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An American's guide to the oddly compelling 2015 United Kingdom elections

Labour leader Ed Miliband, Liberal Democrats' leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and Conservative leader and Prime Minister David Cameron.
Labour leader Ed Miliband, Liberal Democrats' leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and Conservative leader and Prime Minister David Cameron.
WPA Pool/Getty Images

This Thursday, the United Kingdom goes to the polls to elect all 650 members of the House of Commons. At the moment, it's looking like Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party is set to lose seats, but will still have more than any other party. That could leave Cameron with a precarious hold on power — or let Labour Party leader Ed Miliband swoop in and try to form a shaky government of his own.

Either way, it's likely to be an unusual situation for a country that does not have a history of the kind of drawn-out coalition formation negotiations that are common in some parts of Europe.

Who is running?

The UK has a bunch of political parties represented in its parliament. Of them, two are running for a shot to run the country, two are running for a serious chance at influencing the direction of the country, and the rest are really just there to make a point. Here are brief profiles of the four most important parties in the race; further down we'll cover the minor players.

The contenders

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Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader David Cameron. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Conservative Party: The traditional right-wing party in Britain, the Tories have been the dominant force in the Commons since 2010, with Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer (sort of like the treasury secretary in the US, but way more powerful) George Osborne imposing a severe austerity package on the country in the wake of the financial crisis, a policy which many economists believed hampered the recovery.

While the Conservatives fell far behind in polls in the middle of their tenure, the economy has since started growing more quickly, and they've pulled slightly ahead. FiveThirtyEight's model predicts they'll lose 21 seats for a total of 281 — below the 326 needed for a majority, but enough to keep them as the biggest party in the Commons.

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Labour party leader Ed Miliband is skeptical of these flowers. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Labour Party: In power from 1997 to 2010, Labour — the social democratic party of Britain, with a strong base of support in the union movement — surprised many by electing Ed Miliband, who had served in defeated Prime Minister Gordon Brown's cabinet as secretary of state for energy and climate change, as leader, besting Ed's brother David, who was Brown's foreign secretary and the favorite to succeed him. Ed is widely considered to the left of both Brown and Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, condemning Blair's participation in the Iraq War and criticizing Blair's "New Labour" platform as insufficiently tough on big business. (Blair, in turn, has vocally criticized Miliband.) But his platform — which he has dubbed "One Nation Labour" — is also populist in ways that aren't traditionally left-wing. Most notably, Miliband is considerably more skeptical of immigration than Brown or Blair were.

The influencers

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Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Liberal Democrats: Formed out of a merger of the Liberal Party — which, along with the Conservatives, was one of Britain's two major parties until the rise of Labour in the 1920s — and the Social Democratic Party (a short-lived party founded by members of Labour's right wing in the 1980s), the Liberal Democrats are probably best summarized as the UK's center party, but the details are more complicated. They were the only major party to oppose the Iraq War, and are more supportive of civil liberties than Labour or the Tories. In the 2010 election, they even carved out some positions to the left of Labour on social spending, such as a promise to abolish tuition fees for universities (which Blair had introduced in 1998).

But after that election left neither Conservatives nor Labour with a majority, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg opted to enter a coalition with the Conservatives that — while putting Liberals in power for the first time since World War I — made them complicit in the Tories' austerity measures, including tuition fee increases. (Clegg eventually admitted and apologized for breaking promises on that issue.) The result is that many left-leaning Lib Dem supporters have abandoned the party, and FiveThirtyEight's model predicts it'll lose 30 of its 56 seats. Due to the UK's first-past-the-post election system, Lib Dems typically get fewer seats than their share of the national vote would suggest; in 2010, for example, they got 23 percent of the vote (not far behind Labour with 29 percent, or the Conservatives with 36.1 percent) but less than 9 percent of the seats. Part of their coalition deal with the Conservatives included a national referendum on a proportional representation system meant to ameliorate this problem, but Britons voted overwhelmingly against the Lib Dems' proposed reform.

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Scottish First Minister and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Scottish National Party: This is the big regional player to watch. The majority party in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP was dealt a heavy setback this past fall when the referendum on Scottish independence for which it had fought so hard resulted in a victory for unionists. The SNP's two main priorities will be increasing the autonomy of Scotland's regional government and pushing back on austerity. Like all British separatist and irredentist parties, the SNP is strongly social democratic, and has run to Labour's left on spending issues. It's expected to gain massively this election, rocketing from 6 seats to 46, according to FiveThirtyEight's model (out of only 59 total seats in Scotland), overtaking the Lib Dems as the third biggest party in Parliament.

Who's up for election this year, exactly?

The UK has a bicameral parliamentary government, and general elections determine the composition of the lower house, the House of Commons. The upper house, the House of Lords, isn't elected, and is instead composed of a mix of hereditary nobility, barons and baronesses given lifetime appointments, and the clergy. But it's also far less powerful than the elected lower house, the House of Commons, and in most cases can't reject legislation that has passed the Commons. So what matters, for the most part, is who controls the Commons, with the head of the biggest party in the Commons typically becoming prime minister.

How does the election work?

2010 UK election map

Results of the 2010 UK general election. Blue is Conservative, Red is Labour, Orange is Liberal Democrat, Yellow is Scottish National Party, lightest Green is Plaid Cymru, middle Green is Social Democratic and Labour Party, dark Green is Sinn Féin, deep Red is Democratic Unionist Party. (Wereon)

The Commons' 650 seats each correspond to a geographical election district known as a "constituency." There are 533 constituencies in England, 59 in Scotland, 40 in Wales, and 18 in Northern Ireland. The number of people in each varies between the four countries, with median constituency populations of 72,400 in England, 69,000 in Scotland, 66,800 in Northern Ireland, and 56,800 in Wales. The upshot is that the Scots, Northern Irish, and Welsh are slightly overrepresented relative to the English. This is a source of some discontent in England, as is the fact that members of Parliament (MPs) from outside England get to vote on policies that affect the English, but due to the local Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh parliaments, English MPs don't get the same kind of influence in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

You can think of constituencies as somewhat similar to House districts in the US, and the general elections work in much the same way. Each party fields a candidate, the constituency votes, and the candidate with a plurality wins. But there are a few crucial differences. For one thing, primary elections aren't a thing in the UK. Parties pick their candidates using a variety of internal processes that give the leadership and other elites overwhelming power. Partly due to the centralized candidate selection process, the US convention of candidates living in their constituencies is much less strong in the UK. Generally, party leaders run in safe districts to ensure they'll make it into Parliament, regardless of where they're actually from.

How often do elections take place?

Every five years, as of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Before the act, parliaments lasted for a maximum of five years, but the prime minister had wide latitude in calling early elections if he or she so desired. There were also a number of other ways an early election could be triggered, such as by Parliament failing to pass a spending bill (an event known as "loss of supply"). Now only three things can spur an election: reaching the five-year mark (as happened this time around), a two-thirds vote of the Commons calling for a new election, or a majority vote of the Commons saying that "this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government." The result is that the prime minister has much less power to control the timing of elections.

What are the minor parties running?

The race also features a clutch of small parties, catering either to narrow ideological constituencies or to regional interests that are simply too small to really change the balance of power.

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Northern Ireland First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson. (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Democratic Unionist Party: The DUP is the dominant Protestant unionist (that is, in favor of staying in the UK) party in Northern Ireland. It was the only major Northern Irish party to oppose the Good Friday Accords of 1998, due to its provisions allowing the early release of IRA terrorists and because it let the Provisional IRA's political arm, Sinn Féin, participate in the Northern Irish Parliament. However, since the deal, the DUP has become the largest party in the local parliament and currently governs alongside Sinn Féin in a power-sharing arrangement. The party has traditionally been very socially conservative. It was founded by the far-right minister Ian Paisley, who once ran a campaign called "Save Ulster From Sodomy" to fight the decriminalization of homosexuality. (Paisley was also heavily involved in Protestant paramilitary operations during the Troubles.) FiveThirtyEight's model projects it to stay at eight seats in the new parliament.

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Sinn Féin president and Irish parliament member Gerry Adams. (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Sinn Féin: Formerly the political wing of the Provisional IRA, Sinn Féin has attempted, since the peace of 1998, to transition into being a respectable social democratic nationalist party akin to the SNP, competing in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, because it doesn't recognize the legitimacy of the British government over Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin practices a policy of abstention in the House of Commons: while it runs in elections, its members don't take their seats or participate in parliamentary business in any way. FiveThirtyEight's model projects it'll stay at five seats.

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Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood. (Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Plaid Cymru: Like the SNP, but for Wales. Plaid Cymru favors Welsh independence, bilingualism through greater use of the Welsh language, and social democracy. It's considerably less successful than its Scottish counterpart, and is only the third largest party in the Welsh Assembly. FiveThirtyEight's model projects that it will gain one seat for a total of four, out of 40 Welsh seats total.

Alasdair McDonnell

Social Democratic and Labour Party leader Alasdair McDonnell. (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Social Democratic and Labour Party: This is the more moderate Catholic Irish nationalist party, relative to Sinn Féin. During the Troubles it was the dominant nationalist party, and consistently rejected violence, in stark contrast to the Sinn Féin/IRA strategy. It was hugely influential in the 1998 peace accords, with leader John Hume winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the negotiations, but has since lost ground after Sinn Féin rejected violence. Like other nationalist parties, it's social democratic, but unlike the SNP or Plaid Cymru it maintains close ties to the Labour Party, which doesn't contest elections in Northern Ireland. FiveThirtyEight's model projects it will stay at three seats.

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Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt. (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Ulster Unionist Party: This is the more moderate alternative to the DUP. While still strongly in favor of union with Britain, and right-leaning on other issues, it stands apart from the DUP for its much greater enthusiasm for the peace process. Its former leader, David Trimble, shared the Nobel with the SDLP's John Hume for his role in the Good Friday Accords. The UUP has historically been the largest unionist party, but just as the SDLP lost ground to Sinn Féin after Good Friday, the UUP has lost ground to the DUP. FiveThirtyEight's model projects it will get one seat.

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Green Party leader Natalie Bennett. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Green Party: The British arm of the Green movement, the Green Party of England and Wales stands apart not just for its environmental views but for its left-wing platform on economic, defense, and social issues. The party calls for a basic income, a wealth tax, withdrawal from NATO, unilateral nuclear disarmament, decriminalization of drugs and prostitution, abolition of the monarchy, looser immigration controls, and an end to "reliance on economic growth." FiveThirtyEight's model projects it will stay at one seat.

nigel farage

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

United Kingdom Independence Party: A conservative party devoted to withdrawal from the European Union and harsh controls on immigration, the UKIP is currently the most-represented party from Britain in the European Parliament, with 23 seats out of 73. But it's struggled to gain a foothold in the Commons. Its leader, Nigel Farage, has a long history of racist and/or xenophobic provocations, like defending UKIP politicians who call Chinese women "chinky" and calling for a ban on HIV-positive people entering the UK. FiveThirtyEight's model predicts UKIP will lose one of its two seats in the Commons this election.

george galloway

Respect Party leader George Galloway. (Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

Respect Party: A socialist party, Respect is usually equated with its leader, George Galloway, who's been a hugely controversial figure in British politics for decades for his strident opposition to Israel and support for Saddam Hussein, to whom he once said, "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability." Galloway was a Labour MP for decades before being expelled in the aftermath of the Iraq War for calling on British soldiers to "refuse to obey illegal orders." He then was elected as the sole Respect MP in 2005 from a heavily Muslim district in London; his Labour opponent, Oona King, accused Galloway and Respect of using anti-Semitic attacks on her Jewish heritage to win.

Galloway lost in 2010, and then won a special election ("by-election," in British parlance) in 2012 to a seat representing part of the city of Bradford in northern England. He's since continued to court controversy by saying that if Wikileaks founder Julian Assange had sex with women in their sleep, that isn't really rape ("not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion"), and for abruptly walking out of a debate at Oxford simply because his opponent was Israeli. He's running for reelection to his current seat in a characteristically ugly race that has seen him accuse his Labour opponent Naz Shah of lying about her forced marriage in Pakistan; Shah has accused him of sending someone to impersonate her dead father to dig up marriage records.

Okay, but who's going to be in charge at the end?

Hard to say! What's nearly certain is that the election will result in a hung parliament, or one in which no party has a majority. At that point there are two options. There could be another coalition government, where two or more parties constituting a majority agree to a joint platform and share power.

But that appears unlikely. Taking Sinn Féin's abstentions into account, 323 seats are needed for a majority. While Conservatives and Lib Dems were able to piece together a coalition last time around, FiveThirtyEight's model projects they'll only have a total of 307 seats. Even with the 10 expected MPs from the DUP, UKIP, and UUP added in (which would be a tough coalition to manage, especially with the Lib Dems still there), they come up short.

Labour also has a tough task ahead, though perhaps not quite as tough. If you add up their expected seats with those of SNP, Plaid Cymru, SDLP, and the Greens, you get 326 seats. Huzzah! But there's a big problem here. With the exception of the Greens, those are all parties that are dedicated to the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Naturally, Labour doesn't like the idea of governing in coalition with them. Miliband has explicitly ruled out any sort of deal with the SNP, saying, "If the price of having a Labour government is a deal or coalition with the SNP, it’s not going to happen." He's said the same goes for Plaid Cymru.

Leaders Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru and Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP have said that Labour has to deal with them, sooner or later. Wood stated that Plaid would be open to working with Labour, provided their budget avoids cuts that hurt the poor. "We've offered out our hand to Ed Miliband in order to set up that alternative government and he's arrogantly pushed that hand away," Wood told the BBC. Sturgeon similarly expects concessions on spending, saying, "I’m just facing up to reality. A minority government can’t govern without support from other parties. Either Ed Miliband will accept that, or he won’t." SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell has taken a less confrontational stance, saying he'll support a Miliband government, but that "along with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, [we] will ensure that the next Labour government remains true to its values."

Okay, but Miliband says he won't make a deal. What then?

The other option is a minority government, in which either Cameron or Miliband is prime minister and passes legislation by appealing to other parties on a case-by-case basis. This could also include formal deals short of a full coalition, such as a "confidence and supply agreement," in which parties agree to support the government's budget and to not vote for "no-confidence" motions that would topple the government. But Miliband has suggested even that much would be a deal too far for Labour.

That leaves a "vote-by-vote" situation, in which the government, led by either Cameron or Miliband, is constantly scrounging for support from other parties. Historically, this kind of situation hasn't lasted for long. The Conservative Party lost its majority in December 1996 and called elections mere months later. Similarly, a deal between the ruling Labour Party and Liberals collapsed in September 1978, and the Labour government was toppled by a no-confidence vote the following May. A Labour minority government elected in February 1974 was so unstable that elections were called again that October.

But it's harder to call early elections because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Basically, either two-thirds of the House of Commons would have to vote for a new election, or a majority would have to vote no confidence in the government. The latter is certainly possible if the parties in opposition think they'd do better in a rematch. But it's likely they'll enjoy their influence in the opposition, and the minority government is the one that'll grow frustrated with their lack of power. Theoretically the government could team up with some of the opposition to vote no confidence in itself, but that'd look pretty bad.

Let's say both the Conservatives and Labour want a minority government. Who gets it?

Again, hard to say. David Cameron stays in power until he's able to recommend a successor to the Queen (or until he resigns). His first big test will be the "Queen's Speech," scheduled for May 27. This is an event held annually in which the Queen addresses Parliament and lays out the government's proposed agenda. There is then a debate over that agenda and a vote. It used to be that a failure to win a Queen's Speech vote meant a government fell. That's no longer the case, but there would be considerable pressure on a prime minister who lost a Queen's Speech vote to resign. "The Fixed-term Parliaments Act says defeat on this motion does not necessarily qualify as a no-confidence motion, but the weight of political history means that defeat will lead directly to resignation," the Guardian's Alan Travis explains.

If Cameron loses the vote, then Labour would almost certainly call a no-confidence vote and, upon winning, have 14 days to win a confidence vote on its own. If the Conservatives' vote fails, and Labour's fails two weeks later, then new, early elections are called.

That's the formal process. But in practice there's going to be tons of negotiating among all of the parties, and the main action won't be happening in formal venues. It's even possible that the Queen's Speech will be delayed if the Crown wants to give the parties more time to work things out. The situation at the moment, with an election all but guaranteeing a tenuous minority government, is truly unprecedented. As the Independent's Matt Dathan notes, the only previous time Elizabeth II has skipped a Queen's Speech was in 1963, when she was pregnant with Prince Edward.

I'm still confused. Can I read more?

Definitely. Travis, Dathan, and the BBC all have great explainers on the government formation process. The BBC also has a good rundown of what the various parties have said about possible deals. Don't expect them to keep all their pledges, but the list is a good guide to their negotiating postures after the elections.

I can't recommend FiveThirtyEight's projections highly enough; they're the most rigorous I've seen on the race. Credit goes to Chris Hanretty, Ben Lauderdale and Nick Vivyan of electionforecast.co.uk, who designed the model. For more basic information on the British system of government, try this piece I wrote for the Washington Post before the 2010 election.

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