What are the key features of the British government and political system? Find out how UK politics work and which parties you can vote for.
Politics in the UK can seem confusing at first glance. Although there is a British government that holds centralized executive power, there are also devolved governments in the constituent nations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. They determine policy in many areas including healthcare, education, and transport.
This guide takes you through the key features of politics and government in the UK to help give you a better understanding of things if you relocate to any part of the UK. Sections include:
- Government and political system in the UK
- Who is in power in the UK?
- Main UK political parties
- Electoral system in the UK
- Voting in the UK
- Political representation in the UK
- Political history of the UK
- UK judiciary system
- Political tensions in the UK
- The UK and the EU
- State of the UK economy
- Grassroots politics and political activism in the UK
- Useful resources
Government and political system in the UK
The UK is a constitutional monarchy, similar to countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates. This means that a monarch – in this case, Queen Elizabeth II – acts as Head of State. It is a parliamentary democracy where the elected British Government, the head of which is the Prime Minister, holds executive power.
Two chambers exercise legislative power: the lower chamber – the House of Commons – made up of 650 elected regional Members of Parliament (MP); and the upper chamber – the House of Lords – made up of a mixture of appointed and hereditary peers. Unlike with elected MPs, the number of members in the House of Lords is not fixed. Currently there around 800 members from across the parties, as well as non-affiliated members.
Although the British government has central power, a certain amount of political power has been devolved to the regional governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Both Scotland and Wales established their own devolved parliaments in 1999. Northern Ireland has had its own devolved assembly since 1972.
The British Prime Minister: who is currently in power in the UK?
The leader of the Conservative party, Boris Johnson, is Prime Minister of the UK. Johnson has held this position since July 2019 when he won the party leadership contest after the previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, resigned. The Conservatives then won a General Election in December 2019, winning 365 parliamentary seats (and 43.6% of the vote). The Labour Party, then led by Jeremy Corbyn, won 202 seats and 32.1% of the vote. This was the biggest election victory since Tony Blair’s Labour Party win in 2001 and the biggest Conservative win since Margaret Thatcher triumphed in 1987.
Boris Johnson has been MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip since 2015. He was previously Mayor of London from 2008 to 2016.
Although the UK Prime Minister is the head of central government, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have their own heads of government called First Ministers. These are leaders or representatives of the parties with the most seats in government. Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, has been First Minister of Scotland since 2014. Mark Drakeford, leader of Welsh Labour, has been First Minister of Wales since 2018.
Northern Ireland has joint heads of government under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Paul Givan of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been First Minister since June 2021. Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein has been Deputy First Minister since 2020.
The next UK General Election is due to take place on 2 May 2024. Current opinion polls put the Conservatives ahead with 43% support, with Labour on 33% (June 2021).
Main political parties in the UK
There are currently 11 political parties with seats in the House of Commons. Below is a brief overview of each one.
Also known as the Tory Party, the Conservative Party was founded in 1834. It has been one of the dominant forces in British politics since the 19th century. The party has been in power since 2010 and currently holds 363 parliamentary seats in Westminster.
The party has historically been similar in ideology to conservative parties in many other countries. Since the late 1970s, it has favored small government and liberal free-market economic policies. Traditionally socially conservative, in recent years it has become more socially liberal in certain areas such as LGBT rights, legalizing same-sex marriage in 2014. There are some tensions within the party between socially liberal and socially conservative elements. Additionally, there are ongoing divisions over Europe and Brexit.
The party primarily holds support among middle-class voters, especially in rural and suburban areas. However, its 2019 election victory was notable for its success among traditionally Labour-supporting working-class voters in northern England.
The current leader of the Conservative party is the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.
The Labour Party is the current Official Opposition party in the UK with 198 seats in parliament. It has had five periods in power since 1923, the most recent being 1997-2010. The party was founded in 1900 out of a coalition between trade unionists and socialists.
Until the 1980s, Labour’s ideology was along traditional democratic socialist lines. Its periods in power were characterized by Keynesian economics, high taxation, and a strong publicly-owned welfare state. Since the mid-1980s it has become more centrist, culminating in the rebranding of the party as New Labour and the embracing of Third Way politics in the 1990s. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the party returned to a more traditional socialist approach between 2015 and 2020. However, this led to deep divisions within the party. Keir Starmer, leader since April 2020, has attempted to shift the party back towards the center ground.
Labour has traditionally been more socially progressive in areas such as worker rights, LGBT rights, gender equality, and immigration policies. It has also been mostly pro-Europe, with the majority of its MPs voting against Brexit. Traditionally it has held support among working-class and socially liberal voters, although its working-class base has diminished recently. The party’s performance in the 2019 election was its worst since 1935.
Scottish National Party (SNP)
The SNP is a Scottish political party that campaigns on a platform of Scottish independence. Although the SNP lost the 2014 Scottish Referendum on independence, it is the party with the most support in Scotland. It holds 45 of the 59 parliamentary seats. This makes it the third biggest party in the UK in terms of parliamentary seats.
The SNP was founded in 1934. It is socially democratic in its ideological outlook as well as being socially liberal, supporting policies such as LGBT rights, multiculturalism, and gender equality. The party is also pro-Europe and campaigned against Brexit. In the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections, the SNP won 69 out of 129 seats, two short of a majority.
The current party leader is the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon.
Liberal Democrat Party
Commonly referred to as the Lib Dems, the Liberal Democrats were founded in 1988 out of a merger between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party – two parties that had been in an alliance since 1981.
The party’s ideology is a mix of traditional liberalism and social democracy. It favors a market-based economy, supported by a strong welfare state. It also supports civil liberties, LGBT rights, European integration, and a shift to proportional representation voting.
Although the Liberals were a strong force in UK politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the party formed a coalition government with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015, the popularity of the Lib Dems has waned dramatically since. They currently have 12 MPs, down from 62 in 2005. Their support tends to be among university-educated voters in southwest England and parts of London and Scotland. Ed Davey has been the party’s leader since August 2020.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
The DUP is an Irish political party that is the biggest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly in terms of seats (27 out of 90). It shares assembly leadership with Sinn Fein. Founded in 1971, the party is unionist, loyalist, and socially conservative, opposing things such as abortion and same-sex marriage. It also supports Brexit.
The DUP formed a coalition government with Theresa May’s Conservatives from 2017 to 2019. It currently holds 8 out of 18 available seats in Westminster.
Sinn Fein (meaning “We Ourselves” in Irish) is an Irish political party founded in 1905 when the whole of Ireland was under British rule. It is active in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with the current form of the party in operation since 1970.
Whereas the DUP is loyalist, Sinn Fein is Irish Republican and supports the reunification of an independent Irish state. It is also broadly democratic socialist, socially progressive, and supported the UK remaining part of the EU. It holds 7 seats in the UK parliament and 26 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Mary Lou McDonald is the current President of the party.
Plaid Cymru, also known as the Party of Wales, is a Welsh nationalist, social democratic, and pro-European party that advocates a Welsh independent state. Formed in 1925, it currently holds 3 out of 40 Welsh seats in the UK Parliament as well as 13 out of 60 seats in the Welsh Assembly (the Senedd). Adam Price has been the party leader since 2018.
The Alba Party is a Scottish nationalist party founded in February 2021 and led by former SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond. It has yet to contest any elections but has two seats in Westminster on account of two SNP MPs defecting to the party. The party positions itself as an alternative Scottish independence party with the objective of building a “socially just and environmentally responsible” Scotland. The Alba Party is in favor of an independent Scotland joining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP)
The SDLP is an Irish Republican party in Northern Ireland advocating Irish nationalism, social democracy, and pro-European politics. It was founded in 1970 and currently holds two seats in Westminster and 12 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The party leader is Colum Eastwood.
The Alliance Party is a liberal party in Northern Ireland affiliated with the Liberal Democrats in Great Britain. It was founded in 1970 and currently has one MP in the UK parliament and 7 MPs in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Its leader is Naomi Long.
The Green Party is a political party in England and Wales. Similar to green political movements elsewhere, the party is associated with environmentalism and sustainability. In the UK, the party also supports social-democratic economic policies, civil liberties, animal rights, grassroots democratic participation, and EU membership. The Green Party supports more radical progressive policies than most other mainstream parties, such as a universal basic income for all.
The Green Party was founded in 1990. It has joint leaders, Sian Berry and Jonathan Bartley, and one MP in Westminster, former leader Caroline Lucas. Its support is strongest among university-educated people in metropolitan areas.
Electoral system in the UK
The UK uses different electoral systems for different types of elections. For general elections, where MPs representing 650 regional constituencies across the UK are elected to the House of Commons, the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system is used. Each party can put one candidate forward in each constituency (independents can also stand).
The party with the most winning candidates forms a majority government if they win over 50% of the seats, otherwise, they can form a coalition government with other parties to take them over 50% or form a minority government. The leader of the winning party becomes Prime Minister and appoints a Cabinet of Ministers to head the different government departments (health, education, defense, etc.). There are currently 23 ministerial departments and 20 non-ministerial departments.
General elections in the UK take place every five years, although the British government can call an early election if they get a two-thirds majority vote on doing so in the House of Commons.
In addition to UK general elections, there are:
- Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections, held every 5 years, where voters choose MPs using the Additional Member System (AMS) form of proportional representation.
- Northern Ireland Assembly elections, held every 5 years, where voters elect assembly members using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of proportional representation.
- Local elections, held every 4 years, where voters elect local councillors. England and Wales use the FPTP system, while Scotland and Northern Ireland use STV.
- Mayoral elections, held in London and some parts of England, where voters elect a local mayor using the Supplementary Vote system.
Voting in the UK
The legal voting age in the UK is 18, apart from in Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections where it is 16. For the UK general election, you must also be a British, Irish, or Commonwealth citizen and have a registered UK address (or be a British citizen living abroad who has been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years).
Other UK residents, such as EU citizens or foreigners with a right to reside in the UK, can vote in local elections and Scottish elections. Prisoners and anyone found guilty of electoral fraud in the last five years cannot vote.
To be able to vote in any UK election, you must register to vote. This means that your name will be on the electoral register. On voting day, you just need to turn up at your local polling station (usually a public space such as a community center or primary school) and give your name. You can find out how to register to vote here.
Political representation in the UK
To stand as a candidate in a UK general election, you must be at least 18 years old and a citizen of either the UK, Ireland, or a Commonwealth country that has a right to reside in the UK. Certain groups are disqualified from standing, including members of the police or armed forces, civil servants, and people with bankruptcy restrictions.
EU citizens cannot become MPs unless they also have UK citizenship, however, they can stand to become a local councilor in local elections.
According to a 2020 report on political and public representation in the UK, residents from ethnic minorities are slightly underrepresented in parliament, although things are improving. The report found that 10% of MPs and 6.3% of members of the House of Lords are from minority backgrounds, compared to 14.4% in the overall UK population. The situation is similar in the constituent parliaments and assemblies, as well as in the London Assembly.
Another report from March 2021 found that women are also still underrepresented. Thirty-four percent of MPs and 28% of Lords are female. Elsewhere, the situation ranges from 47% female members in the Welsh Parliament to 26% in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Concerning senior-level positions, only 23% of cabinet ministers are women.
Political history of the UK
The Parliament of Great Britain formed in 1707 following the Acts of the Union, which brought together the three countries of Great Britain – England, Scotland, and Wales. Following the British colonization of Ireland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland formed in 1801. Britain ceded control of Southern Ireland (the Republic of Ireland) in 1922, and the UK became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which remains its full title today.
Since its creation, the UK has had a functioning democracy. Only two parties formed governments until 1923 – the Conservatives and the Liberals (who were the Whigs until the mid-19th century). Since 1923, only the Conservatives and Labour have been in power. Universal suffrage was in 1918 for men and 1928 for women.
Other than devolution in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the key events that have impacted the UK’s political system since World War Two have been:
- The development of the modern welfare state, including the NHS, in the years immediately following 1945. This gave the government a far greater role in areas such as healthcare, education and social security.
- Decolonization and the decline of the British Empire after 1945. The UK had established colonial rule in many overseas countries during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. By the 1970s, most of these countries had won independence. Over 50 of these countries are today members of the Commonwealth of Nations.
- Joining the European Communities (now the EU) in 1973 and then subsequently voting to leave in the 2016 Brexit Referendum vote.
Judiciary system in the UK
The UK has three separate legal systems: one for England and Wales, one for Scotland, and one for Northern Ireland. However, judges in some of the highest level courts such as the Supreme Court have UK-wide jurisdiction.
Similar to many other countries, the UK justice system is one of three branches of the state. The other two are the executive (the British government) and the legislative (the two Parliamentary chambers). Where the UK differs from most other countries is that it doesn’t have a written constitution. Therefore, its laws have grown out of centuries of statutes passed by Parliament and the common law of court decisions.
Until the end of the 19th century, there wasn’t a clear separation between the judicial branch and other state branches in the UK. In other words, judges could become MPs or even Cabinet members.
The courts system in the UK is complex but essentially there are three main types of court:
- Magistrates’ courts, which deal with most civil cases and less serious cases
- Senior Courts, which include the Crown Court, the High Court and the Court of Appeal. These deal with more serious criminal cases, any cases referred by magistrates’ courts, and (in the case of the Court of Appeal) appeals from other courts
- Supreme Court, which is the final court of appeal for all civil and criminal cases
The tribunals system has its own structure for dealing with administrative cases and appeals. Decisions can escalate to the Court of Appeal.
Political tensions in the UK
The one issue that has dominated British politics in recent years has been Brexit. There has always been a Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party that disagreed with the original decision of the British government to join Europe in 1973. This escalated in recent decades with the formation of political parties such as the Referendum Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) whose main objective was to take the UK out of the EU.
However, it has only been in the last decade that this has become a core issue in British politics. UKIP won the European elections in 2014, despite never having won a UK parliamentary seat. Following this, the Conservative Party won an outright majority in the 2015 UK General Election, having pledged to hold an EU referendum if they did so.
Although the UK was predicted to vote to remain in the EU, and the Conservatives campaigned on a remain platform, the country voted to leave the union by 52% to 48% on 23 June 2016. The UK finally left the EU on 31 December 2020 after a short transition period. The “Brexit issue” has stoked up tensions among the British public and has also inflamed anti-immigrant sentiments in the UK. Just one week before the referendum vote, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered on the streets of Yorkshire by a far-right terrorist shouting “keep Britain independent”.
Recent major scandals in UK politics include the 2009 political expenses scandal, the Westminster sexual misconduct allegations, and various controversies surrounding the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. These include the response to the pandemic itself, the unlawful awarding of contracts, and senior government ministers failing to adhere to Covid rules.
The UK and the European Union/EEA
The UK narrowly voted to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum. It was the first member country to do so and is now one of only a handful of countries worldwide not to belong to a regional trading bloc. The UK officially left the EU on 31 December 2020 with a withdrawal agreement in place.
The UK is now treated as a non-member country by EU/EFTA countries, thus UK citizens are now subject to the same visa restrictions and barriers to accessing many public services in member states as many other third-country nationals. Similarly, EU/EFTA citizens no longer have freedom of movement or equal rights to access many services in the UK. Citizens from the EU/EFTA who have been living long-term in the UK and want to stay need to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme.
Although the UK voted to leave the EU, both Scotland and Northern Ireland had majority votes for remain. Some political parties, such as the SNP, have pledged to rejoin the EU if their country wins independence from the UK.
The state of the economy in the UK
The UK has a highly developed social market economy. It ranks as the 5th largest in the world in terms of GDP and 23rd largest by GDP per capita. Service sector businesses account for around 79% of GDP, with financial services being particularly strong.
As with many economies across the world, the UK economy has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. However, the OECD Economic Forecast Summary (May 2021) predicts that GDP growth will return to its pre-pandemic level by early 2022 as the government eases restrictions on economic activity.
Grassroots politics and political activism in the UK
The UK probably doesn’t have the same culture of direct action politics as you see in countries such as Spain and France. However, there have been movements throughout history that have left their mark, from the Chartists in the 1830s to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the 1980s. More recently, grassroots movement UK Uncut staged a series of nationwide protests against austerity and public sector cuts.
Extinction Rebellion UK, part of the wider global environmental movement, has been the most well-known activist group in the past few years. The group has staged non-violent protests to draw attention to the climate emergency. This led to MPs declaring a climate emergency in parliament in 2019.
Anyone can get involved in local politics or a political/social cause important to them in the UK. One way is to volunteer for a UK-based charity. You can search for active organizations in the charity directory. Another way is to engage with what’s going on in your local area. This could be anything from attending neighborhood meetings to becoming a councilor. Check for different ways of getting involved on the government website.