The British elections scheduled to take place on May 6 are shaping up to be very interesting. The initial lead enjoyed by the Conservatives has evaporated. Although Labour has not been able to overcome their failings in the polls, the Liberal Democrats—the perennial third party of British politics—is making a contest of it. On Thursday night, the country held its first live televised debate between the three major candidates for Prime Minister. Most accounts of the debate suggest that Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, won the debate, with both Gordon Brown, the leader of the Labour Party and current Prime Minister, and James Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, performing poorly. Polling after the debate confirms this analysis, with the Liberal Democrats enjoying a considerable bump in support and the election becoming a statistical dead heat between England’s three parties.
If the election results hold, the British parliament will become a very interesting place indeed. A coalition government would likely be necessary, forcing one or more of the larger parties to seek partners in their effort to establish a government. While such coalitions are common in the parliamentary systems of continental Europe, England has traditionally maintained a two-party system like the United States, with Labour and the Conservatives alternating control of the legislature much like the Democrats and Republicans alternate in the United States. Coalition governments tend to be less stable and usually force parties to compromise their agendas with other parties.
What’s more, Nick Clegg would likely become the kingmaker in any new government, providing the support of the traditional third party of British politics, the Liberal Democrats, to the coalition partner in exchange for policy concessions. Such concessions would certainly force either party to the left.
The British elections could potentially carry other important implications as well. The Economist’s Charlemagne’s Notebook blog contends this week that observers in the European Union are hoping for a Liberal Democrat win because they view the Lib Dem’s leader, Nick Clegg, as being the most pro-Europe of the major candidates. His experience working in both the European Commission and the European Parliament certainly lends credence to this possibility.
All of this depends on whether the Liberal Democrats are able to translate their popular support into seats in the parliament. The first-past-the-post electoral system of the United Kingdom (like that of the United States) does not directly translate popular support into representation. The candidate that wins the plurality of votes in a riding (or district) wins that seat, even if they fail to secure a majority of the vote. If, for example, the Liberal Democrats win 30 percent of the vote across the country, but that support is evenly distributed, they could win far fewer seats—perhaps as little as 15-20 percent of the seats. Conversely, Labour and Conservaites, who enjoy geographically concentrated representation, may be able to translate a similar 30 percent of the vote into as much as 40 percent of the seats in parliament.
Whatever happens, the British election will be an interesting one to watch. Follow along at the BBC’s Election 2010 website.