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New Feature: UK Election Backgrounders

News from the UK election campaign remains personality driven, with little new thinking as to what either of the big parties may actually do to turn around the British economy (other than some phantom level of expenditures cutting where Labour cuts = X and Tory cuts = X +2).

Gordon Brown spent a relatively quiet Friday at the Chilcot Inquiry and made few waves. Quite confident, yet sufficiently apologetic for the loss of life that has accompanied the Iraq conflict, Brown’s performance received a grudging nod from most of the UK media. He is not likely to have won any new supporters, however, by simply holding the line for the New Labour hawks of the early 2000s.

At the same time, David Cameron and the Tories were knocked a bit on their heels by news that their biggest donor and Conservative deputy party chairman Lord Ashcroft was a so-called “non-dom” who does not pay UK taxes on his billionaire’s wealth. With dual citizenship in the former South American British territory Belize, Ashcroft promised to end his non-domiciled status in 2000 in order take up his peerage in the House of Lords. The main critique has been that in the last week, Cameron’s responses have been weak and equivical. Basically, he hoped the whole thing would blow over — and certainly it will — but with it likely goes some portion of the Conservatives waning momentum.

Saturday oestensibly marked the two month mark ahead of the UK vote. Here at FiveThirtyEight we will now be kicking our coverage of the election into high gear, launching about nine weeks of regular coverage.

One new feature will be a set of background posts from myself and two newly added FiveThirtyEight research assistants. The goal is to provide some useful descriptive detail on the UK electoral system, campaign styles, key players and articles of controversy for our US-based and international audience.

The descriptive backgrounders will support a series of analytic pieces that will be more in line with the FiveThirtyEight ‘examine-and-project’ style.

The next few topics to be discussed in the next 8 weeks:

1. Boundary systems in the UK and US: Similarities, differences and why it matters in this elections. (12 March 2010)

2. Independent voters in the UK election:
Whichever party wins this year’s UK general elections will likely have swing voters to thank for it. As Nate pointed out last fall, though, this is a tautology: whichever party wins an election has by definition captured the swing vote. In the 2010 UK General, how do these voters break down?

3. The “Built-In Labour Bias”: Boundary commissions, tactical voting, or mythology? We will pick apart which elements are relevant and which political rhetoric in a 2010 context.

4. Projecting the outcome of the election: With reputable pollsters and smart poll aggregators, why is there so much question about the outcome of the election? We will examine what is needed to effectively project individual constituencies, along with the national party share numbers.

We have tackled a few issues already, for those who have not been following the series closely.

1. A Hung Parliament (From the Gallows, Perhaps?): Basic electoral information and history from the past 25 years.

2. Instant Run-Off Proposed by Brown: Considerations of the Alternative Vote proposal, and how it might play in this election.

3. For UK Conservatives, It’s the MP Ratio that Matters: Translating national horse race numbers into shares of the final allocationo of MPs is always a challenge in the UK. This article looks at why it matters.

Update: In addition to our articles here at FiveThirtyEight, I’ll be doing a series of posts at the Guardian’s Comment is Free: link here

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international affairs columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at