A Guide to Why the U.K. Election Is Exciting Even if You're Not British

UK General Election
A woman walks past a poster ahead of the forthcoming general election in south London, Britain, June 7, 2017. Hannah McKay/Reuters

It's time for another U.K. general election! You know, the ones that are like American elections, except without the money, or the personalities, or the hysterical cheering, and taking place across a country just 57 percent the size of California.

Still, there's plenty here to excite you—and there's more to come. As Wednesday—the last day of campaigning—rolls round, here's your cheat sheet to Thursday's snap vote.

Who are people voting for?

Incumbent Prime Minister Theresa May, of the Conservative Party, called the vote early (no election was expected until 2020) because she wants to grow her majority and gain a strong hand to negotiate Britain's exit from the European Union.

If you read European or some U.S. press, you might have seen May lumped in with populists like France's Marine Le Pen. But that's wrong. May is to the right of any British prime minister since Margaret Thatcher, and is especially tough on immigration, which she wants to drastically slash. But on the economy, despite pitching directly to "working-class" voters in an unusual manner for a Conservative and pledging to introduce some new rights for workers including the right to a year's unpaid leave to care for a relative, the core of May's manifesto is traditionally center-right: low-tax, low-spend. In many areas of policy, May is offering no change.

Read more: Can a pro-EU party stage a fightback in Brexit Britain?

Jeremy Corbyn, of the opposition Labour Party, was seen by the media at the start of the campaign as hardly worthy of serious attention; the conventional wisdom was that his left-wing views, lack of polish, and inability to unite his party meant he simply couldn't compete.

But Corbyn and his office have run a stormer of a campaign. Where the Labour leader was previously inaccessible to media or angry under questioning, he has given a series of confident and genuinely humorous TV appearances. His manifesto launch was disrupted by unauthorized leaks, but the document contained policies dismissed by mainstream parties for years but genuinely popular with the public, from ramping up tax on big companies to nationalizing the rail networks.

There are other parties, from the centrist Liberal Democrats to the hard-right UKIP. But at this point they all look set for disappointing results. That in itself is a story: in 2015, commentators thought British politics was fracturing and support for the main parties was in freefall. Now, it is the two mainstream parties of government that are likely to hoover up the vast bulk of votes.

Why should I care?

Even if you have no connection to Britain, the result will have an impact on the rest of the world.

A big win for Theresa May means she will have a free hand to do what she wants during Brexit negotiations. That might mean she would pursue closer co-operation with the EU, since she won't have to pander to the hard-right of her party to get a Brexit deal past parliament. Or it might mean she will have the confidence to push ahead with total departure from all EU institutions including the single market and customs union without fear of interruption by opposition parties. It could even mean she feels emboldened to leave Europe without a deal, as she has occasionally threatened. Few know which way May would go. Given that the snap election was called after months of her and her aides' public and private insisting that no vote was forthcoming, not many journalists really have access to what May thinks.

A win for Corbyn would be a truly remarkable political event, dwarfing Brexit or the election of Donald Trump for the element of surprise, and representing the greatest opinion polling failure in British history. Whether you view Corbyn as a rabble-rousing populist or the last bastion of decency in politics, the whole world would have to take note.

Read more: Immigration, not education: How Britain has changed between Tony Blair's 1997 win and 2017

And international attention has turned back to the U.K. after the campaign was rocked by two attacks claimed by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), one suicide bomb attack at a Manchester concert on May 22—the first successful use of explosives by violent extremist on the British mainland since 2005—and a vehicle and knife attack in South East London on Saturday. The attacks have left a total of 30 people dead. May, a former interior minister, is most likely to benefit from voters looking for someone with a focus on security. But Corbyn has landed blows on her party by pointing to cuts in policing during its 7-year rule over Britain.

So what will happen?

To put it bluntly: nobody knows for sure. The Conservatives started out with a vast poll lead of about 20 points. That has now narrowed to about six points.

Despite the critical coverage that May has earned (a Conservative minister told The Times it was "the worst campaign of my entire life"), it's important to remember that this still means she is very likely to win. British polls have been wrong before, including in 2015 when number crunchers predicted no overall winner, only to have the Conservatives earn a small majority. But when the polls are wrong, they tend to overestimate Labour's support, not underestimate it. And traditionally, an opposition party would need to be well ahead in the polls to be confident of victory.

But one projection by the pollster YouGov found that a "hung parliament" scenario, where nobody wins and parties have to form a coalition, was most likely.

Read more: What the election means for Scottish independence

Even if May does win, the size of her majority will be important. Much of her improved poll score has come about because of the collapse of UKIP, whose right-wing voters prefer her to the centrist predecessor David Cameron. Exactly how many of these voters plump for May, and where in the country, will be vital, and a lack of detailed constituency polls in Britain make predicting this very difficult.

On the Labour side, much of Corbyn's increased support is coming from 18-24 year olds, who are traditionally very unlikely to vote. One pollster, Survation, is registering over 80 percent of this group as saying they intend to vote. It is possible that Corbyn's bold social justice focus and his pledge to scrap university tuition fees really will deliver a surge of youth support. But given that just 44 percent of the cohort voted in 2015, it would be unwise to bet on that.

A Guide to Why the U.K. Election Is Exciting Even if You're Not British | World