In the UK, there are set rules and regulations that surround when a general election may take place, and specific circumstances that could see one be held earlier than the mandated five years.
Calls for a general election by party leaders reached new highs after ex-Prime Minister Liz Truss announced that she would be stepping down after a whopping seven weeks in office last year. However, no general election was held and instead Rishi Sunak was appointed as the new leader of the Conservative party and took up the position of Prime Minister on 25 October 2022.
This is everything you need to know about general elections in the UK - and when the next one could be.
How does a general election work?
The UK is divided up into 650 constituencies, with each area having an MP representing it in Westminster. Each person in the UK has one vote to choose their preferred candidate. In the first-past-the-post system, the candidate who receives the most votes automatically becomes the MP for that constituency and wins a seat in the House of Commons.
A political party wins a general election by an overall majority if it reaches 326 MPs. The King then invites the leader of the party to form a new government, with the leader becoming the country’s Prime Minister.
But if no single political party wins a majority - known as a hung Parliament - a coalition government or minority government is formed.
When is the next general election?
The official date of the next general election has not yet been announced, however the maximum term of a Parliament is five years from the day on which it first met. The current Parliament met on 17 December 2019, which means it will automatically dissolve on 17 December 2024.
Polling Day would be expected to take place 25 days later, not counting any weekends or bank holidays that fall within that period. The latest possible polling date for the next UK general election is 24 January 2025.
However, there is a chance that an election could be held at an earlier date, should the Prime Minister call a snap election. In 2019, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a snap general election in an effort to increase his parliamentary majority and end months of deadlock over Brexit.
After MPs debated in Parliament, it was agreed the election would go ahead. Two-thirds of MPs were at that time required to agree to an early election through a vote.
How often are general elections held?
By law, a general election must take place at least every five years, however, the potential timing of these elections has undergone some changes in recent years.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 created fixed five year periods between general elections. Under this act, earlier elections could be held only in specified circumstances.
However, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was replaced last year by the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022, which reinstated the ability for the monarch to dissolve Parliament on the request of the current Prime Minister.
Under this bill, the Prime Minister can ask the Sovereign for a dissolution of Parliament and call an election. A two-thirds majority in Parliament is no longer required for a snap poll.
When the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act was repealed, Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Ellis said: “The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act was not fit for purpose, causing constitutional chaos in 2019 and delaying the government acting on people’s priorities.
“At critical moments, we must trust the British public’s good judgement. Elections give the public a voice, and it’s right that we return to a tried-and-tested system that allows them to take place when needed.”
While under the law, general elections can be held on any weekday, it has become tradition for parliamentary elections to be held on Thursdays. Since 1935, every general election has been held on a Thursday - the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 specifically stated that elections should ordinarily be held on “the first Thursday in May”, but this act has since been repealed.
What happened in the last general election?
The last general election was held on 12 December 2019. Boris Johnson called the UK’s third election since 2015, and it was the first to be held in December for nearly 100 years.
There were concerns that the winter vote would affect turnout, however the Conservatives won a sweeping victory which handed the party a strong mandate to progress with completing the country’s exit from the European Union. In a shocking twist, compared to earlier polls, they won 368 seats - the biggest majority for the Tories since 1987.
Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn at the time, suffered a huge defeat as the main opposition party. They suffered significant losses, which analysts put down to the demand for Brexit and the leadership of Corbyn.
Do I vote for the Prime Minister?
Members of the public are not able to vote specifically for the Prime Minister during a general election - instead, you vote for who you want your local MP to be. If you live in an area which is represented by the current Prime Minister, or potential new Prime Minister, you are still only voting for them as your local MP, not as Prime Minister.
Ahead of a general election, a list of candidates standing for each constituency will be posted to your local authority website. You can use the website Who Can I Vote For to find out which candidates are standing in your area, and for more information about each person who you might vote for.
The website also has information about upcoming elections, such as regional by-elections you can vote in, depending on where you live.
You can also find out about who your current MP is by entering your postcode into the MPs and Lords page of the Parliament website.
The political party that wins the most seats at a general election will form the new government, and the leader of that party will become Prime Minister after being appointed by the monarch.
What is a by-election?
By-elections take place in the UK when a seat in the House of Commons becomes empty between general elections.
This can happen for a number of reasons, including if an MP:
- Resigns or dies
- Is declared bankrupt
- Takes a seat in the House of Lords
- Is convicted of a serious criminal offence