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The British election: A guide

Want to know what "hung parliament" and "first past the post" mean? Read on.

Horses look over a fence in a field next to a Conservative Party campaign poster at Pirbright near Guildford in southern England on May 4, 2010. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

LONDON, United Kingdom — The jockeying for position has begun. The closest British election in four decades is heading for a melodramatic finish with operatives already trying to spin public opinion in case the British electorate on Thursday fails to give a party the majority it needs to form a government.

Here is a simple guide to understanding the current situation — and why the vote this week may only be phase one in a complicated story:

  • In Britain, voters cast their ballots for a local member of parliament. There are 650 seats up for grabs. The party that wins a majority of those seats — 326 or more — gets to form the government with that party's leader becoming prime minister. There is no separate vote for that position. They call this system "first past the post." Simple, right? Well it would be if there were only two parties, such as Conservative and Labour, which have dominated British politics for decades. But there is a sizable third party, the Liberal Democrats, and half a dozen nationalist parties. They all regularly win seats. In this election, for a variety of reasons, the Liberal Democrats are making a particularly strong showing.

First past the post doesn't actually reflect the overall popular vote totals. In the last general election in 2005, the conservatives won 208 seats on 33.23 percent of the vote, while Labour had just 2.75 percent more of the vote but won 346 seats. The reason for this is that the Conservatives tend to win their seats by big margins, where Labour's victories are much tighter. But it is the Liberal Democrats who are most hurt by the fact that the British system doesn't reward the popular vote at all. The Lib Dems are polling evenly or just ahead of Labour, yet they are projected to gain fewer than half the number of seats that Labour will get.

  • When no party achieves a majority you have what is called a "hung parliament." It doesn't happen that often. The last time was in February 1974. The Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Edward Heath, won fewer seats than Labour but because it was the incumbent party it was given first crack at forming a new government. It made an alliance with Northern Ireland's Ulster Unionist party and carried on. This brings us to an important point about this election.