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Britons Go To Polls In Election With Historic Potential

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Britons Go To Polls In Election With Historic Potential

Europe

Britons Go To Polls In Election With Historic Potential

Britons Go To Polls In Election With Historic Potential

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/126548359/126548346" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Policemen stand near a bookmaker's board showing the betting odds on the general election result near a polling station Thursday in Witney, England. Odds were 4/6 for a hung Parliament. Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP hide caption

toggle caption Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Policemen stand near a bookmaker's board showing the betting odds on the general election result near a polling station Thursday in Witney, England. Odds were 4/6 for a hung Parliament.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The British election campaign has been short by American standards — just four weeks long, culminating in Thursday's vote. But it has been one of the most exciting races in decades, and opinion polls show that it's still anybody's game.

Usually, the handover of power is brutal in Britain. Never mind how the United States does it: election in November, handover in January. In Britain, it's election on Thursday, handover on Friday.

What Do You Think?

Join the ongoing conversations about the British elections on Morning Edition's Facebook and Twitter pages. Or weigh in using the "Comments" section at the bottom of this page.

The strange thing about this Thursday is, for the first time in a generation, nobody has any idea who's going to be measuring for new drapes at 10 Downing Street on Friday morning.

The leaders of the three main parties have crisscrossed the country in the past 48 hours trying to secure what pollsters say is a huge number of undecided votes. Conservative Party leader David Cameron campaigned through the night Tuesday, visiting workers on the night shift, and through to the final rally Wednesday night.

"I think we've been winning some of the big arguments about the economy," he said. "But there's everything still to be done, and that's why there's no rest till Bristol tonight and the final rally."

America's Influence

The BBC comedy programs have been in overdrive, too, summarizing, satirizing and skewering the day's events.

There have also been celebrity endorsements and new, hugely influential TV debates, all of which made it seem more like a U.S. presidential campaign, in style if not in length.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown did muster a certain amount of sympathy when he complained about American Idol judge Simon Cowell's endorsing the Conservatives on the front page of the Sun tabloid Wednesday. Brown suggested that might not be the best way for people to decide how to exercise their democratic right to vote.

"This is an election, not about celebrities," he said. "Come on — it's not about what one or two celebrities think. It's about what the people think, about the problems that we've got. Now, Simon's a great guy doing his charity work as well as his work in his own business. But this is not an election to be decided by celebrities, or by insiders, or by journalists, or by media people."

Potential For 'Hung Parliament'

A Political Primer

The Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democratic Party have run a tight race going into Thursday's general elections in Britain. Here's a look at the parties' platforms and their leaders:

If only that were true, some groaned. The big political issue is whether Thursday's vote will end in what's known as a hung Parliament, with no party gaining the majority. The man who could hold the key is the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg.

It’s Clegg's ascendance in this campaign, because of the TV debates and voters' disillusionment with the two main parties, that has caused the close race in the first place. He's trying finally to dispel the perception that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a wasted vote in Britain's winner-takes-all electoral system.

"Don't let anyone tell you your vote doesn't count. Wherever you are, wherever you live, in whatever constituency you are voting, vote with your heart," he said at a rally.

Winner Takes All Vs. Proportional Representation

If, as expected, neither Labour nor Conservative gains a majority, Clegg could be courted by one of the two sides to make a formal coalition. Expect plenty of horses to be traded in smoke-filled rooms. But the price Clegg would exact for giving his support is very high — changing the entire voting system from winner-takes-all to proportional representation, which would give his party more say in the long term.

David Cowling, head of the BBC's political research unit, says that might just be too much for the Conservatives and the Labour Party, who like the winner-takes-all system.

"The only conceivable person who would consider making these changes, the price worth paying, is Gordon Brown," Cowling said. "I don't think the Conservatives would touch it, and if it was to come to pass, then he would have taken a step, he would have created a possibility for something which will have the most profound influence on British politics, not only immediately but forever after."

So if Labour or the Conservatives decide they don't want to pay that price, what might happen is that the party with the most votes — and that's most likely to be the Conservatives, according to pollsters — will govern as a minority government temporarily, with the view to calling another election in the fall, hoping to gain a majority then. And then everyone will have to go back and do the whole thing all over again.

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