What’s a Snap Election?


In June 2017 the United Kingdom is to have an early general election. It has also been called earlier than law requires, and this makes it known as a “snap” election. Such elections usually occur when it is within the interests of the current ruling party to capitalise on a unique electoral opportunity, or when the country needs to decide on a pressing issue. And such a time is very much now.

The election is initiated by politicians (usually the Prime Minister in the case of the UK) rather than the voting public. In most cases, a snap election results in an increased majority for the party already in power. However, occasionally, when public opinion is seriously divided, or a major issue is at stake, the gamble of a snap election backfires, and the ruling power loses.

In 2011 the conditions for when a snap election could be called in the UK were restricted by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. This means that snap elections can now only be called when the government loses a confidence motion, or when two-thirds of the government’s MP’s vote in favour of such an election being held. Before 2011, the Prime Minister of the UK had the ability and unique power to call an election whenever they wished, by requesting a dissolution of parliament from the monarch.

The last time there was a snap election in the UK was in October 1974, only months after the general election the previous February. The original 1974 election was called by Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath to help him gain support to face down a miner’s strike. Rather than win as he’d expected, though, he lost the election to the Labour Party. However, because the Labour party only won by a narrow margin, and found themselves unable to form a coalition with the Liberal Party, Prime Minister Heath resigned, and was replaced by Harold Wilson. Only six months later Wilson called a snap election, which lead to him winning, and a much stronger Labour government.

Since 1923 there have been seven snap elections in the UK. Five of them have resulted in the party calling the election retaining their governance of the country. Whether the current Prime Minister, Theresa May’s, gamble will pay off, and the Conservative Party will remain in power, will be decided on June 8th.

With the world’s political system throwing up more than a few surprises in recent months, I’m not sure anyone would want to take a guess as to what the result will be.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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