The Differences Between U.S. and U.K. General Elections

*The following is a guest post.

Election time in the US can be a trial for expats; as a US citizen, you are expected to know what all the candidates are up to, as if they call to chat about foreign policy while you’re trying to watch Strictly Come Dancing. So a word of advice to you folks planning to move or visit abroad during election years; make sure you are up on your politics, because you will be asked. And I have no idea why; the US elections get ample coverage on our national news, but being a bona fide US citizen leads the locals to believe that you have information the BBC isn’t privy to.


Another thing you will be asked about is the American electoral process, so you’d better bone up on that, as well. The Brits are pretty curious about it because it differs so much from theirs, but I have confused a fair number of them trying to explain the Electoral College. I tell them not to feel bad, even American citizens find the Electoral College confusing. The British system isn’t hard to understand on a technical level, but to an American, it is hard to comprehend the reasoning.


Take, for instance, the fact that British citizens cannot actually vote for the person who is going to run their country. And I’m not talking about the Queen: the Prime Minister—the person Americans would equate to the President—is not elected by popular vote. When an election is called (more on that in a moment) you get to vote for the person who will represent your district in the Parliament—your MP—and that is all. When the election is over, the party who has the majority of representatives gets to put their party leader up for Prime Minister. Generally, you know who that is going to be, but that doesn’t preclude the party membership from changing their minds, and the Prime Minister.

House of Commons

When I try to explain to people here that I could vote for a Democratic Governor, an Independent Senator and a Republican President, they shake their heads in disbelief and wonder why we would do such a thing.

But the biggest difference, and the one I am most grateful for, is the way they run their elections. Unlike the US, they do not have a set schedule. A general election must be held within 5 years but it can be held at any time during those 5 year, and when a general election is called, the date is kept secret. Three months before the secret date, the Prime Minister asks the Queen to dissolve the government and then—and only then—can the campaigning begin.

Polling station (way in)

This keeps the election season short, unlike the endless months of ads and posturing and news stories in America. And not only that, each party is allotted a specific amount of television time to air their party political broadcasts. Election season in the UK is, therefore, not as saturated with paid advertising and endless mudslinging as the run up to the US elections. That said, there is still the feeling that too much money is spent on elections and that caps ought to be put in place, but the figures are nowhere near as staggering as they are in the US, which anticipates a projected spend of around 5 billion for the 2012 election while the UK spent just over 30 million on the last general election.

Lets Get Political

To me, the oddest thing that happens is after the election, when the seats of Parliament are counted up to see who has the most because if no one has a clear majority (i.e. 51% of the total seats) then there is no winner. If that happens, and if the parties can’t do some backroom dealing to form a coalition of more than 51%, then the elections are void and have to be run all over again.

When I ask why this is, I am told, “Well, if no party has the majority, then no bills could get passed,” to which I respond, “Hooray, that’s just the sort of government I want—one that can’t continue mucking up my life.” But the Brits are not convinced, and they continue to vote until someone comes out with more than half of the seats.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg

In the last general election, in 2010, no one got 51% of the seats, so the Conservatives—who had the most—talked the Liberal Democrats into joining with them to form a coalition government, which is a hybrid of ultra-conservatives with an occasional squawk of liberalism in the background. No majority wanted the Conservative Party, no majority wanted the Labour party and practically no one wanted the Liberal Democrats, but the country is united by the coalition government because NO ONE wanted that. Seems fair to me.

Election reaction

(British newspapers react to 2010 General Election results)

The major difference in political coverage, of course, is that the Brits prefer donut charts while the US favors pie.

This is what a coalition government looks like:


Also, the British lean toward more hard-hitting issues (chart below is from the UK Politics and Current Affairs web site)


So that’s the British system in a nutshell; study up if you want to appear knowledgeable when you visit. Otherwise, enjoy your elections, vote responsibly and be thankful that you can have a Republican Senate blocking a Democratic house to keep your government locked in stalemate as much as possible: remember, that government is best which governs least.

– Mike

Michael Harling moved to Britain unexpectedly (and through no fault of his own) in 2002. He is the author of three humorous books about expat life: Postcards From Across the Pond, More Postcards From Across the Pond and Postcards From Ireland. He is also the author of Finding Rachel Davenport a novel set in Horsham in Sussex.

For more information, visit his blog, Postcards From Across the Pond ( or his website (


  1. Crystal says

    Great post! I wish we could get rid of the electoral college and choose our candidate by popular vote. The PNW generally get overlooked as the candidates spend all their time in the swing states.

    And, I’d much rather spend $$$ on people than politics. Three months campaigning? Awesome!

  2. says

    Hi there,

    A very interesting and entertaining post. I wondered if you’d appreciate a few very technical points from a self-confessed elections nerd!

    I think it is a bit harsh to label the Conservative Party “ultra-conservatives”, especially in a blog that is comparing US and UK politics. The Conservative Party would not be welcome in today’s Republican Party and, in some respects, is further to the left of the Democratic Party (it fully supports full on socialised medicine!)

    We don’t have anything quite like the GOP. The whole of our political spectrum would probably fit in a broad tent stretching from Bernie Sanders (VT) to Olympia Snowe (ME).

    I agree that technically the vast majority of the electorate do not directly elect the Prime Minister. Only those voters who live in the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary constituency have a chance to vote for the PM as their MP. But, in reality, voters are picking a party led by a known leader with a clear manifesto. The debates, adverts and punditry all assume your vote for Labour or the Conservatives is a vote for Milliband or Cameron as PM.

    And, if we are getting super technical, the people of the USA do not directly elect their president. The Electoral College gets in the way, ensuring that the popular vote does not necessarily produce a presidential victory (as show by all the coverage on the possibility that Romney would emulate four predecessors by getting a higher total nationwide vote but not gaining sufficient seats in the Electoral College).

    Finally, after the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, all future General Elections in the UK will take place on the first Thursday in May every five years (with provisions for special circumstances e.g. losing a vote of confidence etc.)

    Give it a few more decades and you’ll get to enjoy the intricacies of the Reading System (or why people stand outside polling stations taking notes of polling numbers), appointment as the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham or the Manor of Northstead (the process by which an MP is able to resign from Parliament) and why we use six different voting systems for various elections, including the single transferable vote (used in Northern Irish elections and some Scottish elections.

    Add in an Upper House, the House of Lords (i.e. Senate) comprising hereditary peers connected to the Royal Household, self-selected hereditary peers, appointed life peers and a batch of bishops and you have some of the stranger facets of our defiantly organic political system. It used to be even more bizarre – the House of Lords used to function as our Supreme Court, with the Law Lords (similar to Justices of the Supreme Court) sitting in the House in both a judicial and legislative capacity.

    The nearest analogy to demonstrate how alien this would be in the US system would be the old position of the Lord Chancellor, the head of the judiciary.

    It would be as if the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court sat in the Senate alongside some bishops of the Episcopal Church, appointed directly by the President with no legislative oversight and also serving in the President’s Cabinet (i.e. in the executive).

  3. says

    Sorry – a couple more things!

    I think we are as partial to pie as donut! The Economist does like its donut charts, but I think most polls of voting intention in the national press are rendered as pie charts.

    On the money side – I hope we won’t head to the US style levels of election spending. There are spending limits, and the parties are limited by how much they can receive in individual and corporate donations.

    Perhaps the most important difference on the look, feel and intensity of the campaign is on broadcast media:

    (1) broadcasters have to adhere to strict broadcast neutrality (the Ofcom Broadcasting Code) – this means that news programmes have to be impartial and provide roughly equal time; and

    (2) political parties are only allowed to advertise on TV through Party Election Broadcasts. Each party is allocated a certain number based on their share of the vote (e.g. in 2010 the Conservatives and Labour had 4 adverts each in England, the Lib Dems just two and the BNP, Green, English Democrats and UKIP one each.)

    The meme equivalent of the US “I’m Politician X and I endorse this message” is a sombre BBC-style announcer intoning “There now follows a party political/election broadcast on behalf of the X Party” and ending with “That was a party political/election broadcast on behalf of the X Party”.

    Experience the joy here –

    I’ll stop now. Sorry.