Election 97

Terms of office

From A to Z, Philip Johnston invokes some of the words of power

[ A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z]


A Act The basic unit of legislation. A Bill becomes an Act when it is passed by the House of Commons and receives the Royal Assent. The supremacy of a Parliamentary Act in law was only assured in 1689, when the Bill of Rights stated that no court or other body had the authority to set aside an Act. Previously the King had the residual power to suspend or dispense with parliamentary statutes.

Alliance Either the agreement between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party to fight the 1983 and 1987 elections as one party, or a non-sectarian party in Northern Ireland.


B Backbenchers Those MPs not part of a party's front bench. Otherwise known as lobby fodder.

Belwether seat Named after the dominant ram that leads a herd of sheep (a rather unkind view of the UK electorate). A type of constituency much prized by election commentators, where the result can be taken as indicative of the national result. Few and far between these days due largely to boundary changes. In the past, examples included Southampton Test and Basildon.

Bill of Rights Either the act of 1689, signed by William of Orange, that enshrined the sovereignty of Parliament, or part of a proposed written constitution for the United Kingdom.

Black Wednesday 16 September 1992. This was the day speculation against the pound caused interest rates to, temporarily, rise by 15 per cent in one day, thus precipitating Britain's exit from the ERM. Also Known as White Wednesday to Euro-sceptics.

Boundary Commission There are separate commissions for each of the four 'nations' of the United Kingdom. Each reviews and makes recommendations about the size of constituencies every ten to 15 years. Due to such factors as County boundaries, London borough boundaries, sparsely populated constituencies and the sense of 'community' of existing constituencies the sizes may vary - the most populous constituency is the Isle of Wight with over 100,000 electors, while some London seats hover around 50,000.

By-election An election fought in between general elections, usually because of the death of the sitting MP, but occasionally due to resignation. By-elections are considered to be a test of the Government's popularity, however, since the late 1980s anti-government swings have become so extreme that such tests are no longer considered greatly relevant. The last such election of this government, in the 'safe' Tory seat of Wirral South, procured a swing of 17 per cent against the government which, if translated into national terms, means a Tory meltdown and a Labour majority of 300. No one seriously expects this.


C Campaign group A group of Labour MPs, best described as parliamentary hard-left. They are all, not surprisingly, backbenchers, and the group includes such gadflies as Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner.

Clause Four A committment in the Labour Party's constitution to public ownership of industry once printed on every member's card. Since abolished under New Labour. See Nationalisation.

Committees, Commons There are two main types of committees - standing committees and select committees. Standing committees deal with committee stages of bills. Select committees deal with the running of the Commons (such as the Catering committee), secondary legislation (such as European Union legislation) or examine the work of specific departments.

Community Charge Also known as the Poll Tax. A per-capita tax to pay for council services. This tax was almost universally hated and led to several demonstrations and riots, notably in Trafalgar Square. Cited as one of the reasons for the downfall of Margaret Thatcher and abandoned by John Major when he took over in 1990.

Conservative Party Full name, the Conservative and Unionist Party. In the 18th century, that era of civilised debate, they were termed the Tories - meaning Irish bandits - by their opponents the Liberals, whom they promptly labelled 'Whigs' - meaning Scottish sheep-stealers. The term has stuck and has lost most of its pejorative overtones - it is often used by the Conservatives themselves - though on the tongue of a hostile and accomplished speaker like Dennis Skinner, it can be made to sound like the distillation of all evil.


D Devolution Assigning some decision making powers to smaller areas of the United Kingdom. This is usually applied to Scotland and Wales, however it has been suggested that devolution may also be applied to areas of England.

Division Lobbies The arcane system of counting MPs' votes in the Commons requires members to physically trundle off to one of two rooms, the division lobbies - there is one for 'Aye' and one for 'Nay'. It is up to the whips to count the members, which led to a bad miscount on an important vote recently. Suggestions that electronic voting systems, as in the US congress, would be more accurate and convenient are sternly resisted by MPs, on the grounds that they would miss the clubbish atmosphere of the lobbies.


E EEC The European Economic Community, previous name of the European Community and the European Union.

Europe Either that part of the Eurasian Super-continent west of the Ural mountains and north of the Caspian sea, or a synonym for the European Union, which merely happens to occupy a small part of the aforesaid.

European Community Previous name of the European Union.

European Union A grouping of European countries, with free movement of goods and services within its borders. Previously known as the EEC, the Common Market or the European Community. Set up by the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and amended by the Single European Act in 1986 and the Maastricht treaty in 1992. Current members are France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the UK, Ireland, Denmark, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Finland and Sweden.

Eurosceptic A loose term applied to those whose views range from the opinion that Britain should not enter the EMU to those who believe that Britain should leave the European Union.

Europhile A loose term applied to those whose views range from the opinion that Britain should enter the EMU to those who believe that Britain should join a projected European Super-state.


F Father of the House Title given to the longest continuously serving MP in the House of Commons. Currently Sir Edward Heath. There has yet to be a Mother of the House.

First past the post This is the method of electing MPs in the United Kingdom, where the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. The method used in most other countries is proportional representation.

Floating voter An elusive and uncountable creature - estimates of the number of electors who have not yet made up their minds at the start of an election campaign vary from near zero to 50 per cent.


G Gang of Four The four prominent Labour politicians who spearheaded the splitting of the centrist SDP from Labour in 1980 - Shirley Williams, David Owen, William Rodgers and Roy Jenkins. It is true, however, that the 'Four' was a later journalistic amendment - before Jenkins came on board, the others announced the formation of the SDP in an open letter to the Guardian known as the 'Gang of Three' statement.

Greater London Council Overall council for Greater London. Introduced in 1963, it was abolished by the Conservative government in 1986 on grounds of efficiency, however it can be argued that the abolition of an opposition powerbase was, at least, equally important.


H Honours List Awards nominally dispensed by the Monarch, but actually decided by the Government. Some have discerned a suspiciously close relationship between awards given, notably knighthoods and peerages, and contributions towards Conservative Party funds.


I Interest Register A list, introduced in 1975, of MPs' commercial interests. It was felt at the time, and the question has since loomed large over the Cash for Questions issue, that members' impartiality was being imperilled by the large number of well-paid consultancy jobs being taken on by some MPs.


J Judicial review The power of judges to declare illegal actions of ministers which are deemed to be beyond the powers authorised by Acts of Parliament or against the laws of the European Union.


K Keynesianism A political philosophy, now out of fashion, named after economist John Maynard Keynes. It implied the use of state funds on a large scale to stimulate industry and combat unemployment. The postwar consensus that lasted until the rise of Thatcherism was dominantly Keynesian in its outlook, as was FDR's New Deal in the US. The global upsurge in Keynesian ideas was conditioned by the experience of the Great Depression and it is a historical thread that can never be written off completely - after all laissez faire liberal capitalism looked dead until the 1980s.


L Labour movement Little used by the mainstream Party these days, the term 'movement' as distinct from 'party' was always used to reflect the supposedly indissoluble link, from the moment of its foundation, between the trade unions and the Labour Party. Still used by left-wing backbenchers, particularly the Campaign Group.

Local government Government of any part of the country other than the whole. Ranges in size from Parish councils to County councils. The power of local councils has been largely reduced by the Conservatives since 1979, while some, including the Greater London Council, have been abolished.

Loyalist Like Nationalist or Republican, another Northern Irish coded term. A Loyalist, just like a Unionist, is firmly committed to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but may be a little more extreme in the expression of their views. Protestant paramilitaries are always referred to as Loyalists.


M Magna Carta Often seen as the foundation stone of British democracy, the Great Charter signed by King John in 1215 did indeed have the effect of limiting the power of the monarch - essential to the eventual supremacy of parliament. Of course the barons who compelled John to sign were merely interested in confirming their own rights - the ideal of the 'common man' and universal suffrage was a long way away.

Manifesto A document produced by the parties before an election, setting out the policies and actions which that party would pursue once in government. The successful party can claim to have a mandate to carry out its policies, however the government does not have to carry out policies in its manifesto and may carry out others not in its manifesto.

Mandate The authority a government claims to carry out policies set out in its manifesto. Otherwise known as a blank cheque.

N 1922 Committee Also known as the "Men in Grey Suits". This organisation itself consists of all Conservative backbenchers. The Committee is usually seen to be responsible for informing Conservative leaders (including Margaret Thatcher) when they have lost the confidence of the party and should, therefore, resign.

Nationalisation Not ever quite the same thing as ownership of the means of production by the state (the level of government involvement varied), the postwar wave of nationalisations by Attlee's Labour government was intended to take in the large strategic industries seen as vital to the national wellbeing, such ownership also giving the government a strong Keynesian leverage on the economy.

Although two nationalised industries - iron/steel and road haulage - were rapidly denationalised (the word privatisation was not used then) by Churchill's Tories in 1951, a remarkable postwar consensus was maintained and no attempt was made to place electricity, coal, gas or the railways under private ownership until Thatcher's 'revolution'. With the inclusion of the railways, almost all of those initiatives have now been reversed by the Conservatives and, with the possible exception of rail, it is unlikely that any future Labour government will commit to renationalisation, particularly given the abandonment of Clause 4.

In any case, it can be argued that newer industries, particularly in the information technology sector, are so decentralised that they would not lend themselves to such an approach, whatever the political climate.

Nationalist Usually someone who advocates the full or partial independence of a region of the UK. Straightforward in Scotland and Wales, the situation is more complicated in Northern Ireland, where Nationalist is used to cover all shades of opinion in those parties supported by the Catholic minority (itself referred to as 'Nationalist'). In this sense it is distinct from Republican, a more extreme position that advocates the union of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. The SDLP are Nationalist, Sinn Fein are Nationalist and Republican. See also Unionist.


O Official Secrets Act A frequently controversial piece of legislation dating back to 1911 that secures the confidentiality of government information. Sometimes absurd - it once emerged that even looking at a picture of London's Post Office tower was a breach of the Act - the Official Secrets Act was recently reformed following the acquittal of civil servant Clive Ponting. Ponting was prosecuted under the Act for anonymously leaking Ministry of Defence papers about the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano during the Falklands War to a Labour MP. He was acquitted by jury, successfully arguing that he had a duty above the law to inform Parliament about an alleged government impropriety.

Ombudsman Officially titled the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. The post was created in 1967, and the incumbent may only investigate allegations of maladministration referred to him by MPs.


P Poll Tax See Community Charge.

PPS Parliamentary Private Secretary, the lowest rung on the Ministerial ladder. An unpaid post on the Government or Opposition Front Bench. Part of the Payroll vote.

Private Member's Bill Legislation introduced by backbenchers. All backbenchers take part in a ballot each year, and 20 are chosen for debate. Very few become law - however, some notable exceptions have abolished capital punishment and legalised homosexuality and abortion.

Privatisation The process of selling state owned industries and services to private individuals or companies. The opposite of nationalisation. Described by the Earl of Stockton (ex-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan) as "selling off the family silver", i.e. disposing of irreplaceable assets.

Proportional representation A title given to a number of methods of electing MPs where there is a close relationship between the number of votes cast for each party and the distribution of seats won. The United Kingdom uses first past the post.

Psephology This excellent word for the study of elections and electoral behaviour derives from the ancient Greek psephos meaning a pebble. Votes were indicated in Athenian democracy by the casting of stones into the appropriate tubs. This probably meant that the results of a debate were less prone to a miscount than the Commons' division lobbies.


Q Queen's Speech A speech at the start of a new parliamentary term, written by the government, setting out their policies and proposed bills for that term. Delivered by the Monarch.

Question Time Held at the beginning of every day's Commons session, Question Time is allotted a maximum of 55 minutes. It is intended to allow members to ask questions of the government and is often used to raise issues specific to their constituencies. Traditionally the backbenchers' hour of glory, it has increasingly been used - some would say misused - by frontbenchers scoring points off each other. Main questions must be tabled in advance, but a member can ask a supplementary question once the minister has answered (or evaded) the main point.


R Referendum A vote in which electors vote on a specific proposition rather than electing MPs. Four referendums have been held in the United Kingdom, on the status of Northern Ireland, on devolution for Scotland and Wales and on the EEC. Only the last of these was held throughout the UK.

Republican Either someone who advocates British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and its unification with the Republic of Ireland, or someone who advocates the abolition of the monarchical system in the United Kingdom and its replacement with a non-executive presidency.

Right Honourable Whereas most MPs are prefixed as Honourable, members of the Privy Council are designated Right Honourable.


S Single European Act This Act signed in 1986 increased the powers of the European Commission and The European Parliament over national parliaments and committed all members to the creation of a single market by 1992.

Socialism That organisation of society best defined as "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs". A policy recently abandoned by the Labour Party.

Socialist Labour Party A party started by Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Miners, as a response to the Labour Party abandoning Clause Four.

Speaker, The A member of the Commons charged with overseeing daily procedure and maintaining order. The Speaker does not vote, and is unopposed in elections by the other major parties. This causes problems with historical election statistics, as some accounts include the Speaker in the governing party's majority (if the Speaker is of that party, as Horace King was for Labour in the 1960s), while others don't. The current Speaker is Betty Boothroyd, MP for West Bromwich West and the first woman to hold the post.

Suez Prime Ministers frequently resign over the course of their government for health reasons - Harold Wilson in 1976 - or because they're ousted by their party - Margaret Thatcher in 1990. The resignation of Tory PM Anthony Eden in 1956 over the ill-judged British seizure of the Suez canal was the last time that a PM has quit over a major policy debacle. The closest we have come in recent decades was the resignation of Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington in 1983 over the Falklands. Resignations are now - some would say, sadly - quite out of fashion.

SuperMac Most improbably portrayed as an exile from the planet Krypton, prime minister Harold Macmillan was frequently called this, particularly by the Daily Express, for his uncompromising stance on defence.


T Tory An Irish bandit. See Conservative.

Thatcherism Now supposedly dead, the Iron Lady's political philosophy was in many ways simply the distillation of many right-wing running themes - the curbing of trade union powers, reduced state spending and intervention, including the privatisation of nationalised industries, and emphasis on law and order… These are common currency on the right wing anywhere in the world.

Treaty of Rome The treaty that set up the EEC in 1956. Original signatories were France, West Germany, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Tribune group A grouping of Labour MPs - the name comes from the associated journal. Tribunites were once regarded as very left-wing and were hate figures to the right. However in recent years, it can be more accurately described as 'cuddly left' at most, including such 'Labour establishment' figures as Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson. See Campaign Group.


U Unionist A confusing term. It always means someone who supports the continuing maintenance, in part or as a whole, of some sort of union with England of Scotland, Wales and/or Northern Ireland. However, the Ulster Unionists(UUP or DUP), the majority party in Northern Ireland, are not the Unionists in the official Tory title - the Conservative and Unionist Party. These Unionists, now effectively absorbed, are Scottish MPs who support Scottish Union with England. Northern Ireland's Unionist parties are independent and though right-wing, have often been known to vote against the Tories, who have taken (with no success) to standing candidates against them.

Universal suffrage One person one vote. That ideal state of democracy only achieved in the UK in 1948, when such anomalies as University constituencies were abolished. 'Universal', of course, does not include peers, 'lunatics' and criminals.


V Vote of Confidence Actually intended to be a vote of No Confidence, a confidence vote is often called for by the opposition when they believe they have a real chance of defeating the government. On losing the vote the governing party is (sort of) obliged to call a general election, although opinions vary as to the constitutional implications if they didn't. In practice, the situation is hardly likely to arise, since a government with a non-existent majority will not do much governing. Confidence votes are accompanied by much horse trading as the major parties woo the minor ones - and the latest, on the 17 February over the 'mad cow' issue, only resulted in a victory for John Major because he was supported by the Ulster Unionists.

Voter Someone who becomes the most important person in the UK once every five years. The rest of the time they are usually just an annoying inconvenience.


W Whip The sinisterly named whips, on both sides of the House, are charged with the maintenance of parliamentary party unity on important votes. This is not an easy job, since both major parties are faction-ridden (an important consequence of our first-past-the-post system). The weapons used by the whips depend on the vulnerability of the MP they are seeking to reason with. Some members enjoy such a high degree of constituency support that they simply cannot be bullied, and whipping becomes merely a matter of gentle persuasion over a good lunch. A number of issues are regarded as matters of conscience, and no whip is applied - an example is capital punishment.

Worcester woman Since 'Essex man' seems to be behaving more and more erratically in elections, commentators have come up with a new key voting stereotype. We are supposed to believe that party manifestos are now being written to appeal to women in West Midlands semi-rural constituencies. This is probably as much use as the US psephologists' idea of the 'soccer mum'.


X X marks the spot It is worth reflecting that it is this simple act of making two pencil strokes on a rather scruffy bit of paper, multiplied by several tens of millions, that we, and a lot of other people are generating all this hoopla over.

Xenophobia Something that foreigners, particularly the French, go in a lot for. Not us though - after all, we're all Europeans now.


Y Young Conservatives A student drinking society (somewhat disapproved of by the landlords).

Young Liberals A student drinking society (benignly tolerated by the landlords).

Young Socialists (Labour Party) A student drinking society (heavily disapproved of by the landlords).

Yuppie The quintessential hate figures of the 1980s, young upwardly mobile professionals were supposedly the backbone of Thatcherism. Always a vague term, it alternatively could be applied to anyone (apart from the person using the term) with a decent job or, more precisely, to a bunch of testosterone-poisoned young men in braces who worked in the City after the Big Bang and shouted a lot. Where are they now we don't need them?


Z Zimbabwe An African ex-colony of Britain whose former name was Rhodesia. British troops helped to keep the peace before the country's elections and full independence in 1980.

Zircon An independent British spy-satellite project aimed at gathering SIGINT (signals intelligence), the cause of a notable debate about the Supremacy of the House of Commons. In 1986, the government had obtained a High Court injunction preventing the BBC from showing a documentary about Zircon, and argued that the injunction also applied to MPs. Tony Benn successfully had the question sent to the Commons Privileges committee for consideration.