Polling day? Then it must be Thursday. Discuss

28th February 1997 at 00:00
As election fever is set to sweep the country, Janette Wolf welcomes a timely guide to the outreaches of our political system

There are few things to get the cross-curricular juices flowing quite like a general election. Make your own swingometer for design and technology; or analyse political morality - such as it is - for personal and social education perhaps. Advertising campaigns are particularly fecund territory for media studies, as is, of course, the role of the press. The Sun's election-day front-page headline in 1992 read: "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain, please turn out the lights?" What effect did that have, I wonder, on all those whose pencils were hovering uncertainly over their ballot papers later that day?

Parliament formally goes into recess on April 26 and, at the time of going to press, the smart money is on the country going to the polls on May 1, although as Harold Wilson famously said, a week is a long time in politics, and anything could happen between now and then.

It is a safe bet that a farrago of political propaganda, reportage, jargon, lies (possibly) and statistics (certainly) is set to engulf us from all sides of the political spectrum. It is just as well that there is one organisation that exists to make sense of the frequently nonsensical and to illuminate the murky reaches of our political demesne.

The Parliamentary Education Unit was set up in 1980 to provide a service covering both Houses of Parliament. Its visit to this year's Education Show is timely because in launching its latest pack for schools, Guide to the General Election, it is doing us all something of a favour.

Unlike most democracies, Great Britain has no written constitution. What we do have is an arcane mish-mash of custom and practice that has evolved over the past millennium and which often defies comprehension. For example, there is no requirement that polling must be held on a Thursday but it usually is. The only exception was 1931, when voting took place rather daringly on Tuesday October 27. Go figure.

Some historical anomalies are retrospectively settled: in 1963 the Peerage Act enabled anyone disqualified from sitting in the House of Commons by virtue of a hereditary peerage to renounce their birthright. Whereupon the then Viscount Stansgate was able to take up his seat as Anthony Wedgewood-Benn MP for Bristol South East (his name was later modified by usage to Tony Benn).

The Education Unit's new guide is heroically apolitical. It resembles an exam paper in appearance, but it can afford to be understated. It explains in detail the most fundamental event of a democracy and, at a time when the political pundits can seem to be a little parsimonious with the actualite, it makes a refreshing change.

Who can stand for election? Who can't? Who can vote? What happens on polling day? In giving a concise description of what a general election actually is, the guide also provides a snapshot of the political history of Great Britain. Back in the bad old days before the Reform Act of 1832, fewer than 5 adults out of every 100 could vote. Just over 100 years ago, this had risen to 24 out of every 100. In 1918, women were given the vote for the first time - the only conditions were that to vote a woman had to be over 30 years of age and either her, or her husband was qualified to vote in a local council election, which took the figure to 75 out of every 100. It was not until 1928 and uniform voting rights for both men and women over the age of 21 that the proportion of adults eligible to vote reached 99 out of 100.

The electoral timetable, the constituencies, what happens on an election campaign (as if we didn't already know the answer to that one) are clearly and simply related. Many of the figures given refer to the results of the last election, which will provide excellent data for anyone on make-a-swingometer duty, especially when used in conjunction with the unit's wallcharts Fighting an Election and Parliament and Government. The latter gives a map of the British Isles colour-coded by political party, which could come in handy for those undertaking pre-election studies, although neither offer much help in the way of swingometer construction.

However, dry the explanations, nothing can quite mask the volatility and incipient excitement of what will unfold over the next few weeks. In 1992 (the year of the last election) the Conservatives spent Pounds 11.2 million on trying to persuade everyone to vote for them, the Labour party Pounds 10. 6 million. The Liberal Democrats had far less of a chance to blow their trumpets on a budget of Pounds 1.8 million. But, as the guide says, "evidence suggests that the majority of voters have decided how they are going to vote before the election campaign begins". So why do the parties bother, either to campaign at all or to spend a fortune on an advert that ends up having completely the opposite result to the one intended? Because a knife-edge result may depend on the one waverer who was swayed by something he or she read or saw in the preceeding weeks.

The guide also addresses some of the inadequacies of the present system, asking, for example, why Britain does not use a proportional representation voting system as advocate by the Liberal Democrats, who would be the chief beneficiaries. It doesn't provide an answer but maybe this is one way of stimulating the first of many forthcoming political debates in the classroom.

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