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A guide to watching the British elections

By Marian Smith, msnbc.com

LONDON – It's the tightest election in decades in Britain. For Americans, here are some ways to keep tabs on the vote, the issues and the outcome.

The latest polls put the Conservative party ahead of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour party, but the race is far from over – the Independent newspaper reported today that four in 10 voters were undecided.  

If the Conservatives do pull out ahead as predicted, that doesn't guarantee their control of parliament, however. Here's where most Americans start scratching their heads. Just how does this system work exactly? Check out this Q &A from Reuters. 

Meantime, Britain's feisty tabloids kicked off their coverage with a typical slice of opinion Thursday.

www.thesun.co.uk
The cover of the conservative-leaning Sun tabloid on the U.K.'s election day, May 6, 2010.

The left-leaning Daily Mirror ran a picture of Cameron along with the words, "Prime Minister? Really?"  The Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun superimposed Cameron's face onto the ubiquitous "Hope" poster from President Barack Obama's election campaign.

Other newspapers were no less colorful – the left-leaning Guardian rounded up 14 election day front pages on its website.

There are excellent resources across the political spectrum on the Web for anyone curious about the election. Some of the best are: SKY News' election timeline, the BBC's useful interactive on where all the candidates stand on the key issues, and its thorough election seat calculator.

However, despite the excitement, the British media are prohibited from saying anything to sway the outcome of the election on voting day, so TV coverage will be a bit muted during the day.

But as results start coming after 10 p.m. local time (5 p.m. EST), the BBC will post live TV coverage online. An extensive list of BBC complete coverage links can be found here.

The SKY News channel's live TV player will also show election coverage online, but American viewers will only be able to see a reduced version.

Both the BBC and SKY are running live blogs on election day, as is Channel 4 News, which also posts clips of its news program online. 

Other good live blogs to watch are: The Guardian, The Times, and The Telegraph.

VIDEO: BBC's Matt Frei discusses the British elections with NBC's Savannah Guthrie

Until the final results are in, The Telegraph's assessment of five possible outcomes can provide comfort, inspire panic, or otherwise just inform.

And to read more from the parties themselves, go to official websites of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

So what will happen next? "The normal thing is someone wins, someone loses, the guy who loses will resign by lunchtime and will advise the queen to call for the person who's won," Peter Riddell, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, told the Associated Press.

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SLIDESHOW: Britain goes to the polls

But with an election so tight, a "normal" outcome isn't likely. The first exit polls are expected at 10 p.m. (5 p.m. EST) but a clear winner – and potentially a coalition partner – might not emerge for days.