Everything You Need To Know About The UK's General Election

It's been very weird and all over the place. So, you know: British.

The United Kingdom is holding its first general election since 2010, and things aren’t going to plan for anyone.

Kirsty Wigglesworth / ASSOCIATED PRESS

For a variety of reasons we'll lay out here, the last five years have seen the entire British political system go through a period of upheaval. There appears to have been a fundamental shift away from the two major parties that have swapped power in Britain for a century – Labour and the Conservatives.

So when Britons turn out to vote on 7 May, the stakes will be high, as what would normally be a two-person fight has turned into a free-for-all.

Stefan Rousseau / AP

Backstory: In 2010, the UK’s centrist third party – the Liberal Democrats – managed to elbow their way in, leaving Conservative leader David Cameron to form a coalition government with them after the election.


Until then, it was expected that either the left-wing Labour party or the right-wing Conservatives (also known as the Tories) would win a majority of seats in the House of Commons, the house of parliament that is directly elected and controls most of the tools of ruling. That party’s leader would then have the right to become prime minister and form a government.

The Conservatives didn’t win enough seats to govern on their own. Instead, Cameron formed a coalition with the Lib Dems' leader, Nick Clegg, bringing an end to 13 years of Labour rule.

Depending on your point of view, the coalition either smashed apart the state or saved the UK’s economy.

Lefteris Pitarakis / ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Cameron-led cabinet made substantial cuts to government spending in order to, in its words, “balance the books” and "cut the deficit". This took a lot longer than expected, and opponents criticised the human cost of government cuts.

David Cameron is personally popular as a result, but the Lib Dems' ratings have plummeted.

Adrian Dennis / AP

Cameron’s leadership ratings are well ahead of his own party’s popularity, and he is running for re-election with a promise of five more years of careful economic management. However, the Lib Dems’ supporters – many of whom came from the left wing of politics and hated the Tories – have been less enthusiastic about the coalition.

For the Labour party, there’s Ed Miliband.

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Miliband, seen as the heir to former prime minister Gordon Brown, is the younger of two brothers who competed for the leadership of Labour after the party's 2010 loss. He beat his older brother, David, to the job by a handful of votes, and David, who had been a protege of former prime minister Tony Blair and was seen as the more popular of the two, later quit parliament and moved to New York.

After being elected Labour leader, Miliband spent four and a half years being portrayed as a geek – he can solve a Rubik's cube in 90 seconds – with a taste for old-school left-wing measures of redistribution such as curbs on the activities of private companies and cutting university fees. In recent weeks he’s seen a massive improvement in his previously abysmal personal ratings (from strongly disliked to neutral) as the public hear more from him, giving Labour members hope that at the last minute they could pull off a win.

Even though the economy is on track, Cameron’s re-election isn’t certain – voters are still wary about the Tories’ handling of things like healthcare, and they have far more options to choose from now.

Stefan Rousseau / Getty Images

The short version: Small parties have risen as people got disillusioned with the two main parties. The vote has fractured, the major parties are struggling to break through, and the electoral system is creaking as a result.

First up: the United Kingdom Independence party, led by Nigel Farage.

Scott Heppell / AP

UKIP was formed by irate Conservatives during the 1990s to oppose Britain’s membership of the European Union – but Farage has helped it expand beyond its narrow base of angry older right-wing men. He’s managed to present himself as the chain-smoking, hard-living defender of traditional Britain who is willing to stick it to the man on behalf of an ignored mass whose lives have been (in his mind) blighted by uncontrolled immigration and government idiocy.

Endless media appearances gave him legendary status among people who were bored of mainstream parties staying close to the centre ground, and around 2012 the party began to make a breakthrough in UK general election polling, winning disillusioned voters from both Labour and the Conservatives, with a touch of Tea Party-style politics. UKIP is unlikely to win many seats thanks to the UK’s electoral system, but despite being dogged by claims of racism, it is taking substantial numbers of votes from the two big parties.

There’s also the Scottish National party, headed by Nicola Sturgeon.

Andy Buchanan / Getty Images

The SNP managed to gain a majority of the seats in the Scottish parliament (the UK isn’t a federal system but has state legislature-style devolved assemblies for Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland) in 2011. It immediately called a referendum on independence for Scotland that wound up being astonishingly close, with most of the 45% who backed leaving the rest of the UK immediately transferring their political allegiance to the SNP and overnight creating a formidable political bloc.

Scotland has 59 seats in the UK-wide Westminster parliament, and last election Labour won almost all of them. Five years on, some polls suggest the SNP is poised to take almost every single Scottish seat, completely up-ending the UK political structure in the process.

There’s also Plaid Cymru and the Greens – a Welsh nationalist group and a left-wing socialist insurgent party respectively – but they’re less important here.

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru and Natalie Bennett of the Green party.

So now, with a week to go, the polls are neck and neck: The Tories are attracting roughly 34% of the vote, Labour just slightly less, and everyone else is scrapping it out for the rest.

Carl Court / AP
Getty Images / AFP
Getty Images / AFP

Although Labour and the Conservatives won’t admit it, no one expects either to win a majority, so it’ll be a hung parliament with the government formed by whoever can cobble together a coalition.

But it’s going to be tricky: Roughly 323 seats are needed for a majority, and a typical prediction has the Conservatives winning roughly 280 seats, Labour getting around 270, the SNP taking 50, and the Lib Dems winning 30, and a variety of smaller parties such as UKIP and Plaid Cymru sharing the remaining constituencies. Do the sums and see you see why this is problematic.

And absolutely nothing has happened to shift the polls at all since the start of the long campaign in January.

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From the very start, most of the discussion has been around who could enter into coalition with whom rather than any real hope that a party could make a breakthrough. It’s messy, and no one knows what sort of government – and with what policies – will emerge after 7 May. The Conservatives believe they can convince English voters to back them by raising fears of the SNP controlling a Labour government from behind the scenes, while Labour hopes a programme of populist giveaways can give it an edge.

The big concern: Nobody wants to partner with anybody else.

The left-wing SNP has said they'll never do a deal with the Tories, Labour has said it'll never do a deal with the SNP, and the Lib Dem leadership isn't very keen on a deal with Labour. Meanwhile, the Tories don't want to do a deal with anyone if they can avoid it, especially not their right-wing rival UKIP. The public don't really like deals in general.

In the meantime, it’s been both really weird and incredibly boring.

One of the Conservative campaign chiefs has been accused of editing his own Wikipedia page and selling get-rich-quick books online under a pseudonym. A strange teenage fangirl cult has grown up around Ed Miliband. There's been a lot of forgettable speeches. Some terrible posters. Usual campaign stuff.

All told, the odds that people will wake up in the UK on 8 May with a winner known is looking slim.


Polls open on 7 May and counting of the election goes on throughout the night. But the real business will be done in the days afterwards, and a lot will depend on who can declare victory and control the media narrative as soon as polls close. But don’t worry – British politicos have been reading up on Florida in 2000.