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The general election: An explanation for children

The UK general election is just around the corner. Children and young people may well have heard about the election in the news and have questions or points they’d like to discuss with you.

This blog offers an explanation of the general election to explore with children, followed by some useful resources to check out!

What’s the general election? An explanation to share with children
The United Kingdom is a democracy, meaning adults have the right to vote and decide who runs the country. A general election lets people do just that!

In a general election, different groups of people who share the same political ideas (called parties – but not the type with cake and balloons!) have the chance to put themselves forward to win seats in the House of Commons, where decisions and laws are made.

Members of these parties run in the election as candidates, and hope they will be chosen by adults in the UK when they vote.

Officially, there are 400 parties, but the main ones are:

  • Conservative
  • Labour
  • Liberal Democrats
  • Green Party
  • Plaid Cymru
  • Sinn Féin

The UK is divided into 650 areas (constituencies) with an MP from a political party representing each. The Houses of Parliament in Westminster is the official government building where MPs meet to discuss issues and laws on behalf of the people they represent.

When does a general election happen?
A general election typically occurs every five years. The next election in the UK will happen on 4th July 2024.

Sometimes, an election can be called sooner, known as a snap election. This happens when MPs demonstrate a vote of no confidence in the current leader, and two thirds of all MPs agree to the vote of no confidence.

What happens on polling day?
The day adults go to vote in person is called ‘polling day’. There are ‘polling stations’ across the country, which are designated venues where people visit to vote. You might have seen polling station signs outside of public buildings, like schools, libraries or community centres.

A polling booth is set out for privacy when people to select their preferred candidate. Voters are given a sheet of paper, called a ‘ballot paper’, which lists all the candidates who want to represent the area in parliament. Once voters have crossed the box next to their chosen candidate, they place their paper in a ‘ballot box’. This is a secure box which keeps all the ballot papers safe throughout the day.

On polling day, voting is open from 7am until 10pm. When voting is closed, national counting begins! People work through the night to count the number of votes for each party. The voting system is called ‘first-past-the-post’. This means for each constituency, the candidate with the most votes wins a seat in the House of Commons for their party.

The results!
For a political party to win with an overall majority, and become the government in charge of the country, they need to win at least 326 seats. This means 326 candidates of the same party are required to win a seat to represent their area of the country.

The leader of the winning party becomes the prime minster, and lives in the official residence, 10 Downing Street, in London.

A State Opening of Parliament follows, which is a ceremony where the monarch announces what the government wants to do.

What if there’s no clear winner?
As mentioned, the party with 326 seats or more becomes in charge. Occasionally, it’s possible for no political party to win the majority of seats, which is called a ‘hung parliament’.

If this happens, two parties can join up to run the country together, which is known as a ‘coalition government’.

For example, in 2010 the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government, as the Conservatives had the most seats, but not enough for an overall majority.

Some useful resources
Is voting the best way to change things?, Picture News Pack
The general election in 60 seconds, BBC Newsround
An introduction to parliament, UK Parliament
A kid’s guide to the general election, National Geographic Kids

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