Politics

General Election Jargon Buster

By Maisie Marston

In both pre-election and post-election coverage, it is sometimes hard to rise above the noise of complicated jargon and ancient terminology to fully understand what is happening. This article will help you make sense of some key, but perhaps less well-known terms you are likely to encounter in manifestos, debates or during the coverage of the election itself.

Austerity
This refers to budget-cutting measures taken by a government. The term is associated with the spending cuts made by the Conservative-led government beginning in 2010. These cuts came in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and the objective was to get rid of budget deficits.

Deficit
The deficit is the difference between how much the government collects in tax, and what it spends.

Hustings
These are meetings where candidates or parties can debate policies and answer audience questions. They serve as an opportunity for voters to hear the views of candidates, and candidates are able to try to persuade voters.

Exit polls vs. opinion polls
An exit poll is slightly different to an opinion poll. Rather than asking which parties the public intend to vote for in advance of the election, an exit poll surveys voters as they leave the polling station. Of course, like opinion polls, exit polls also have a margin of error. For instance, in 1992, two exit polls predicted a hung parliament at the general election, but in reality the Conservative Party led by John Major held onto power but with a reduced majority. It is a criminal offence to release exit poll figures before all polling stations have closed, so the results will come out after 10pm on the 12 December this election.

Teller
You may encounter one or more tellers at the polling station. These are people who work on behalf of political parties to collect electoral registration numbers of voters as they enter or leave the polling station. The reason they do this is to help their parties to identify which of their supporters are yet to vote so they can contact them and encourage them, or facilitate them voting. There is no obligation to speak to them, and the police are able to intervene if they “irritate voters, exert undue influence or obstruct the polling station”.

Returning Officer and Declaration
The returning officer is responsible for elections in each constituency. Their job is to read out how a constituency voted (called declaring the result – a declaration) in alphabetical order (by surname).

Psephologist
No election night broadcast is complete without an appearance of the resident ‘psephologist’. This is an individual who analyses how people vote in order to estimate the outcome of an election. As with exit polls and opinion polls, there is, of course, a margin of error. Sir John Curtice is a well-known British psephologist who you are likely to become familiar with during the election coverage.

First past the post
This is the voting system that is used in the UK. In essence, it means the candidate who gets the most votes wins. Therefore, it’s winner takes all.

Majority/Working Majority
If a party has a majority in Parliament it has at least one more seat than all other parties in Parliament put together. In this scenario, it can also be referred to as a ‘working majority’ as the largest party is likely to have the legislation it supports pass in Parliament.

Hung Parliament/Coalition/Confidence and supply agreement
The scenario where no party wins a majority is referred to a ‘hung parliament’. Normally the party which won the most seats will try and form a coalition (where two or more parties form a government) or another arrangement with smaller parties. Some examples of this include in 2010 when the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government after the Conservatives failed to achieve a majority. In 2017, after Theresa May’s snap election resulted in a hung parliament, instead of forming a coalition the party entered a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) so they would be able to form a new minority government.

Kingmaker
If an election returns a hung parliament, smaller parties could act as ‘kingmakers’. This means they could supplement larger parties who are in need of extra MPs to form a government.

The Chief Whip
This is a senior position, and they are often involved in important party discussions.

Whips
Each party will appoint an MP each who will be in charge of organising the other members of the parliamentary party. Their job is to inform and organise their MPs, and make sure they vote in divisions in accordance with party policy.

The Whip
This is a circular which is sent around weekly to MPs and Lords which outlines what parliamentary business will be occurring. Divisions (votes) occurring in the week will be underlined a number of times – the more lines underneath them, the more important they are.

Three-line whips
If a vote is particularly important, they will be underlined three times in the circular (‘The Whip’). If MPs or Lords choose to go against the party line, it is taken very seriously. In some circumstances, defying the three-line whip has resulted in the whip being withdrawn. This means the MP or Lord is kicked out of their party and must sit as an independent until their party decides to restore the whip.

Theresa May’s ‘backstop’ arrangement vs. Boris Johnson’s newly revised proposal
This one is a bit more complicated to explain concisely, but fundamentally it is an arrangement which concerns the Irish border which was set out in Theresa May’s original withdrawal agreement. In the event that no other solution is agreed upon and the UK leaves the EU, the backstop arrangement would have come into effect. Its purpose was to protect the Good Friday Agreement/Belfast Agreement by keeping the whole of the UK in the EU’s Customs Union which would allow an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The alternative is having a ‘hard border’; a scenario where there would be physical checks and infrastructure between the two countries. This would mean the UK is unable to ratify trade deals with other countries as an independent country, hence why many brexiteers opposed the policy.

Under Boris Johnson’s revised Withdrawal Agreement, the whole of the UK would foster the same tariffs on imports so if the UK agrees on new trade deals, Northern Irish businesses would trade with those deals. In addition, Northern Ireland will remain a part of the EU’s custom rules which will allow it to trade with Ireland. Therefore, no tariffs or restrictions will be imposed on goods crossing the Irish border. There are of course many complexities to the Irish border issue, but these are the fundamentals of the two approaches.

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