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Published: Tuesday, 5/11/2010

Britain's dilemma

THE United Kingdom's election results have left it with a major puzzle to work out before it has a government to tackle its problems.

The opposition Conservative Party ended up with the largest number of seats in the 650-member Parliament, although not the 326-seat majority needed to govern alone. The incumbent Labor Party finished second, and the Liberal Democrats third. The British call this electoral dilemma a "hung Parliament."

The Conservatives plus the Liberal Democrats could govern if they were able to form a coalition, the most likely outcome of the interparty negotiations. Labor could form a majority with the Liberal Democrats only with additional votes from some of the U.K.'s smaller parties.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has fluttered his eyelashes at the Conservatives by saying that, since the Conservatives received the most votes and the most seats, they have the right to be first to try to form a government. The Lib Dems are in an odd position in that their popularity during the campaign, based in part on general British exasperation with the government in power, was not reflected at the polls. They lost seats overall.

That may make it relatively easy for the Conservatives to get them to back off their demand for proportional representation in future elections, which the Conservatives do not support. The current constituency setup meant that in this election the Conservatives and Labor both received more seats than their percentage of the popular vote would have given them. The Lib Dems got fewer.

All of which shows that the United Kingdom, too, is an imperfect democracy. This divergence is reminiscent of the U.S. Electoral College's disconnect between popular and electoral votes.

A refreshing aspect of the British elections was that active campaigning took place only for a month, as opposed to the perpetual campaign in the United States. Still, the hybrid government that will emerge from these elections isn't likely to survive for long. The last hung Parliament in 1974 led to new elections within eight months.

The impact on Britain's relationship with the United States likely will be slight. The interests don't change much, whatever government emerges. Labor doesn't necessarily get along better with Democrats, nor Conservatives with Republicans.

America benefits above all from solid, popular-based government in London.



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