Despite living there for

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Despite living there for the better part of four years, there are many things I can’t explain about Britain: the instinct to queue, the bad plumbing, and how a culture with such bland native food can love curry so much. What I can explain are the basics about the British elections held tomorrow. These next few posts should set the scene for people just tuning in to these elections.

The Basics: 646 parliamentary seats are at stake -– 529 of them are in England, 59 in Scotland, 40 in Wales, and 18 in Northern Ireland. 324 is the number needed to form a majority government. Seats are allocated on a first past-the-post basis in each district. That is, it doesn’t matter how many votes each party gets nationwide; it matters how many ridings a party wins. Thus, it’s possible to win the most votes, but not the most seats -– a phenomenon that last happened in February 1974.

The Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, holds a 160-seat overall majority and have had a commanding majority since winning election in 1997. If Labour wins re-election, it will be the first time in British political history that Labour has won three consecutive elections.

The Players: The Labour Party, led by Blair and his once and future rival, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, is the main center-left party. Blair has re-made the party into New Labour, shedding its socialist past, attracting middle-class voters, and proving that Labour can manage the economy -– and quite successfully at that. There’s a tension within the party between the working-class beans-on-toast crowd and the more affluent focaccia- and-roasted-vegetables set (think Quad Cities vs. Tribeca). Bigger than these class differences is the huge rift within the party on the war in Iraq. This is — by far — Blair’s biggest vulnerability.

The Conservative Party (aka the Tories), led by Michael Howard currently has 165 seats in Parliament. The Conservative Party today is like the Republican Party in 1940: a small opposition party of rural and wealthy voters that has to contend with a rejuvenated and dominant progressive party. After being obliterated in 1997 and embarrassed in 2001, the Tories are having a more successful campaign in 2005 — one waged on the basis of social issues such as: crime, school discipline, and immigration. While – as James Harding notes in Slate — their campaign lacks the big vision of Thatcher, the Tories stand to gain seats this election because of their careful targeting of swing districts and the mere fact that they really have only one direction to go.

The Liberal Democrats. Imagine if the Deaniacs split from the Democratic Party over Iraq, and you’ve got the Lib Dems. This is a middle-class party strong in university towns, and in odd suburban places throughout Britain. Led by Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dems have 51 seats in Parliament. Their pure anti-war stance has attracted many disgruntled Labourites as well as some Muslim voters. Lib Dems can play the Nader role in this election, siphoning off enough Labour votes to throw the election to the Tories or diminish the Labour majority enough as to provoke a leadership challenge to Blair. If there is a total Tory meltdown (a swing of about 10 percent from Tory to Lib Dem), the Lib Dems could become the official opposition.

More to come. But in my effort not to totally embrace the blogger lifestyle, I’m off to the gym.

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