How many times have you heard people say that they aren’t interested in politics? Yet decisions made by politicians affect all aspects of our lives, from education, pay and working conditions to housing, crime and environmental issues.
Young people do and should have a voice – in fact 1.4 million under 25s registered to vote between the announcement of the UK’s 2019 election and polling day.
What is Parliament?
The foundations of our system of government goes back many centuries, with its origins in the signing of the Magna Carta by King John in 1215.
The UK is a representative democracy, which means that members of the public vote for Members of Parliament (MPs), who are elected to represent them in Parliament.
Parliament has three elements:
The House of Commons – comprising 650 MPs who have been voted in by the people of 650 constituencies across the UK. The MPs include government ministers and cabinet members, backbenchers, members of the opposition including shadow government ministers, and MPs from smaller parties or independents.
The House of Lords – the second chamber, described by UK Parliament as having “a crucial role in examining bills, questioning government action and investigating public policy”. Most of the 800 or so members are appointed for life, rather than being elected, some have inherited their position or ‘peerage’.
The monarch – the Head of State, currently Her Majesty The Queen. A largely ceremonial role, with a responsibility for officially opening and closing each Parliamentary session and assenting to Bills passed by Parliament.
What does Parliament do?
In a nutshell, Parliament exists to hold the government to account. The 650 MPs of all parties who sit in Parliament are voted in by the people of their constituency and are there to represent us. They debate and vote on laws that are introduced, request amendments to those laws, and hold inquiries when necessary.
MPs are also responsible for issues that arise in their local constituencies and anyone can contact their local MP (or a member of the House of Lords) to raise an issue that is important to them.
Government can also be scrutinised through Select Committees, which are made up of people from different parties as well as outside organisations.
How does voting and elections work?
General elections take place in the UK every five years, unless a vote is carried in the House of Commons to hold them earlier.
Every UK, Irish or Commonwealth citizen resident in the UK, and UK citizens living abroad, has the right to register themselves to vote, apart from:
- Those under the age of 18 on election day
- People who have been convicted of crimes from which they are or will be imprisoned
- People who are not imprisoned but have been found guilty of corrupt or illegal practices in connection with an election in the past five years
- Foreign citizens who don’t have UK citizenship
- Members of the House of Lords
- Members of the Royal Family
Most people vote in person at a local designated polling booth, but you can arrange to vote by post, by proxy or from abroad.
Before voting day, parties and individuals will campaign to win your vote. They will create a manifesto, setting out what they would like to achieve if they become the governing party, and promote their aims in party political broadcasts, through traditional media and on social media.
There are also local elections held every four years on the first Thursday in May. This is when you can choose your local councillors.
Who do I vote for in a general election?
At a general election, you choose the person you would like to be your local MP from a list of candidates. Most will be affiliated to a political party, although some will stand as independents.
What happens after the votes are counted?
Once the votes have been counted, the party with the most MPs becomes the government. The leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister and is officially appointed by the monarch.
The Prime Minister will then put together a Cabinet of around 20 ministers, each responsible for a government department.
Key Cabinet roles include:
- The Chancellor of the Exchequer
- Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State
- Home Secretary
What is a hung Parliament?
This is when no one party has a majority of MPs after an election has taken place.
When this happens, the previous Prime Minister is given the option to form a government by building a coalition with another party. An example of this was in 2010, when the Conservative party did not gain enough votes to remain in power and formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. If they are unable to form a coalition, the Prime Minister will usually resign and the main opposition party will be invited to form a government.
What is the Opposition?
This is the party in the House of Commons with the second largest number of MPs. The Leader of the Opposition will designate Shadow ministers for each of the key ministerial positions, for example, a Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.
What does the Speaker of the House do?
The Speaker can be from any party and is charged with keeping order in the House of Commons and deciding who will speak during debates and at Prime Minister’s Questions.
How are laws made?
Laws are made when a Bill is proposed by the government or an opposition party. Bills can also be put forward by public inquiries, civil servants or campaigning groups.
They begin with a Green Paper outlining ideas for a policy, which is open for public discussion before its findings are published in a White Paper. If Cabinet Ministers agree to take this forward, a Bill is drawn up for debate in Parliament. A Bill can be amended during this process if enough MPs agree to the amendment in a vote. A Bill must win the vote in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords to be passed, and then formally be given Royal Assent by The Queen before it passes into law.
What else can I do as a young person?
You can join the youth section of your preferred party or a campaign group to add your voice to issues you feel passionately about. There’s also the UK Youth Parliament, an organisation for 11-18 year olds, and The League of Young Voters (for those up to age 25), which aims to get young people to vote and get involved in the decision-making process.