Change coming in Britain

You just gotta love the British press.

Before I set about writing this column the day before U.K. voters settle one of the most contentious parliamentary elections in decades, I gathered four popular newspapers at my breakfast table in a Kensington hotel. I could have been reading about four totally different elections. Two of the papers devoted their entire front page to torrid screeds about the very real possibility of a “hung Parliament.” The Independent proclaimed, “Britain has a historic opportunity to end our unfair and discredited voting system for ever.” The Daily Mail, on the other hand, warned the nation could be “walking blindly into disaster,” one that “could shape our way of life and our country’s place in the world for generations to come.” 

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And all that before we were able to read a word of real news about this most volatile election in recent memory.

Not that a “hung Parliament” is not an issue. If none of the three leading parties wins an outright majority of seats in the House of Commons — not necessarily to be confused with a majority of votes in the country — then no one can be elected prime minister without forming a coalition government. On the eve of the election, there is little agreement as to whether any of the three parties can win a majority, and even less over just what the make-up of a minority-led coalition might look like.

The natural alignments — Conservatives and Liberal Dems or Labour and Liberal Dems — began to look less certain over the past few days as stories began to circulate that David Cameron was considering a deal with Northern Ireland MPs of the tiny Democratic Unionist Party who would cast their 10 or so votes with the Conservatives in exchange for protection from public spending cuts. Whether 10 votes is enough to put Cameron over the top, we won’t know until all the votes are cast Thursday — and you can find a poll to win either side of that argument if you look far enough.

The only consistent trend in major polls followed by the press and most political activists is Labour’s weak support and the shifting fortunes of the Conservatives and Liberal Dems. Cameron and his Conservative Party have been trending stronger in the past few days. After a spectacular surge in support following Nick Clegg’s television appearances, the Liberal Dems still lead Labour but trail the Conservatives in most polls. And just to make things more confusing, there is slim evidence of a “stealth vote” for Labour from Britons who just don’t want to admit they are supporting a discredited candidate.

Another unknown is how Labour voters will respond to pleas from many of their leaders that they engage in “tactical voting” — casting their ballots for Liberal Democrats in districts where that might deny Conservatives a victory. Although this strategy seems too clever by half, it shows the desperation of politicians who’d prefer making a pact with the Lib Dems to living with a Conservative government, even one that is weakened by its minority status and likely to fall within a year. 

No matter who ultimately winds up at 10 Downing Street, it is likely this election will change the nature of British politics. Clegg will likely not join a coalition government that doesn’t commit to electoral reforms that include proportional representation, which means the end of de facto two-party government in Britain. Possibly of more importance in the long run is that Clegg has almost single-handedly turned the Lib Dems from a fringe minority party into a true contender. Deep in the polls is evidence that the party will sweep a number of local council elections and begin building a real grassroots base.

The challenge will be for Clegg, as leader, to re-brand his party and give it the contemporary image he has fashioned for himself. As one columnist wrote (only slightly tongue-in-cheekily) this week, Nick Clegg captured the fancy of the nation but then let everyone remember that he led the Liberal Democrats — a group that has been marginalized so long it has a tarnished brand. If there is a hung Parliament and if he is part of the coalition that governs Britain (probably even if he is maneuvered out of a leadership role), his challenge will be to reshape his party in an image much like his own. 

Just as Tony Blair created “New Labour,” Clegg can create a potent third alternative to the old guard that has ruled England for decades. No matter the outcome of this fascinating election, it is likely those who go to the polls on Thursday will fundamentally change British politics.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com