If you've been following the elections on our side of the pond, you may have noticed that it's a particularly significant one over here. Labour have (British English for "Labor has") been in power since 1997, when Tony Blair became Prime Minister and launched what he called "New Labour." His Chancellor of the Exchequer, the guy responsible for economic policy, was Gordon Brown, who became Prime Minister himself in 2007. Brown is also a University of Edinburgh alumnus. In fact, my professor this term advised on Gordon Brown's PhD thesis, on Labour party organizing in postwar Britain. We asked what he thought about Brown. The professor was, shall we say, diplomatic.
In an article I read yesterday making their personal choice for the election, The Economist praised Brown's handling of the recent financial crisis, but pointed out that it's sort of unfair to praise him for doing pretty well in a situation he essentially created by not regulating banks or controlling funding effectively when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. It's like saying, "Wow, you did a great job putting out that fire. Of course, you're the one who started it, or at the very least you're the one who didn't tell people to stop smoking next to the gasoline." The Economist, therefore, went pro-Tory. Tory is the same as Conservative - it's like saying "GOP" instead of "Republican." This party is led by David Cameron.
There is a third party, the Liberal Democrats, but they've been hampered by the structuring of the UK system. If you're interested, read the next paragraphs. Otherwise, take my word for it and meet me again under the *********.
In the US, representation in Congress is first divided by state, and then divided into districts (or, for the senate, just two per state). In the UK, the country is divided into constituencies purely by population. The Parliamentary web site says that there are 650 constituencies for this current election, with about 69,000 voters each. It's a winner-take-all system (called "first past the post" here) similar to the U.S. electoral college.
The Liberal Democrats have a tendency to come in second in very tight races - in Edinburgh South, for instance, the Lib Dem candidate lost by just 316 votes. Currently, the Lib Dems are polling at 22% of the popular vote, which in theory would translate to 130 of 650 Parliamentary seats. Because of these tight losses, they've so far won just 53. Labour's 29% of the popular vote would, in a perfectly proportional system, would win them 188 seats; they have 252. You can see why electoral reform was a major Lib Dem party platform.
A last thought on electoral divisions: England gets 533 of the 650 seats in Parliament. Scotland gets just 59, Wales 40, and Northern Ireland 18. This is a serious thorn for voters outside of England, who will never, even if they all ally with each other, be able to force serious government policy. Scottish anger at this system contributed to devolution, or returning certain governing powers to a local Scottish Parliament, but that's a whole 'nother blog post.
The UK Parliament is, believe it or not, even more partisan and party-driven than Congress. The reason is that the Prime Minister, instead of being elected separately, like the U.S. president, is the leader of the majority party in Parliament. (President Nancy Pelosi, anybody?)
David Cameron's Conservative party has a plurality of seats (the most of any party) but even with some returns coming in, will not reach 326, which is needed for a majority.
When this happens in the UK, parties start putting together coalitions. Cameron could ask the Lib Dems to join him, adding their 53 seats to his 306 and creating a majority, but he'd have to give concessions to the Lib Dems to do it. (They might, for instance, insist on important positions in the government, or on Conservatives adopting some Lib Dem political platforms). And looming behind this is the threat that the Lib Dems could take their 53 seats and ally with Labour. It wouldn't at the moment be enough to win a majority, but it might be with some extra parties added in or some new returns. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems' leader, is therefore a bit of a kingmaker. He has suggested in speeches that he'll go with the Conservatives because of their overwhelming popular vote victory.
There's a lot more to talk about here - what each party stands for (try here or here), listing some wacky UK fringe parties (the Pirate Party - electronic, not eyepatch - or the Monster Raving Loony Party, which supports, among other things, outward-pointed air conditioners to reduce global warming) but my pizza is ready.