The 2015 British election has been decried for being both boring or vapid, with politicians apparently unwilling to discuss some of the country's more important issues and the media focusing on personalities rather than policies.
But the reality is this election is anything but boring, and it has a very real potential to mark the beginning of a new political era within British politics. Britain's politics really seem to be shifting – and the outcome could be dramatic.
With an unusually fractured political field, British politics is in uncharted territory. Here are seven potentially big outcomes.
1. For the second time in recent years, the election will probably result in a hung parliament.
Okay, this may sound a little like a boring outcome for outsiders, but for British political wonks this is a big deal, and it's the source of a lot the other outcomes on the list. So bear with us here.
For hundreds of years, Britain has effectively had an entrenched two-party parliamentary system. This is, in part, due to the "first past the post" voting system, which tends to favor two parties, and also because its just kind of always been that way: The House of Commons is two sets of benches facing each other, with one side for the government and another for the opposition (the two sets of seats are, thankfully, given the sometimes boisterous nature of parliament, two sword-lengths apart). It simply isn't designed for multiple parties.
Given the two-party nature of the British election, in almost every election, one party tends to get more than half of the seats (326) in the British government. This means they have enough seats, on their own, to pass legislation. That party, in turn, forms a government and its leader becomes prime minister. However, if no party gets that majority, it's called a hung parliament. And that's where things get difficult.
Thankfully, its rare. There were only five elections that resulted in hung parliaments in the 20th century, and many of these were due to complicated and unique political circumstances. In 2010, no party won a majority of seats in parliament, prompting David Cameron of the Conservatives to form a coalition government with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats, long a weak third party in the British political world. It wasn't an easy set-up (it took five days of negotiation) and many Liberal Democrat voters didn't seem happy with it. But by and large, it seemed to be a functioning response to an abnormal result.
Five years later, however, that result doesn't look so abnormal. Recent polls suggest that both the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats will be short of a majority in the election. In fact, more dramatically, it's beginning to look like the fractured politics we saw in 2010 is the new norm in Britain.
2. It's possible that a party that doesn't win the largest number of seats could end up leading the government.
In fact, there are some signs that things may be even more splintered in 2015. The Liberal Democrats, long Britain's third party, have clearly lost support from the last election (most notably due to reneging on an electoral promise about not raising university fees), and may struggle to serve as a kingmaker again. Meanwhile, fringe parties, most notably the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Scottish National Party (SNP), are likely to gain far more seats than in the past.
This all means that a two-party coalition looks more fraught than ever, and that potential British prime ministers will have to think in terms of coalitions (or losers alliances) of three parties or perhaps even more. Given the significant divergences in policies between some of these parties, this will make for some tricky maneuvering. Another alternative could be that a minority government is formed – an even more risky move, as the government would struggle to get any laws passed.
In these circumstances, it also means that a party that didn't end up winning the most votes in the election could, in theory, form a government. Even if Cameron's Conservatives, for example, were to come out with the largest number of seats in parliament, if they can't prove they can command a majority, another party (given the number of seats, almost certainly Labor), could attempt to form its own government.
It's unclear if the British electorate would accept a government run by a political party that didn't "win" the election. But it's worth noting that polls suggest that the public backs the party with the most votes, rather than seats, forming a government – a pretty important distinction.
3. A political party that wants to split up Britain could end up a part of the British government.
One of the most remarkable takeaways from this election is that the SNP – a regional party that seeks independence for Scotland – has become a powerful political entity in Britain. Following a stunning collapse in support for Labor in Scotland over the past year (the Conservatives were already pretty much a non-entity there), the SNP now stands to win almost all of Scotland's 59 seats in parliament, an amazing turnaround.
That's a big chunk of seats for parliament, and many now suspect that the SNP may end up joining with a Labor government, despite a number of statements from Miliband ruling out this possibility. In Britain's right-wing press, which tends to support the Conservative government and deeply opposes Scottish independence, the SNP has been accused of all sorts of nefarious acts: Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has been dubbed the "Most Dangerous Woman in Britain" by the Daily Mail.
Sturgeon has stressed that she is not hoping for another referendum after the election, but the continuing success of the SNP (which has remained to the left of other British parties as they have drifted rightwards) is a clear sign of how different politics has become in Scotland. And, as Sturgeon herself has pointed out, if the Conservatives win, they may face a crisis of legitimacy in Scotland, where they would likely hold just one seat.
4. A referendum on British membership in the European Union could be called.
Perhaps the most dramatic campaign pledge of the election has been made by the incumbent, David Cameron, who in 2013 promised to hold a referendum on Britain's membership in the European Union (he later clarified it would be held before 2017).
Should Cameron emerge from the election as prime minister, his own party's euroskeptic wing and UKIP would likely try and hold him to his word. Even his europhile coalition partners might be forced to play along: Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has suggested that his own party would not stand in the way of a referendum if it is in the coalition, though Vince Cable, a prominent Liberal Democrat MP, has called it a "seriously bad idea."
Polls do suggest that Britons would vote to remain in Europe if such a referendum were called today, but things could very easily change before 2017, especially if euroskeptic groups aggressively campaigned. And whether you support it or not, a British exit from the E.U. would likely have huge repercussions for Britain and the E.U. itself.
5. The political careers of some of Britain's most high-profile party leaders could well be over.
Some important political careers will likely be ended this election. If Cameron can't form a government, it may well be the end of his tenure as leader of the Conservative Party. Miliband, leader of the Labor party, is also facing strong calls to resign if he cannot lead his party to government.
Both Cameron and Miliband are relatively young politicians who had attempted to break with their political parties' recent pasts and move onto a brighter future. Cameron had attempted to break with the gray, out-of-touch reputation the Conservatives had for years in the opposition, and Miliband attempted to put aside the infighting that plagued the Labor party while Gordon Brown was prime minister.
Even if the two party leaders keep their jobs, the diminishing political power of Britain's two major parties would suggest that their attempts at rebirth have not been successful
It's not just the established parties facing problems, however. Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, has become a high-profile fixture of Britain's politics over the past few years with his flamboyant blend of cigarette smoking, beer drinking and E.U.-bashing. But Farage is facing a considerable campaign against him in the seat he is contesting and he may fail to win a spot in parliament. The UKIP leader has indicated that he will step down as leader of his party if he cannot win a seat for himself.
6. A serious debate about Britain's electoral system has already been sparked.
All the uncertainty caused by this election is prompting some deep reassessments of Britain's political system. In the past, many Britons had long looked on the volatile coalition governments seen in their European neighbors with a sense of superiority: Sure, first-past-the-post voting systems have a lot of quirks, but at least they produce governments that are actually able to govern.
Now, with the likelihood of another coalition government high in Britain, that looks like a foolish position, and it's possible we'll see another campaign to change the way Britain elects its politicians.
Britain held a referendum on replacing the first-past-the-post system with an "alternate vote" system in 2011, which saw Britons quite resoundingly vote to stick with first past the post. But some have criticized the way that vote was held and said that the campaign to change the system was mishandled.
With the likelihood of another hung parliament, however, the debate has been reignited. Many of the smaller parties that have gained traction over the past few years may well choose to argue for some kind of proportional representation system that would, most likely, allow them to gain more seats.
Perhaps more surprisingly, talk of reform has even spread to unlikely areas. "The old argument for first-past-the-post – that it boosts the larger party and so provides stable government – no longer applies," Daniel Hannan, a Conservative Member of European Parliament, wrote recently. "These days, it throws up anomalous, unpredictable results that are only distantly related to how many people supported each party."
7. There could be another election.
This one is sure to produce groans from those completely sick of Britain's election cycle, but still, it's true: Britain may well have to have another election within months of this one if no working government can be formed.
Clegg of the Liberal Democrats has this week warned voters that they could face a post-election "shambles" and a second election before Christmas. This has actually happened a few times in the 20th century: In 1910, there were elections in January and December after a majority government couldn't be formed, and in 1974 there were elections in February and October after the first election resulted in a minority government.
To complicate matters further, the current coalition government passed something called the "Fixed-Term Parliament Act" in 2011. While this was designed to make their own coalition less likely to collapse by ending the prime minister's ability to call elections, it had the added affect of ensuring that the next election would be due to be held in 2020.
Now, a new election can only be called if there is a vote of no confidence in the government, or if two-thirds of MPs vote for it. This means that the main opposition party may be able to have some control over when a second election actually takes place.