The General Election in Britain; A Guide for Teachers Of English

Written by: Larry Walder



Time to read 11 min

The July Election

On 22 May 2024 the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announced there would be a General Election on 4 July. 

A Guide for TEFL/ESOL Teachers

In this article, we look at ways the upcoming election could be used to engage learners of English. While there is obviously a political angle to this theme, our main focus is on how the election illustrates aspects of British life and culture. We will begin with some background information about British politics and democracy in general, highlighting things that might be different to what our students are familiar with. We then go on to give some factual background information about the 2024 General Election and the main parties involved. You could select all or parts of this text to be used as inputs for your students. Finally, we will suggest a few teaching ideas you may be able to adapt and use with your own students. Most of these activities could be applicable to other political elections around the world. Given the nature of these contents, we suggest they are best used with older students at B1 level or above.

A Very Brief History Of The British Parliamentary System

The British Parliamentary system has evolved over centuries, originating in the early medieval period. It began with the Witenagemot, an assembly of nobles who advised Anglo-Saxon kings. After the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066, the system was gradually formalised. In 1215, the Magna Carta limited royal power and laid the foundations for parliamentary principles in government.

The 13th century saw the establishment of the ‘Model Parliament’ under Edward I, which included commoners (ordinary people) alongside aristocrats and the clergy (church leaders). The 17th century brought significant conflict between the monarchy and Parliament, culminating in the English Civil War and the temporary establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 resulted in the Bill of Rights in 1689, solidifying Parliament’s power over the monarchy. By this time ‘The Houses Of Parliament’ consisted of two parts. The House Of Lords was made up of ‘Peers’ (aristocrats originally appointed by the Monarch), and The House Of Commons was made up of elected members. 

The 19th and 20th centuries introduced major changes. The Reform Acts expanded the electorate (the people who were allowed to vote). For example, The Reform Act of 1918 gave women the right to vote. Meanwhile, the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 reduced the power of the House of Lords, affirming the supremacy of the elected House of Commons.


Today, the UK Parliament consists of the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. The Sovereign (King Charles) only has limited ceremonial power. Laws and policies are made in The House Of Commons but have to be approved and can be amended by The House Of Lords. This system aims to balance tradition with modern democratic government.

How does British Democracy Work?

Anybody aged 18 or over can vote in a local or national election or referendum. A referendum is where the government asks a question about a specific policy and people can vote on the answer. For example, in 2016 there was a referendum to find out if the British people wanted to stay in the European Union. The result was that 52% of those who voted, wanted to leave.

Approximately every five years there is a General Election in which people can vote for the next government. The Prime Minister of the day can choose the date of the election as long as it is not more than five years since the last election. This May, Rishi Sunak decided to call an election in July. He could have waited until later in the year if he had wanted to.

First Past The Post - The British Electoral System

The British 'first past the post' (FPTP) electoral system is used to elect Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons. The party with the most MPs form the government and makes the laws of the country. The United Kingdom is divided into 650 areas called constituencies. In each constituency, different political parties put forward one candidate each. (It is also possible for Independent Candidates who are not aligned to any party to put themselves forward for the election). Voters in each constituency cast their vote for one candidate only. The candidate who gets the most votes in a constituency wins and becomes the MP for that area. It doesn't matter how small the winning margin is.

The advantages of this system are that it's easy to understand and use, and usually produces a clear winner, which can lead to stable governments. It also means that each constituency has its own MP who is directly accountable to local voters.

However, there are also some disadvantages to this system. The number of seats won by each party doesn't always reflect the total number of votes they received across the country. Votes for losing candidates in each constituency do not count in any way towards the final result, which can make people feel their vote is wasted. Moreover, it is possible that a political party can win the majority of seats without winning a majority of the national vote, leading to questions about the fairness of the system.

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom but for historical and political reasons they use a different voting system called STV (Single Transferable Vote) in that part of the country. STV is a more proportional system.

The Political Parties Of Great Britain

The two largest and most powerful parties in Britain are the Conservative Party and The Labour Party. It is nearly always one of these two parties that form the government. 

The Conservative Party is seen as a right of centre party whose guiding principles include the promotion of private enterprise, private property and the preservation of traditional cultural values. Historically it has been popular with the higher social classes and richer elements of society. In the past decade, it has also attracted members and voters with more nationalistic, libertarian and populist beliefs. 

The Labour Party is a left of centre party with social democratic principles. It grew out of smaller socialist parties and the Trade Union movement in the late nineteenth century. Historically The Labour Party has been seen as representing the interests of ordinary working people. In government, the Labour Party has a reputation for greater intervention in the economy, in order to redistribute wealth more fairly.

The Liberal Democrats are the third largest national party. They are a centrist party that emphasises civil liberties and the decentralisation of power. Historically they have campaigned to replace FPTP with a fairer system of voting. The environment focused Green Party only has one MP but is gaining support across the country in local elections. There are nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland. The left wing, Scottish Nationalist Party has been very successful during the past decade. Finally, there is the right wing ‘Reform’ party which replaced The Brexit Party and U.K. Independence Party. Their focus is on reducing immigration to the U.K.

In Northern Ireland, there are different parties such as the Catholic, left-wing, ‘Sinn Fein’ and the protestant and right-wing ‘DUP’. The winning parties in Northern Ireland can also send their MPs to the House Of Commons in Westminster. Sinn Fein chose not to. 

Fun Historical Facts

The Prime Minister lives at 10 Downing Street. The first person who was effectively Prime Minister to live there was Robert Walpole between 1721 and 1742. However, at that time the famous black front door was known as number 5 Downing Street. The Post Office has rearranged the street numbers since Walpole’s time.

Robert Walpole himself may only have assumed the position of Prime Minister because the King of that time (George I) was German and didn’t speak English well enough to realise how much power Robert was acquiring for himself.

Prime Minister used to be a term of abuse meaning somebody who is too full of themself, or who has ideas above their status in life.

Teaching Ideas

We will begin by suggesting some ideas and activities based on using all or part of the preceding text as an input. We will then go on to suggest other learning activities linked to the British election and other democratic elections around the world. 

Vocabulary And Comprehension

Using whichever parts of the text you think would be interesting or appropriate for your students, you could devise your own vocabulary and comprehension questions. Copies of the text could be given out individually or to pairs or groups along with your list of questions. If you organise this as a group activity, you could style it as a race with a prize for the first group to answer all the answers correctly.

Alternatively, you could give different parts of the text to groups of students who then must compose their own questions to quiz their classmates with, either verbally or as a written exercise.

Rather than handing out the text to students you could read out or dictate sections for students to copy or make notes on before moving on to the comprehension questions, thereby incorporating a listening element to the activity.

Summary Writing

In view of the fact that summary writing is often a feature of internal and external English examinations, you could ask groups of students to write and present summaries of the text. Either all groups could do a global summary of the text to see which group is best in terms of English usage and coverage of the key points, or each group could focus on a particular aspect of British elections.

Compare and Contrast

Ask students to write an essay comparing the British Parliamentary system with their country’s system, focusing on differences and similarities in their electoral processes.

Poster Creation

For students who don’t want to do too much writing or speaking, get them to design posters that explain the FPTP electoral system, highlighting its advantages and disadvantages. They should, however, be able to explain their pictures and designs orally.

Beyond The Text

We will finish this article with some general activities related to the British General Election. The themes and activities included here are designed to give learners of English an insight into the cultural life and background of British people. However, all these English learning activities can easily be adapted to relate to other elections around the world. For example, later in 2024, there will be an important election in The USA.

The Media

British television channels are now providing extensive coverage of the election. YouTube and British social media sites will also be full of election news and propaganda. While the election campaigns continue you could ask your students to give you daily and weekly updates about what they have seen or heard concerning the election. Tell them to spend at least a few minutes of their time on their favourite social media sites looking for #British Election. This should generate interest and provide discussion materials for the beginning or end of other lessons.

Ask your students to think about the difference between news and propaganda. Can they spot fake news?

Perhaps you could get them to create posters, advertisements, and memes for and against the British political parties or particular issues that come up during the election campaigns.

Personality Profiles

Depending on the interests, abilities and skill sets of your students, you could get them to research, write up and present personality profiles of the key players in the election. The leaders of the main political parties, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are obvious choices. They could also research the leaders of other political parties. Aside from party leaders, there are other people who may be significant in the election. For example, what influence, if any, does King Charles have? Why does Nigel Farage generate such a lot of media attention? Boris Johnson was very popular and powerful a few years ago; is that still the case? Why?

Discussions and Debates

The British General Election offers plenty of scope for discussion and debate. This might be an opportunity to try out different forms of formal debate, perhaps starting with a British Parliamentary style debate. If your students could vote in the British election who would they vote for and why? Which party has the best plans for the economy, health service or education? Should Britain stick with the ‘First Past The Post’ system of voting or try something else? How democratic is Britain? What does democracy actually mean in the modern world?

In the course of class discussions and debates, you could ask your students to predict which party will win the election and by how much. As well as prompting your students to probe deeper into the election, it will also help them to practice predictive language in English. Perhaps you could organise an event on 5 July to see who really won the election, and who predicted the result correctly.

Political Party Campaigns and Presentations

Your students could create a mock campaign for one of the British political parties, outlining its main policies and why people should vote for them. They should identify their likely voters and explain how they would win their votes. Compare this with what the parties are actually doing.

Alternatively, get your students to create their own political parties and decide on their key policies. This doesn’t have to be too serious; novelty parties, such as ‘The Monster Raving Loony Party’ are a common feature of British elections. Your students might find the following article interesting; while it was published in 2019, most of the parties mentioned still exist. Elmo, A Count and Lord Buckethead: The peculiar history of novelty UK election candidates.

Role Play and Drama

The General Election is a springboard for many forms of extended dialogues, role-play and drama activities. You could, for example, organise a ‘hustings’ meeting in which members of the public with specific professions and views pose questions to political candidates from the main parties. Roles could include older people worried about their pensions, younger people worried about university fees, business people worried about expenses and taxes, and others who are concerned about immigration or medical facilities in the area. The amount of scaffolding you supply about the roles will depend on the ability range within the class and the degree to which you feel they are able to improvise confidently.

Alternatively, you could get your students to write and perform small dramas about political discussions within families or simply going through the process of voting.

Communication And Culture

Many teachers of English may be understandably reluctant to bring too much politics into the classroom. However, when referring to the British General Election or the processes of democracy around the world, the key is communication. The period leading up to an election is all about people speaking to each other, orally or in writing, and trying to make convincing arguments. It would be a shame to ignore all the possibilities this offers to practice using English in action. Moreover, elections offer valuable insight into the culture and lifestyle of the people who are being asked to vote.