Confused by election jargon? The common words and phrases explained

Certain phrases such as the 'triple lock plus' have also become defining issues of the election, with the terms bandied about by politicians on both sides.

TOWCESTER, ENGLAND - JUNE 11: Prime minister Rishi Sunak speaks at the Conservative Party's general election manifesto launch at Silverstone Circuit on June 11, 2024 in Towcester, United Kingdom. Financial security for working people topped the Conservatives' list of pledges, which also includes tax cuts, measures to curb migration and boost the economy. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak unveils his manifesto - but do you know what a 'manifesto' is? (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

From 'purdah' to 'first past the post', every election in the UK is surrounded by specialist jargon that can leave some voters struggling to fully understand the conversation around them.

In the 2024 election, certain phrases – such as the 'triple lock plus' – have also become defining issues, with the terms bandied about by politicians on both sides.

Below, we've defined some of the most widely used and confusing terms around British elections (and the 2024 election in particular).

If people can’t get to a polling station on election day, they can apply for an absent vote.

There are two kinds: a postal vote, where a ballot is mailed in, and a proxy vote, where someone else votes for you.

At the 2019 general election, 17.2% of voters across the UK used a postal ballot and 0.6% appointed a proxy.

The box where people put their voting slips. The term is also sometimes used to refer to the election itself, as in ‘they could not win at the ballot box’.

The time before an election in which politicians persuade people to vote for them. In the case of the 2024 election in the UK, parliament was dissolved on the 30 May and the election will take place on 4 July.

Going round a particular area trying to persuade people to vote for one party or the other.

In UK elections, this is often done by volunteers knocking on people’s doors.

Capital gains tax is a tax on profit when people sell assets that have increased in value.

In the 2024 election, the Conservatives have promised that landlords who sell to sitting tenants will be spared capital gains tax on the proceeds, while Labour has left the door open to raising capital gains.

Child benefit is a benefit paid to parents with children under 16 (or under 20 in approved education or training).

The Conservatives have promised to increase the threshold at which high earners start to lose the benefit from £60,000 to £120,000.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (left) during a visit to Grimsby Institute, a technical training college in Grimsby, to set out Labour's plans to bring down costs for drivers and neglect of local roads, while on the General Election campaign trail. Picture date: Wednesday June 12, 2024. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)
Sir Keir Starmer, like the Conservatives, has pledged not to raise VAT. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)

A coalition government is a government formed jointly by more than one political party (for example, by the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in 2010).

The geographical area that is represented by each MP in the House of Commons.

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is an international convention which protects human rights in Europe.

The Conservative manifesto stopped short of promising to withdraw from the ECHR, which would have made plans such as the plan to deport migrants to Rwanda easier.

A poll conducted outside polling stations just after people have voted on election day.

On election day, the results of Britain’s exit poll are published just after polls close at 10pm and tend to give a more accurate prediction of the result than previous polls produced throughout the campaign.

First past the post

The first past the post system is used to elect MPs to the House of Commons.

The candidate with the most votes in each constituency becomes MP, and the party with the most MPs becomes the government.

This can mean that the winning party actually has a minority of votes cast: in 2019, the Conservatives had 43.6% of the vote.

A hung parliament is where no party has enough seats to form an overall majority. For example, both the 2010 election and 2017 elections resulted in hung parliament.

In 2010, the Conservatives formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, while in 2017, the Conservatives formed a minority government with a 'confidence and supply' agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

The thresholds between the tax-free allowance, basic rate tax and higher rates of tax.

Both parties have said they will continue the freeze on income tax thresholds brought in under the Conservatives, which means people pay more tax as more and more people are pushed into higher tax brackets if wages rise.

A party with a majority – more than half of the seats in the House of Commons – has won the election.

The number of votes by which an individual MP wins a constituency is also referred to as their majority.

Political parties publish manifestos before a general election, with a set of policies that the party stands for and aims to implement if elected.

Manifesto pledges are not legally binding.

A seat in which the incumbent MP won by a small majority, meaning a swing is more likely than in a so-called ‘safe seat’ where the MP had a large majority.

The UK Government has set a goal for Britain’s emissions to reach net zero – where emission and removal of greenhouse gases reaches equilibrium – by 2050.

All major parties are expected to stick to this goal, barring Reform UK.

An opinion poll is a research survey (usually carried out on a representative sample of the electorate) to gauge likely results in an election.

‘The polls’ refers to the places where people vote in an election: exit polls and opinion polls refer to two kinds of survey used to predict election results.

An absentee vote where the vote is sent in by post.

At the 2019 general election, 17.2% of voters across the UK used a postal ballot.

A vote where a person who can’t make it to the booth appoints someone to vote for them.

In the 2019 election, 0.6% of voters appointed a proxy.

Psephology is the scientific study of elections and voting and is used to predict and analyse election results.

The day when the country places their vote: in the UK 2024 election, this is July 4.

Before British elections, the country enters purdah, officially known as the ‘pre-election period of sensitivity’.

Purdah means that politicians (both local and national) and other people such as civil servants face restrictions on what they can do and announce.

Ministers who remain in office can’t announce new funding, or new policies, or anything which might sway voters or make the government more popular.

The idea is that public money cannot be spent on the election.

A ballot paper which has been marked wrongly (for instance with a vote for more than one candidate) will not be counted.

Sometimes people spoil ballots deliberately as a protest vote to show dissatisfaction

‘Swing’ is the change in voter support for a political party between one election and the next.

It is used to analyse the performance of parties in different areas.

The tax burden refers to the total amount of taxes paid by a group (in this case the UK as a whole) as a proportion of total income.

The tax burden is currently at its highest in 70 years according to the OECD.

The 2010 Equality Act protects people against discrimination in Britain.

The Conservatives want to ‘tweak’ the Act so that sex-based protections only apply on the basis of someone’s biological sex.

The triple lock is a guarantee introduced to the state pension in 2010 so it would not lose value in real terms.

The guarantee means that the state pension will rise by the highest out of average earnings, inflation as measured by the consumer price index (CPI) or 2.5%.

The ‘triple lock plus’ is a Conservative policy, which would see the tax-free pension allowance rise every year in line with the triple lock of average wages, inflation, or 2.5% – whichever is highest, to prevent pensioners being pulled into paying income tax.

Turnout refers to the percentage of people eligible to vote who turn out to vote on election day.

In the 2019 election, for example, 67.3% of those eligible turned out to vote.

Value added tax is added to goods and services sold by VAT-registered companies, and is the third-largest source of government income after income tax and national insurance.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have pledged not to raise VAT.