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In Britain, the implications of a three-party system

It turns out that the rise of the third-party Liberal Democrats into the top ranks of British politics was not a fluke, the temporary result of a single boffo debate performance by the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg. After the second debate last Thursday, Clegg consolidated his party’s standing. And this is turning the final half of the campaign into a kind of political bazaar.

The current betting for the May 6 election (which, of course, could prove wrong in this so-far precedent-shattering election) is that no party will get a majority of parliamentary seats. The latest YouGov poll shows the Conservatives with 34 percent, the Lib Dems with 30 percent, Labor with 28 percent. Such numbers would almost certainly produce a hung Parliament, and both the ruling Labor Party and the Conservatives would then try to negotiate with Clegg and his party to form a government.

Because the Lib Dems are a center-left party, the obvious coalition is between Clegg’s party and the Labor Party led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. But in many of the seats where the Lib Dems have the best chance of winning, they are competing with the Conservatives. This means that Clegg must: 1) win over Labour-leaning tactical voters who want to defeat Conservative leader David Cameron and the Conservative Party; and 2) close the deal with middle-of-the road voters who intensely dislike Brown and want a new government.

So on Sunday, Clegg signaled that he would not form a government with Labor if Labor ran third in the popular vote. The subliminal suggestion was that if the Lib Dems ended up allying with Labor, Brown would have to step aside as prime minister, opening the way for a new Labor Party leader. This is creating turmoil inside Labor -- or so, at least, the British papers are reporting -- with some in the party leadership apparently prepared to push Brown aside if that would secure a Labor-Lib Dem coalition government. Here’s what Nigel Morris reported in The Independent this morning:

Alan Johnson the Home Secretary, yesterday revealed cracks in Labour unity as he called for sweeping electoral reform and told colleagues not to be "frightened" of sharing power with the Liberal Democrats.

He spoke out amid growing recriminations in senior Labour ranks over a lacklustre campaign that has seen the party relegated to third place in opinion polls. His comments were seen last night as a sign that ministers are beginning to contemplate attempting to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, a move that would probably require Gordon Brown to step down. The front-runners to succeed him as Labour leader would include Mr Johnson, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary. Last night a Miliband ally said: "There are a lot of discussions going on about David's future chances."

In the meantime, Cameron realizes that his party is in a dogfight with the Lib Dems in many constituencies, and so he reached out to their supporters on Monday, even as he also criticized the party itself. As the Guardian reports on its blog, “Cameron appealed to people with ‘idealism and progressive ideals hardwired into their DNA’... Cameron has been calling himself a ‘progressive’ Conservative ever since he became party leader, but he seems to be making this case today in a bid to counter the rise in Lib Dem support."

And one more sign of how the Lib Dems are roiling everything in this election: A left-of center group called Compass is canvassing its supporters to determine if the group should support tactical voting to defeat the Conservatives -- i.e., urging normally Labor-supporting center-left voters to support the Lib Dems in seats where they are better placed to defeat the Conservatives. There has been a lot of anti-Conservative tactical voting in recent elections, but raising this approach in a formal way underscores how this election could realign the British center-left and give the Lib Dems a central role in progressive politics in the future.

There is one more debate among the three party leaders this Thursday, which could conceivably create one last unexpected turn in this election. For now, it’s very difficult to see how any party wins a majority. The only chance the Conservatives have of winning outright is if the Lib Dems take so many votes away from Labor in seats where the main battle is between Conservatives and Labor that the Tories make unexpected gains. I don’t think that is likely.

In fact, there has been a slight uptick in Labor’s support in some polls. Labor is close enough that it just might avoid a disastrous third-place showing in the popular vote. But tactical voting for the Lib Dems by Labor voters could cut Labor’s total share of the popular vote. Thus another possibility: Labor could improve enough to give it the most seats, even if the party comes in third in the popular vote. (Labor has an advantage in the way parliamentary districts are drawn; the Conservatives will probably “waste” a lot of votes by winning their strongholds with huge majorities.) That’s probably what would happen if the election were held today. Also factor this in: Brown and his main campaign guru, Lord Peter Mandelson, are very shrewd politicians. Don’t rule out Brown putting on a good debate performance this week and closing strong.

You do have to factor in the personal, and Clegg seems to dislike Brown intensely. He might have to make a deal with the Conservatives if the Tories manage to win the most seats on May 6. But a long-term coalition between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives is unnatural. So the bottom line, I think, is that there is a realignment happening on the British center-left. My hunch is that unless Clegg totally fails in the final stretches of the campaign, the future of the British left will lie in coalition politics between Labor and the Lib Dems.

By E.J. Dionne  | April 26, 2010; 10:31 AM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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In Canada, we have been in a parlimentary minority government since 2004.

While an implicit or even a formal coalition government could happen between the liberals and the Labour Party, what is more likely is a tactical agreement.

The Liberal Democrats will likely support the government (be it Conservative or Labour) on a basis of individual initiatives.

Under a parlimentary government, not all defeats of legislative initiatives result in the fall of a government. Money bills and Throne speeches are subject to confidence votes -- but everything else can live or die, depending on the government.

With the noted exception that the opposition could raise motions of confidence in the government, the defeat of which would result in the fall of the government -- but it would require some rationale and caution on the part of the opposition.

In Canada, the voters are dubious of the value of another election (having been through 3 already since 2004 without substantial change).

What a minority government leads to ... is either compromise (no overarching philosophic change) or rampant vote buying.

Difficult choices are ones that aren't usually made in a Minority, and that is probably the strongest argument for either Labour or the Conservatives to be given a majority.

Posted by: RobK1 | April 26, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Trying to explain the British election system to Americans is like trying to explain cricket. As matters stand, due to the distribution of constituency seats, Labour may well end up with the smallest (of the three) share of the total popular vote but the largest number of members in the House of Commons. Gordon Brown remains Prime Minister until such time as he finds he cannot put together a majority (323 - the five Sinn Fein members and the Speaker do not vote)with the Lib-Dems, when he would have to submit his resignation to the Queen and he would also resign leadership of the Labour party. At that point the Queen would invite the new Labour leader to form a government and Lib-Dems would then be prepared to cooperate. As part of their price, the Lib-Dems would probably demand a commitment to changing the electoral system to embrace some form of proportional representation, which neither Labour nor Conservative wish to see. In sum, UK domestic politics are in for a foggy few months.

Posted by: pigmalion1 | April 27, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

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