The British election: A guide

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.
  • Britain doesn't have a constitution in the sense that the United States and other democracies have one. It has centuries of traditions, precedents and laws that are considered "constitutional," but no single written document called a constitution outlining the rules of an election. The cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, Britain's top civil servant, has drawn up guidelines to be used in the event of a hung parliament. It is based on previous precedents, like 1974. But they are just guidelines, they don't have the force of law and if one party wants to aggressively challenge them, well, journalists will be very busy.
  • Scenarios: based on the latest polling, a hung parliament is the likely result of Thursday's vote, with the Conservatives winning the most seats but about nine seats short of a majority. Custom and Sir Gus O'Donnell say the serving prime minister, in this case Gordon Brown, is given the first chance to form a government. Brown would enter negotiations with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, whose first demand would be legislation to change the voting system to something like proportional representation. Clegg has also said that if Labour comes in third in the overall vote Brown would have to resign.

But the spin has begun and David Cameron's circle has been giving unattributable quotes to journalists indicating their man could demand the right to set up a minority government based on winning more popular votes as well as the most seats. As of today, this is the most likely scenario. Like Heath in 1974, Cameron could set up a loose coalition government with the Ulster Unionists, try and pass some popular legislation, like rescinding Labour's expensive and unloved plans for everyone to have bio-metric identity cards, and build on that momentum to call another election in the autumn in the hopes of winning his outright majority. Cameron has to be careful though: Heath tried the same thing in October 1974 — and lost.

There is a third possibility: The Conservatives close with a rush and win a majority.

But if you follow the wisdom of crowds you would have to say that is unlikely. As of now, most wagers at sports betting sites in Britain are still on the Conservatives as the largest party in a hung parliament. Come Friday, we might get a chance to see how long Sir Gus's guidelines last.