British Elections 2010

British voters go to the polls on May 6 for the their first general election since May 2005. The outcome will determine not just the prime minister, but every position in the 650-seat House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament.

Unlike in the United States, British voters do not directly elect their leader. Voters choose their representatives in the House of Commons. Because the prime minister is chosen by a vote in the Commons, whichever party wins the most seats in the election generally chooses the prime minister.

The Labor Party has won the last three general elections stretching back to 1997, a 13-year run in power. Tony Blair served as prime minister from 1997 until he stepped down in June 2007. The Labor Party chose Gordon Brown to succeed Blair, so the upcoming ballot will be the first time the British public has had a chance to vote on Brown’s leadership.

With Brown locked in a close race with David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, and Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, it is possible that no party will control more than 50 percent of the seats in the Commons – a situation known as a “hung parliament.”

Britain is currently convulsed with debate over the myriad possible consequences of a hung parliament, which include formation of a coalition government, a new election, or even the possibility of Queen Elizabeth II appointing someone other than the main party leaders to head coalition.

By law, a Parliament must be dissolved at the end of five years, and a new election called. But at any point the prime minister may ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament, forcing an early election. Brown publicly flirted with the idea of seeking an election – and a clear mandate from voters –shortly after he took office. He ultimately chose not to call the election, a moment of indecision that has dogged him since.

Elections are held on Thursdays – not by law, but by tradition of unclear origin. According to the BBC, one theory is that Thursday is the furthest moment from Friday paydays, so Thursday polling ensured that people “were not too drunk to vote.”

Latest Headlines

CREDITS: Kevin Sullivan, Kenneth W. Smith Jr., Dwuan June, Jason Ukman, Sarah Sampsel, Heather Farrell (The Washington Post)
© The Washington Post Company