Voters across the UK head to the ballot box on Thursday to elect a new parliament and potentially a new prime minister.
Polls leading up to Thursday's general election show the Labour and Conservative (Tory) parties to be "neck and neck," with another hung parliament—where no party wins an overall majority of seats—forecasted by many experts.
The UK is split into 650 parliamentary constituencies, each of which elects one representative to sit in the House of Commons, the lower chamber of the UK parliament. Most of the candidates belong to one of the main political parties: Conservative, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party (SNP—only in Scotland), Plaid Cymru (only in Wales), the Green party, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
If a party wins an overall majority of MPs, its leader will become the prime minister.
Although there are a large number of parties competing in this election, only Conservative incumbent David Cameron or Labour leader Ed Miliband has any chance of becoming the next prime minister, and either way, they'll almost certainly be at the helm of a fractured House of Commons.
According to the Guardian's poll projections, an average of all publicly available polls, Conservatives are currently on track to win 274 seats compared to Labour's 271—"neither anywhere near the 326 required for an absolute majority."
However, the paper adds, "the anti-Tory SNP bloc of 53 gives Miliband the stronger position in the battle to take control of [the prime minister's office]."
The separatist SNP, just months after its loss in an independence referendum, has quadrupled its membership, and could, according to one recent poll, win every single one of the 59 Scottish seats available in the election.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon reportedly told supporters in Edinburgh Wednesday:
We are within touching distance of doing something the SNP has never done in our history.
We are within touching distance of winning a Westminster election. And if we do that, then the voice of Scotland is going to be heard more loudly at Westminster than it has ever been heard before."
We can lock the Tories out of government but then we can make sure that the Tories are not simply replaced by a Labour Tory-light government, they are replaced by something better.
Should an electoral draw indeed come to pass, The Independent explains, "there are several options available":
Parties can try to form a coalition government with one or more other parties, as Cameron’s Conservatives did with the Liberal Democrats in 2010.
They could also try to form a minority government, whereby the largest party or group lacks a majority but still manages to get legislation through, an arrangement not uncommon in continental Europe and Scandinavia. Taking this approach is more complicated, and would put the prime minister in a more vulnerable position as it would be much more difficult to pass legislation through the House of Commons.
Echoing many observers' predictions, The Independent declares that "a coalition government is almost guaranteed."
But in an analysis for the New Statesman, Cameron Tait writes that a coalition government "will have to go directly against the grain of public opinion."
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[T]he only way David Cameron can come close to getting a majority of the House will be if together the Tories, Lib Dems, Ukip and DUP can get the 323 seats they need to pass a Queen’s speech.
But to make Cameron’s unlikely cabal come together, not only will the parties all have to outperform current predictions (YouGov’s prediction today puts them at a combined 320 seats, three short of a working majority) but they will have to go directly against the grain of public opinion. Of all of the different groupings polled by YouGov, the grouping most likely to keep David Cameron in Downing Street is the least popular, with an approval rating of minus 49.
"If David Cameron ends up as Prime Minister after the General Election it will likely be at the helm of one of the most unpopular governments ever," Tait declares.
Which is why Thursday's vote, and the parliamentary politics surrounding it, speak to the need for comprehensive electoral reform, writes Owen Jones for the Guardian.
"The old constitutional order must fall," he says, continuing:
Yet another hung parliament must rightly mean renewed calls to replace an electoral system that no longer produces decisive results. But to defeat a political right intent on fueling rampant English nationalism, we must go further.... A new populism should unite English, Welsh and Scots alike against a self-interested rapacious elite... Workers condemned to poverty wages, job insecurity and a growing housing crisis must be united against a common enemy: an elite that all too often doesn’t pay either proper taxes or proper wages.
Decrying the "English jingoism" that pervades UK politics today, Jones states, "If this country has a future, then it must come soon."
But some wonder how much impact this election will have, and if the country's major parties—as well as its major media outlets—are missing the issues that matter most.
"All major parties and media outlets are committed to never-ending economic growth, and use GDP as the primary measure of human progress," writes George Monbiot in an op-ed appearing Wednesday at Common Dreams. "Even to question this is to place yourself outside the frame of rational political debate."
The national and global collapse of biodiversity, the horrifying rate of soil loss, the conflict between aspirations to minimise climate change and maximise the production of fossil fuels: none of these are put before voters as an issue of significant difference. All major parties tacitly agree to carry on as before.
Politicians will not break these silences voluntarily. They are enforced by a narrow and retentive public discourse, dominated by the corporate media and the BBC, which ignores or stifles new ideas, grovels to the elite and ostracises the excluded, keeping this nation in a state of arrested development.
And in an op-ed published Wednesday at Common Dreams, Global Justice Now policy officer Alex Scrivener adds: "A look at the big parties’ manifestos confirms that none of them really have any big ideas about the rest of the world."
Still, for actor and activist Russell Brand—who previously opined on the futility of participation in a broken electoral system—the Tories's regressive economic policies have made it imperative for him to cast a vote in this election.
"Ultimately what I feel," Brand wrote, "is that by not removing the Tories, through an unwillingness to participate in the 'masquerade of democracy,' I was implicitly expecting the most vulnerable people in society to pay the price on my behalf while I pondered alternatives in luxury."
For those who are more visual learners, the Washington Post has compiled a list of "11 weird memes that help explain the British election."
And the New Statesman put together a collection of Wednesday's bombastic newspaper front pages, including this one: