UK Politics

A glossary of election terms for Vote 2012

Confused by those election phrases trotted out by politicians and commentators? Cut through the waffle with this handy guide:

Absentee ballot: A vote cast by someone who cannot reach a polling station. Can be postal or by proxy (see below).

All-out election: A local election in which all council seats are up for grabs - as opposed to councils in which a third of the seats are contested. Some 32 Scottish councils and 21 Welsh councils will hold all-out elections. Four English district councils and two unitary councils who normally elected by thirds will hold all-out elections because of ward boundary changes.

A third of seats are being contested in 36 English metropolitan boroughs - including Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Manchester - 63 district councils and 16 unitary authorities. Seven other English district councils will elect by halves.

Agent: A person who represents candidates in their dealings with the electoral authorities and runs their campaigns.

Ballot: Another term for vote.

Ballot box: Sealed box with a slit in the lid, into which voters place their ballot papers.

Ballot paper: Paper containing a list of all candidates standing in a constituency. Voters mark their choice with a cross or rank them in order of preference, depending on the voting system used.

Battlebus: A vehicle used by a party to transport its leader or other senior figures around the country to rallies or to meet the people.

Boundary Commission: The body which reviews constituencies every 8-12 years to make sure they represent current population patterns.

Budget: The government's tax-raising and spending plans, outlined once a year by the chancellor of the exchequer.

By-election: An election held between general or local elections, usually because a sitting MP or councillor has died or resigned.

Cabinet: The group of senior ministers at the head of the government. Since 2000, a form of cabinet governance has been adopted by many local authorities, with a leader and cabinet members holding different policy portfolios, such as education or culture.

Candidate: Someone putting themselves up for election.

Canvassing: During a campaign, active supporters of a party ask voters who they will vote for and try to drum up support for their own candidates.

Coalition: When two or more parties govern together, when neither has an overall majority. Before the Conservatives formed a coalition with the Lib Dems in May 2010, they were very rare in Westminster. They are more common in Scotland and Wales.

Constituency: The geographical unit which elects a single MP, MSP, AM or local councillor.

County council: In charge of services such as education, social services, transport, strategic planning, fire services, consumer protection, refuse disposal, smallholding and libraries.

Deposit: £500 paid by candidates or their parties to be allowed to stand. It is returned if the candidate wins 5% or more of the votes cast.

Devolution: The delegation of powers to other parliamentary bodies within the UK, specifically the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies.

Dissolution of Parliament: The act of ending a Parliament.

District councils: In charge of services such as local planning, housing, local highways, building regulation, environmental health and refuse collection.

Election expenses: Candidates are only allowed to spend a limited amount of money on their individual campaign. Accounts must be submitted after the poll proving they did not exceed this limit.

Electoral register: A list of all those in a constituency entitled to vote. Also known as the electoral roll.

Exit poll: A poll asking people how they have voted just after they have left the polling station.

First-past-the-post: Term used to describe the UK's parliamentary election system. It means a candidate only needs a simple majority - more votes than his or her rivals - to be elected.

First minister: The term used to describe the leaders of the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Franchise: The right to vote. Now available to those over 18 and on the electoral register.

Gain: If a party wins a seat that it did not win at the last general election this is described as a "gain"

General election: Election at which all seats in the House of Commons are contested. General elections must take place at least every five years - the coalition has introduced fixed-term parliaments and set the date of the next UK general election for 7 May 2015.

Hold: If a party wins a seat that it won at the previous general election this is described as a "hold".

Hung parliament: If after an election no party has an overall majority, then parliament is said to be "hung". The main parties will then try to form a coalition with one or more of the minor parties.

Hung council: The same as a hung parliament, but at a local level.

Landslide: The name given to an election which one party wins by a very large margin. Famous landslides in UK elections include Labour's victory in 1945, the Conservative win in 1983 and the election which brought Tony Blair to power in 1997.

Manifesto: A public declaration of a party's ideas and policies, usually printed during the campaign. Once in power, a government is often judged by how many of its manifesto promises it manages to deliver.

Marginal constituencies: Seats where the gap between the two or more leading parties is relatively small. Often regarded as less than a 10% margin or requiring a swing of 5% or less, though very dependent on prevailing political conditions.

Majority government: To win a majority, a party needs to get one more seat than all the other parties added together. In 2010, there are 650 seats so to get more than everyone else, a party must get a minimum of 326 seats or more.

Metropolitan borough: Large councils in major cities and urban areas, such as Manchester, Merseyside, and Tyne and Wear, in charge of all local services.

Minority government: A government formed by a party which does not have an absolute majority in the House of Commons. Harold Wilson led a Labour minority government between February and October 1974.

MP - Member of Parliament: Strictly this includes members of the House of Lords, but in practice means only members of the House of Commons. When an election is called Parliament is dissolved and there are no more MPs until it assembles again.

No overall control: When no single party achieves a majority of council seats. In this situation, the largest party grouping will normally forge alliances with smaller groups and independents to create a governing coalition.

Nomination papers: A candidate must be nominated on these documents by 10 voters living in the constituency.

Notional result: After major boundary changes like which took place in 2010, the main broadcasters agree how altered constituencies were likely to have voted in the previous election. This gave them a base against which to compare the new results.

Number 10: The official residence in Downing Street of the British prime minister since the 18th Century. Number 10 and Downing Street both serve as terms to describe the prime minister and his or her inner circle, as in "Number 10 has said that".

Opinion poll: A survey asking people's opinion on one or more issues. In an election campaign, the key question is usually about which party people will vote for.

Opposition: The largest party not in government is known as the official opposition. It receives extra parliamentary funding in recognition of its status.

Party Election Broadcast (PEB): Broadcasts made by the parties and transmitted on TV or radio. By agreement with the broadcasters, each party is allowed a certain number according to its election strength and number of candidates fielded.

Personation: The offence of impersonating someone else in order to use their vote.

Poll: Another term for vote or election.

Polling clerk: The person in the polling station who checks the electoral register to verify that the voter is eligible to cast his vote and at that particular polling station.

Polling day: Election day - this year, 3 May.

Polling station: Location where people go to cast their votes.

Postal vote: People unable to get to a polling station are allowed to vote by post if they apply in advance. They are also allowed a proxy vote.

Proportional representation: Systems of voting which aim to give parties the representation in a parliament justified by their level of voting support.

Prorogation: The act of ending a session of Parliament. Performed when an election is called.

Presiding officer: The person responsible for ensuring the conduct of the ballot in polling stations. They have to ensure that ballot boxes are kept secure and are responsible for transferring them safely to the count.

Proxy vote: People unable to get to a polling station are allowed to appoint someone to vote on their behalf if they apply in advance. They are also allowed a postal vote.

Psephology: The study of voting and voting patterns.

Queen's Speech: The government's legislative programme for the coming session of Parliament. Delivered by the Queen, but written by the government.

Recount: If a result is close, any candidate may ask for a recount. The process can be repeated several times if necessary until the candidates are satisfied. The returning officer has the final say on whether a recount takes place.

Referendum: A binding vote on a single issue.

Returning officer: The official in charge of elections in each of the constituencies.

Robocalls: Automated phone calls to canvas voters, often using famous actors' voices.

Safe seat: A constituency in which the holding party has a big lead to defend. Often regarded as being a margin of 15-20% or more.

Short by: A term used to refer to the number of seats a party is below the threshold needed to secure a majority.

Single transferable vote (STV): The electoral system used by Scottish councils. Each voter gets one vote which can be transferred from their first to second preference candidate (and further down the list if necessary) if the first has no chance of winning. Candidates don't need a majority of votes to be elected, just a known "quota", or share.

Size of majority: The number of MPs that one party has over and above all others combined. Where 650 seats are contested, if a party wins 326 seats that would leave all others with 324 added together. That would give the winning party a majority of two, the smallest possible.

Soapbox: Famously used by John Major in 1992 to address crowds of voters as he travelled around the country.

Speaker: An MP elected by other members of the Commons to chair debates and deal with the running of the Commons. By tradition, the MP who is Speaker is not opposed by any of the main parties at elections.

Spin: The attempt to place a favourable interpretation on an event so that people or the media will view it in that way. Those performing this act are known as spin doctors.

Spoiled ballots: Ballot papers which have been filled in incorrectly. The returning officer has the final say over whether any paper not marked with a single cross is valid.

Swing: The transfer of votes from one party to another. The actual transfer is complicated, so usually taken to mean between the top two parties in any seat or area.

Tactical voting: This is when people vote not for the party they really support, but for another party in order to keep out a more disliked rival.

Target seats: In theory, any seat that a party contests which is held by a rival is one of its targets. In practice, a target seat is one that a party believes it can win and puts a lot of effort into doing so.

Tellers: Representatives of parties who wait outside polling stations and ask people for their number on the electoral roll. This is to help the parties ensure all their supporters have voted. Tellers have no official status and no-one is obliged to give them any information.

Turnout: The number or percentage of people eligible to vote who actually do so.

Unitary authority: Set up in the mid-1990s in many parts of England to replace what was seen as the confusing two-tier system of county and district councils with single authorities in charge of all services in particular area. There are 56 unitary authorities in England, mostly in mid-size urban areas such as Blackpool, Middlesbrough and the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Ward: an electoral district represented by one or more councillors

West Lothian Question: Shorthand term coined to describe a question posed by Tam Dalyell, once Labour MP for West Lothian. Mr Dalyell asks how it is right that post-devolution, Scottish MPs can vote at Westminster on matters solely to do with England, while English MPs do not have the same influence on equivalent issues in Scotland, as they have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

Westminster: A term used to describe the hothouse of politics centred around the Palace of Westminster and its surroundings.

Win: Rather than "gain" or "hold", this term is used to describe the party that wins the most votes in the following constituencies.