Election 2017

General election 2017: The non-Brit's guide to the UK election

Elizabeth Tower with the union flag flying in front Image copyright Getty Images

You may have heard that voters in the UK are going to the polls on 8 June to choose the entire national parliament - all 650 seats.

But for those who don't know what a Tory is and can't pronounce Plaid Cymru, here's a crash course in the UK's general election.

Why is there an election? Didn't Britain just get a new prime minister?

It's been a busy year in politics here.

Yes, there was an election in May 2015, where the Conservative Party defied expectations to edge a tiny majority in parliament - after having been in a coalition government with another smaller party.

Part of their election strategy was promising a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union - even though the party officially wanted to stay in.

The British exit (or Brexit) referendum happened in June 2016, and the result was a surprise to many. Voters chose to leave the EU.

But the prime minister at the time, David Cameron, had campaigned to stay - so after his defeat, he decided it was time to surrender the top job.

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Media captionHow the surprise general election unfolded - in one minute

Theresa May became the prime minister (more on that later), and repeatedly said the government would serve its five-year term.

Then, in April, she suddenly called a new election for just seven weeks' time.

Why? She said she needed a bigger majority to guarantee political stability in the Brexit negotiations with the EU.

Opponents, though, believe she was tempted by poor polling numbers for the main opposition party, Labour - and saw a political opportunity.

Ok. So who are the main parties and what are their differences?

Britain traditionally has two major parties: the Conservatives (who are nicknamed the Tories), and Labour (just Labour).

The Conservatives traditionally lean to the political right; Labour has its origins in the trade union movement, and leans left.

Those two titans are joined by the centrist Liberal Democrats, a once-strong party almost wiped out in the last election; the environmentally-aware Greens; and the pro-Brexit right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Leaders of (clockwise): Greens, UKIP, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, and the SNP

England accounts for 533 of the seats - it's got the biggest population in the UK by far.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) holds 56 of 59 seats - a dominant position it won in 2015 at Labour's expense. The nationalists want to hold on to that. Internationally, they're best known for campaigning for Scottish independence.

In Wales, Plaid Cymru - a Welsh term meaning the Party of Wales, and pronounced "PLIGHD KUM-ri"- has just three seats out of 40. And Northern Ireland accounts for another 18 seats.

A tale of two leaders

The UK voting system for general elections is simple - whoever gets the most votes in their constituency wins the seat. No transfers, and no proportional representation.

That system tends to favour the big established parties over the smaller ones, and tactical voting is a big part of the process.

All of which means there's a sharp focus on not just the local candidates, but the party leaders who could be the prime minister.

Those leaders are Theresa May (Conservatives) and Jeremy Corbyn (Labour).

But both are unusual.

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Media captionAfter the election was called, the pair traded barbs in parliament

The Conservative leadership campaign was a political soap opera all by itself, with a dramatic drop-out on live TV, labelled by our political correspondent as "Richard III meets Scarface, with a bit of Godfather thrown in."

In the end, Theresa May was the only candidate left - and became Britain's new prime minister by default, without a vote.

On the other side, there's Mr Corbyn - a life-long socialist, whose election in 2015 as leader, aged 66, was one of the biggest upsets in British political history.

He reluctantly put his name down for the top job because none of his friends on Labour's socialist left wing wanted to do it. Bookies gave him odds of 200-1.

His election victory- fuelled by a grassroots movement of ordinary Labour members - split the party in two, and the party's MPs almost immediately attempted to depose him.

But his popular support has kept the bicycle-riding, left-leaning Labour leader in power - while his political opponents seek to capitalise on the party's perceived crisis.

Why it matters - it's all about Brexit

In a nutshell, the Conservatives are looking for a big majority in parliament for the Brexit negotiations, keeping things "strong and stable", as they put it. And put it again, and again.

When Theresa May called the election, polls showed she was likely to win a landslide - and cement her political power. But things move quickly in politics.

Since then, almost three million people have applied to vote - more than a million of whom are aged under 25. It's not clear how that might affect the outcome.

And opinion polls, for what they're worth, seem to suggest Labour has closed the gap.

Image caption Our poll tracker (7 June) showed Labour narrowing the gap - but the Conservatives still out in front

Despite politicians from both sides focusing on security in the final days, neither the attack in Manchester last month or the London Bridge attack this week seems to have made much difference to the trend.

Recent polls have given The Conservatives a lead of anywhere between one and 12 points - and they are still widely seen as the most likely to win this election.

But if they end up losing seats in parliament, it's possible - if unlikely - that someone with completely different plans could be sitting at the negotiating table in Europe.

Then again, Labour says it will still push ahead with Brexit - so it's a question of how rather than if.

There's another possibility - one recent poll, splashed on the front page of the Times newspaper suggested the Tories could lose seats, resulting in a "hung parliament".

That's just a British term for no single party having an outright majority. That might be common in many nations that usually have coalition governments, but it's a little rarer in the UK.

I'm a foreigner who lives (or wants to live) in the UK. Might this affect me?

Almost certainly. Immigration is a big issue on the campaign trail.

The current Conservative government wants to reduce net migration - the difference between people entering the UK and people leaving - to "tens of thousands" a year (it's currently about +248,000 a year).

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption In the wake of the Brexit vote, border security is a top campaign issue

The Conservatives' manifesto says they want to double the Immigration Skills Charge - a levy of up to £1,000 ($1,300) they introduced in April, charging companies for every foreign worker they sponsor.

They've promised to increase the minimum income someone has to earn to come on a family visa, and "toughen" visa requirements for students.

And the party says it will triple the Immigration Health Surcharge - a levy foreigners have to pay to let them use the National Health Service (NHS) - from £200 to £600.

Labour acknowledges that Brexit means the free movement of people from Europe will end - but promises it won't "scapegoat migrants".

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Media captionJeremy Corbyn: "Investment and assistance, not racism and division"

Instead of raising income thresholds for migrants, Labour plans to end them - but oblige people coming here to survive without falling back on public money. Its manifesto contains a pledge to "protect those already working here, whatever their ethnicity" and says it won't count international students in the main immigration numbers.

But at the same time, it says it will recruit an extra 500 border guards.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Green party support free movement between the UK and the EU. The Lib Dems say they would allow "high-skilled immigration", and, like Labour and Plaid Cymru, take students out of the immigration statistics.

The Greens also say their immigration and asylum system would be "humane". And Plaid Cymru says it will introduce a new, Wales-specific visa.

Why the UK election isn't exciting Americans

But what about the other policies, like health and taxes?

The BBC's election team have put together a comprehensive guide where you can choose an issue and get a quick comparison, or find links to every manifesto in fill.

Got it. I'm a foreigner living in the UK - can I vote?

Not unless you already registered - the deadline was 22 May.

If you're not a UK citizen, you can't vote anyway - except for Irish nationals, or Commonwealth citizens living in the UK legally.

If you're from one of those countries and have registered before - in the local elections or the Brexit referendum, for example - you might be on the electoral roll, which you can check with your local authority.

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