Tomorrow, the citizenry of the United Kingdom will cast their votes in a general election. If you’re an American, you may have been too busy tenderly rubbing your genitals on a gun to have read much about this. Who’s fighting to lead this grey and unpleasant land onward into its inevitable irrelevancy? And how do we even do elections without an electoral college? Allow me, a Proper Brit, to get you up to speed.
When is the election?
The election will be held on May 7 in 650 parliamentary constituencies across the United Kingdom. Just like in the U.S., where most states are solidly red or blue, the action will be in a handful of swing constituencies (or “marginal seats”). But unlike the U.S.’s constitutionally separated powers, our executive is part of the legislature. So voters aren’t voting for one of the seven party leaders—they’re electing members of parliament (MPs) in their constituency. Whichever party gets a majority of members in parliament forms a government, and its leader becomes prime minister.
What’s it like there, you know, politically?
For a very long time, Britain had a pretty straightforward and stable two-party system. But in the last general election in 2010, no party got a majority, which is known as a “hung parliament.” The right-wing Conservatives formed a coalition with the left-of-center Liberal Democrats, ending a 13-year Labour government. Shit got crazy!
And everything indicates that shit will remain crazy: the polls show another hung parliament is very likely. As of last night, FiveThirtyEight has the Tories on 281, Labour on 267, and the probability of a hung parliament at an astounding 100%. But however hung the next parliament is, and whatever the next government looks like, one of these people from the big three—the Tories, Labour, and the Lib Dems—will be Prime Minister. And they are all wankers.
For the Conservative Party—aka the Tories—it’s David Cameron.
David Cameron is the current prime minister of the U.K. and the leader of the Conservative Party. He is the loathsome, oily product of generations of posh dicks, educated at Eton and Oxford. Having an upper-class candidate in charge doesn’t sit well with many Brits, such as the heroic man with a ukulele who sang “fuck off back to Eton with all your Eton chums” to Cameron at a recent campaign stop.
Compounding his image as a top-hatted twat, Cameron’s government has made shitting on the poor a priority with its austerity measures, hitting welfare and local governments hard. They’ve instituted a spare bedroom tax on housing benefits recipients, expanded “fitness to work” tests on benefits for the disabled using a shady private company, and recently pledged to sell off public housing in the middle of a housing crisis. And these policies have had real impact: Food banks are seeing the most demand in areas hardest hit by the cuts, and the poorest local governments have suffered more than affluent ones.
Some of the Tory manifesto pledges, like the guarantee that no one on minimum wage will pay income tax, aim to soften this image of Cameron’s government as a bunch of pheasant-eating lords swiping at the poor from their horses. But it looks like this isn’t working well enough to prevent the Tories from losing their majority. Cameron is not faced with many options to form a coalition, and he already set the bar high, saying he will have “failed” if he doesn’t secure an overall majority.
Will he be Prime Minister?
Depends on Labour’s ability to wrangle an agreement; probably not.
Next up, for the Labour Party, there’s Ed Miliband.
Ed Miliband, nicknamed “Red Ed” by the tabloids for his lefty policies, is trying his hardest, bless his bum. He’s running on a “working families” platform, aiming to reduce some of the inequality Labour says Cameron’s government has exacerbated. Their manifesto includes an increased minimum wage, a “mansion tax” on homes worth more than £2 million and a ban on the zero-hours contracts that were criticized under Cameron. They’re also pledging to fix some of Cameron’s unpopular National Health Service (NHS) reforms, which took the form of a confusing restructuring that has been criticized by think tanks and doctors.
This is all good. Many people like those things. The problem with Ed Miliband is this: he’s a freakin’ nerd. He looks like Wallace from Wallace & Gromit, crossed with a gangly teen lost on his way to debate club. Crossed with an otter. Miliband was photographed struggling to eat a bacon sandwich like a normal human. He occasionally appears to be a poorly-functioning robot.
Despite Miliband’s image troubles— and the recent experience of 13 years of unpopular Labour government, thanks largely to Tony Blair’s Wacky Iraqi Adventure— the Cameron era has been so miserable that Labour is basically tied with the Tories. Their ability to form a government will likely depend on a deal with the Scottish National Party (SNP), who just lost the Scottish independence referendum but seem pretty chill now.
Will he be Prime Minister?
It could happen, which is surprising, given his face.
And then there’s Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats.
Nick Clegg leads the Liberal Democrats, which was the third-biggest party for a long time. Clegg’s stickiest dreams came true when he was made deputy prime minister in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2010, the closest his party had been to power in nearly a hundred years. But the coalition was not all they had dreamed it would be; in fact, it’s been very bad. This was clear pretty early on, when they reneged on a key manifesto promise— the pledge to vote against any increase in university tuition fees— and signed off on the Tories’ tripling—tripling—the fees in 2010, from £3,000 to £9,000. Aside from such high-profile failures, they have also struggled to take credit for any successes: as junior members in a coalition, they’re tarred with Tory failures but unable to point to many victories as truly their own.
The Lib Dems fell from 21 percent in the polls on the eve of the 2010 election to single digits within a year, and haven’t recovered since. Clegg has gone from game-changer, impressing everyone by appearing to be a living human person at the (first-ever) leadership debates, to feeble punchline. Now he has the air of a substitute Geography teacher, trying to regain our attention through unconvincingly stern disappointment at the chaos. He is a nothing-man, a shadow of a shadow of a bad suit. The party could gain a couple of seats, but they’re unlikely to be part of a future coalition.
Will he be Prime Minister?
This man will never ever be prime minister.
Is that it?
Nah, there’s also The Comic Relief. We’ve got UKIP’s Nigel Farage. As the leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which is dedicated to getting the U.K. out of the European Union and curbing immigration, Farage has carefully crafted an image of himself as a jovial everyman figure, a purveyor of Plain British Common Sense. He would like you to know very much he enjoys a PINT OF BEER at PUBS and A CHEEKY CIGGY. He would not like you to know he went to the same private school as P.G. Wodehouse.
Like the American Tea Party, Farage’s UKIP thinks of itself as an insurgent, populist movement, taking on the establishment. But perhaps the biggest similarity to the U.S. movement is the parade of insane lunatics that run as their candidates. UKIP has become more mainstream as it’s grown more successful, shedding more extremist policies like Farage’s 2010 call for Britain to ban the burqa, but they continue to struggle with candidates who go horribly off-message. Just since 2014, UKIP candidates or local councilors have: called a Thai woman a “ting tong,” Islam “evil” (twice) and a Chinese woman a “Chinky bird”; said businesses should be able to refuse to serve gay people and women; and expressed a problem with “negroes” because of “something about their faces.”
Often these sorts of racist pratfalls lead to instant sacking, but the UKIP leadership’s response is not always consistent. Farage defended the “Chinky bird” guy, saying, “If you and your mates were going out for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?” (This almost certainly means Farage calls getting Chinese food “getting a Chinky,” a là Peep Show.)
Luckily, UKIP isn’t looking like the major player some feared it would be. The Guardian published a terrifying prediction that UKIP could get as many as 30 seats, but their current prediction has them gaining one. Farage himself is fighting hard to win his race in Thanet. If we’re lucky, the biggest UKIP story of the election will be the devastating allegations of sausage roll bribery.
Will he be Prime Minister?
Basically impossible, but UKIP could gain a couple seats.
Is that it? That has to be it.
Just a few more. We can’t leave out the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru.
In most years, these parties wouldn’t matter enough to merit a mention, but in 2015, any bunch of chaps who can help form a majority government can count. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has basically eradicated Labour in Scotland, partly by being a more appealing, anti-Westminster left-wing alternative. In fact, they’re on course to take every single Scottish seat. This means the SNP could form an agreement with Labour, a possibility the other parties are frantically fearmongering about. The Green Party, led by Australian-born Natalie Bennett, has also surged, with a peak of around seven percent a few months ago. As with the rise of the SNP and UKIP, this is arguably a mark of the widespread dissatisfaction with the major parties. Plaid Cymru, led by Leanne Wood, is the Welsh nationalist party. They are boring, Wales is boring, do not go there.
Will any of them be Prime Minister?
No, but the SNP might be a crucial coalition partner to Labour. Watch out for Nicola Sturgeon.
Admittedly, it’s unlikely we’ll get much closure on election night. If the projections hold, we’ll get a hung parliament; even if the projections are off by quite a lot, it’s still likely to be too close for any party to form a majority government. (My hunch is that the results are going to be slightly more Tory than expected, because of the new voter registration requirements that will further discourage the young. See, we’re just like y’all!)
But the probability that we won’t know who’s in charge until days later doesn’t mean it won’t be worth watching on May 7. Our elections aren’t the shouty, borderline psychotic cable news productions that yours seem to be—it’s usually David Dimbleby haranguing some tired ministers and b-roll of old ladies counting ballots in village halls—and I imagine you might find it quite refreshing.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photos via Getty.]
Libby Watson is a British writer living in Washington, D.C.