UK General Election 2010: a primer for Americans

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Curious about the UK’s general election but not entirely sure what’s going on? Want to watch the coverage on C-SPAN but worried you’ll get bamboozled as they cut straight to the BBC’s feed without supplying any context? Well, worry no more. Here’s a noncomprehensive and hastily written guide to Thursday’s election that will allow you to impress  friends and colleagues –  provided they only have very limited knowledge of British politics.    


The UK will be voting for who gets to sit in the House of Commons which is the lower chamber of the Houses of Parliament. If it makes it easier, think of it as being like the House of Representatives though that’s by no means a perfect analogy. The UK’s electoral map is divided into 650 constituencies and each constituency returns one Member of Parliament (MP). So that’s 650 MPs of various different parties being elected to parliament. The magic number for the parties is 326* as whoever has that amount of MPs or above will be able to form a majority government. If no one manages to get 326 MPs then things might get rather interesting.   

The Times has a very handy gizmo-y map showing the odds in each constituency.   

The last four weeks (yeah, you heard me right America. Four weeks, not two sodding years) all the parties have been electioneering around the country. Usually, this involves hiring a big bus that you paint in your party’s colours, christen it the “battle bus” and then pack it full with politicians and journalists before travelling up and down the motorway to places like Ipswich and Dagenham. However, this year we decided to mix it up and have televised leaders debates in the same way you have Presidential debates to help us figure out who should be PM; previously we used to decide this by letting the leaders of the main parties try to ram each others battle buses off the road, last battle bus and leader standing being the winner of the election.     



Current governing party who have been in power for the last 13 years with first Tony Blair as Prime Minister (PM) and more lately Gordon Brown.   

A self-described “democratic socialist party” though social democrat better describes the reality. They’re on the centre-left of British politics, which means in US terms they’d be seen by Fox News as worse than Hugo Chavez and denounced by some zealots as a sure sign that the rapture is on its way. Not that this stopped the owner of Fox News from endorsing the Labour party in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections. Murdoch cynically only concerned with his own interests? You don’t say.     

With the financial crisis, two unpopular wars and the electorate just a little bored by them after being in government so long they’re widely expected to lose power.   

Not helped by the public image of their leader Gordon Brown. Seen by many as being a serious, dour Scotsman with an anger management problem, attempts at making him more media friendly have been pretty disastrous. Only recently have they struck upon the notion that being serious rather than telegenic might not be an altogether bad thing in a politician in these serious times. Unfortunately they only decided this after two years of making him smile awkwardly whenever he was put in front of a camera as shown in the video below. I mean, look at that…there’s clearly someone off camera prodding Brown with a stick every 20 seconds when he stops smiling and goes back to his normal bulldog chewing on a wasp appearance.     

Brown is also responsible  for one of the most memorable or cringe-worthy moments of this campaign – bigot-gate.   

Though in fairness, Labour has previous form in having something of a heavy handed approach with the public while campaigning.   

Their candidates will be the one with nifty red rosettes.      

Labour: Odds on winning most seats 7/1. Odds on winning majority 25/1   


The main opposition party and as the party responsible for 11 years of Thatcher it’ll come as no surprise that they’re on the right of UK politics. Unlike in the US where politicians on the right seem to be constantly invoking Regan’s name in an effort to get themselves elected, in the UK any mention of Thatcher is a sure way of damping any enthusiasm undecided voters may have for you.   

After going through a number of ineffective party leaders during Blair’s premiership, they decided to fight fire with fire and go with their own Blair-esque clone – David Cameron. Cameron was specially bred in a lab for the task of running the Conservative party. Seen as out of touch with the ordinary person on account of his privileged Eton (the UK’s top private school) education and his blue-blood connections  (he’s  a direct descendant of William IV) this makes him an easy figure for class-obssessed Britain to mock. Despite all this, the odds are in his favour that following the election it he’ll be he who is invited by the Queen, his distant relative, to form a new government.   

Some see Cameron as a social conservative who is making strides to bring his party towards the political centre while others see this his claim of compassionate conservatism as being disingenuous in the extreme.   

My absolute favourite description of Cameron is from the satirist Charlie Brooker in this article:   

“Cameron is 100% something. He isn’t even a man; more a texture-mapped character model. There’s a different kind of software at work here, some advanced alien technology projecting a passable simulation of affability; a straight-to-DVD retread of the Blair ascendancy re-enacted by androids.”   

David Cameron

However, British tabloid The Sun makes a compelling case on why people should vote Conservative. It’s not concerning the economy or our troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, rather it’s only by voting for Cameron that we can ensure that that great British institution, the page 3 girl, continues its proud tradition. The Sun warns us that both Harriet Harman of Labour and Lynne Featherstone of the Lib-Dems want to change the law and ban page 3 girls. Only the Tories will be able to protect us from a Nanny state intent on taking away all those boobie pictures. Poppy, a page 3 “stunna” argues that such a ban would be against the Lockean principles that underpin our constitutional settlement…erm, at least, I think that’s the point she’s trying to get across.   

The basis of Lockean thought is his theory of the Contract of Government, under which all political power is a trust for the benefit of the people. His thinking underpins our ideas of national identity and society. Please don’t let those who seek to ban our beauty win. Vote to save Page 3!”  Poppy, 19, 32D

Where a Conservative victory would leave a far greater British institution, the BBC, is another question altogether. They are fears that they’ll be extensive cuts to the corporation should the Conservatives win.    

The Conservatives will be the ones in blue rosettes. Often referred to as the Tories.   

Conservatives: Odds on winning most seats 1/16. Odds on winning majority 5/4   


For so long the after-thought of UK politics, the sudden upswing of popularity in its leader Nick Clegg following his strong showings in the televised leadership debates should lead to the Liberal Democrats (Lib-Dems) making their best showing in a general election. For a while, everything went a little silly with Cleggmania with some making comparisons to Obama. That seems to have thankfully calmed down when the lunacy of such a comparison was pointed out.   

Nick Clegg

You may be interested to know, as way of comparison to US politics, that Nick Clegg is an atheist and that this is absolutely and unequivocally a non-issue for the vast majority of the UK electorate. I’m sorry to say, a US Presidential candidate, regardless of competence, would be pilloried for such non-belief.     

What’s most exciting about the Liberal Democrats this time around is that they are well placed to show up our current first-past-the-post electoral system as no longer being fit for purpose. The Lib-Dems are on course for receiving around 30% of the popular vote. Don’t, however, expect that will result in them taking 30% of the seats in the Commons; in fact, they’d be lucky to get 12% of the MPs with such a result. Indeed, it could well be the case that they receive more votes than Labour on Thursday, but Labour could and should easily up with well over a 100 more MPs than the Lib-Dems. What the Lib-Dems will be hoping for is neither Conservatives or Labour being in a position to form a majority government (remember that that magic number is 326 MPs) so they’ll have to form a coalition government with them. As a condition for forming a coalition, Clegg would be in a position to argue that the current system needs to be changed with electoral reform, perhaps some form of  proportional representation, which given the circumstances the Lib-Dems have always been keen on. Hitchens (Christopher) has described our current parliamentary system as a corseted duopoly, that could well be about to change.   

Politics-wise, the Lib Dems are  a social liberal party that flits between both sides of the political centre depending on individuals and policies. They were formed in 1988 when the Liberal party (the party of Gladstone and Lloyd George but rendered third-party status with the emergence of the Labour party in the 1920s) merged with the Social Democratic Party (a party formed in the early 80s by moderate Labour politicians who felt Labour of that time had become too left-wing).  The Lib-Dems were the only one of the three main parties to oppose the Iraq war, they are pro-European and strong on civil liberties.   

They’ll be the ones wearing yellow rosettes.     

Liberal Democrats: Odds on winning most seats 40/1. Odds on winning majority 66/1   


A very quick run-down on the other parties you might hear about during the night.   

Green party: Focused on the environment and all that jazz.   

United Kingdom Independence Party: Right-wing party that wants to see the UK withdraw from the European Union.   

Scottish National Party (SNP): Exactly what you’d think from their name, the SNP wants Scottish independence. But they’re not just a single issue party, they have a minority administration in the Scottish parliament and for many in Scotland a viable alternative to voting Labour. Their politics is centre-left.   

Plaid Cymru: Centre-left party that wants Welsh independence.   

British National Party (BNP): Very much the knuckle-dragging David Duke-esque morons of British politics. A far-right party that would seek to repatriate immigrants. Best either scorned or ignored.   

Monster Raving Loony Party: A sort of British version of the Libertarian party in that you’re not meant to take them seriously – it’s just all about the shits and giggles with these guys.   

Mebyon Kernow : Cornwall-based political party that wants greater autonomy for the Cornish.   

English Democrats: Political party that wants a devolved English parliament similar to the Scottish parliament.   


Yeah, you noticed. The main parties in Northern Ireland are different to those in Great Britain. Please, bear in mind that I’m no expert when it comes to Northern Irish politics, but it would be absolutely erroneous of me not to mention them – even though when following the BBC’s election night coverage, which seems to treat Northern Ireland’s elections as a side-show to the main event, you could be forgiven for forgetting that elections are also taking place there too:   

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP): Founded in the 70s by controversial Protestant firebrand Ian Paisley, this is currently the fourth largest party in the Commons. The DUP is, as their name suggests, a Unionist party, which means they’re strongly in favour of the political union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.   

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP): Seen as the more moderate of the two Unionist parties. The UUP have close ties with the Conservative party and indeed have an electoral alliance with them for this election.   

Sinn Féin: An Irish Nationalist party led by Gerry Adams. Historically it has close links with the IRA but recent years have seen it make electoral breakthroughs to become the largest Nationalist party.   

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP): Northern Ireland’s other Nationalist party. While the UUP have an alliance with the Conservatives, the SDLP have in the Commons an unspoken alliance with the British Labour party.   


We’ve sort of already gone over it in passing. Remember that you need 326 MPs to have a majority in Parliament. 326 or above and you’ll have more MPs than all the other parties combined. If no party reaches that magic number of 326*, we’ve got ourselves a hung parliament, something that hasn’t happened in the UK since 1974. In the event of a hung parliament there’s three likely outcomes. 1) The formation of a coalition government. So theoretically, the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems team up. 2) A minority government is formed. Some argue that this leads to an unstable government as it’s more difficult for the government to press on with the legislation it wants and it’s more vulnerable to a vote of no confidence. Others would argue that it forces the government to compromise with other parties on issues and this can only be a good thing. 3) Dissoloution of parliament. If the election results in no party able to realistically form a workable government the request could be made to the Monarch to dissolve the parliament, which isn’t as bad it sounds, it’s just a very fancy way of saying we’re going to do it all over again and have another election.   

Also, don’t get a hung parliament mixed up with the rump parliament. And you don’t want to get either of them mixed up with the Duke of Portland’s rumpy pumpy parliament of 1807-1809 or Gladstone’s well hung parliament of 1880-1885.    

The Well Hung Parliament

The Well Hung Parliament

Odds of a hung parliament: 4/6 

Odds of a well hung parliament: 350/1 

*Actually, an important point, while I keep bleating on about 326 because that is the mathematical number needed for a majority, in real terms the Conservatives could govern with a little under that and have almost a de facto majority as explained here.


Yep, although now I’ve got your attention perhaps I could finally explain the laws of cricket to you. Been meaning to do that for a while now. 


  Then my job here is done.