e. a job given by the monarch with rewards attached to it). According to ancient practice, a person cannot be both an MP and hold a post of this nature at the same time because Parliament must be independent of the monarch. (This is why high ranking civil servants and army officers are not allowed to be MPs.) As a result, the holder of this ancient post is automatically disqualified from the House of Commons and the by-election can go ahead.
2.2 Give the English equivalents to the following Russian words and word combinations:

  1. руководить проведением выборов;

  2. организовывать (открывать) избирательные участки;

  3. следить, чтобы расходы на кампанию не выходили за рамки, установленные законодательством;

  4. широкое освещение (выборов) в печати (СМИ);

  5. предоставлять подробные отчеты о расходах (на кампанию);

  6. день выборов;

  7. закрытые кабины для тайного голосования;

  8. сделать объявление о количестве голосов, отданных на каждого кандидата;

  9. объявить победителя, ставшего членом Палаты Общин от данного округа;

  10. почти равное распределение голосов на выборах;

  11. телефеерия во время выборов;

  12. быть показателем популярности (непопулярности) правительства на настоящий момент

Section 3.

Use the above-given texts and the glossary (3.1) to speak about the British Electoral System. Now that you have acquainted yourselves with the present-day system of voting in Great Britain answer and discuss the following questions.

  1. In what ways is political campaigning in your country different from that in Britain?

  2. What is the level of public interest in learning about election results in your country? Does it reflect the general level of enthusiasm about, and interest in politics?


ballot paper

бюллетень для голосования

secret ballot

тайное голосование


город, приравненный к избирательному округу


предвыборная агитация на дому у избирателей; сбор голосов перед выборами


избирательный округ

safe constituency

избирательный округ, большинство избирателей, в котором традиционно отдают свои голоса за кандидатов одной из двух основных партий

marginal constituency

избирательный округ, в котором нет традиционной единодушной поддержки одной из двух главных партий, и поэтому результаты выборов обычно непредсказуемы


подсчет голосов избирателей


пересчет голосов

election (to)

выборы (в)

general election

всеобщие выборы


дополнительные выборы

election agent

организатор избирательной кампании

to win/lose an election

победить/проиграть на выборах

election campaign

избирательная кампания

to fight the election

вести борьбу на выборах

to fix an election

организовать выборы

elect (v) smb to

избирать кого-либо в

elect smb Prime-minister

избирать кого-либо



electoral address

обращение к избирателям

election address

обращение к избирателям

electoral issue

проблема, решение которой предлагается кандидатами или партиями в ходя избирательной кампании

electoral law

закон о выборах, избирательный закон

electoral register

список избирателей


контингент избирателей, совокупность избирателей, поддерживающих определенного кандидата, определенную политику или партию

election agent

организатор предвыборной кампании кандидата

to be eligible to vote

иметь право участвовать в выборах


предвыборная платформа партии, предвыборная декларация

nominee (n)

кандидат на выборах

nominate smb

(as a candidate)

выставлять кандидатуру на выборах


официальное выставление кандидата на выборах

opinion poll

опрос общественного мнения

to take polls

проводить опрос общественного мнения

polling day

день голосования

polling station

место голосования, пункт голосования

to put up

(one’s name for Parliament)

выставлять свою кандидатуру, вносить кандидатуру в списки для голосования

to return smb to Parliament

избирать кого-либо в Парламент

returning officer

должностное лицо, ответственное за организацию выборов

election returns

результаты выборов

to stand for

parliamentary elections

участвовать в выборах, выставлять свою кандидатуру

to vote by proxy

голосовать по доверенности

to vote by post

голосовать по почте

put to the vote

ставить на голосование



voting (n)

  1. голосование

  2. выборы

preferential voting

система голосования, при которой избиратель отмечает цифрами против фамилий кандидатов, в каком порядке он за них голосует


явка избирателей на выборы

turnout of …%




  • History: developed from the group of MPs know as the Tories in the early nineteenth century and still often known informally by that name (especially in newspapers, because it takes up less space!).
  • Traditional outlook: right of centre; stands for hierarchical authority and minimal government interference in the economy; likes to reduce income tax; gives high priority to national defense and internal law and order.

  • Since 1979: aggressive reform of education, welfare, housing and many public services designed to increase consumer-choice and/or to introduce ‘market economics’ into their operation.

  • Organization: leader has relatively great degree of freedom to direct policy.

  • Leader: David Cameron.

  • Voters: the richer sections of society, plus a large minority of the working classes.

  • Money: mostly donations from business people.


  • History: formed at the beginning of the twentieth century from an alliance of trade unionists and intellectuals. First government in 1923.

  • Traditional outlook: left of centre; stands for equality, for the weaker people in society and for more government involvement in the economy; more concerned to provide full social services than to keep income tax low.

  • Since 1979: opposition to Conservative reforms, although has accepted many of these by now; recently, emphasis on community ethics and looser links with trade unions

  • Organization: in theory, policies have to be approved by annual conference; in practice, leader has more power than this implies.

  • Leader : Ed Miliband.

  • Voters: working class, plus a small middle-class intelligentsia.

  • Money: more than half form trade unions.

Liberal Democrats

  • History: formed in the late 1980s from a union of the Liberals (who developed from the Whigs of the early nineteenth century) and the Social Democrats (a breakaway group of Labour politicians).

  • Policies: regarded as in the centre or slightly left of centre; has always been strongly in favor of the EU; places more emphasis on the environment than other parties; believes in giving greater powers to local government and in reform of the electoral system.

  • Leader : Nick Clegg.

  • Voters: from all classes, but more from the middle class.

  • Money: private donations (much poorer than the big two)

Nationalist parties

Both Plaid Cymru (‘party of Wales’ in the Welsh language) and the SNP (Scottish National Party) fight for devolution of governmental powers. They won separate parliaments for their countries and many of their members, especially in the SNP, are willing to consider total independence from the UK. Both parties have usually had a few MPs in the second half of the twentieth century, but well under half of the total number of MPs from their respective countries.

Parties in Northern Ireland

Parties here normally represent either the Protestant or the Catholic communities. There is one large comparatively moderate party on each side (the Protestant Ulster Unionists and the Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party) and one or more other parties of more extreme views on each side (for example, the Protestant Democratic Unionists and the Catholic Sinn Fein). There is one party which asks for support form both communities – the Alliance party.

Other parties

There are numerous very small parties, such as the Green Party, which is supported by environmentalists. There is a small party which was formerly the Communist party, and a number of other left-wing parties, and also an extreme right-wing party which is fairly openly racist (by most definitions of that word). It was previously called the National Front but since the 1980s has been called the British National Party (BNP).


from "The Downing Street Years"

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