Crashing Britain’s Two-Party System

Nick Clegg has already pulled off an even more important victory -- reforming his country's unfair electoral rules.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Thursday marked the end of the most fascinating British election in recent memory, a two-way race between David Cameron’s Conservatives and Gordon Brown’s Labour Party that was unexpectedly hijacked by the Liberal Democratic candidate, Nick Clegg. The rise of the Liberal Democrats has highlighted the biases of the British electoral system — and raised the possibility that it may finally be reformed.

Entering this campaign season, the storyline of this election seemed fairly simple: Cameron, facing off against an unpopular prime minister, would oversee a changing of the guard after 13 years of Labour Party rule. A year ago, Conservatives were up by a healthy 15 to 20 points.

Then the 2009 expenses scandal hit, when the Daily Telegraph reported that MPs on both sides of the aisle were claiming expenses on frivolous purchases like oak toilet seats and an island for ducks. The backlash hurt both parties, but it narrowed the Tory lead. Cameron and his top deputy, George Osbourne, have also caused the electorate to hesitate: Despite attempts to broaden the appeal of the party, their biographies play into almost every stereotype of the old Etonian, pro-business Tory aristocracy.

Meanwhile, Brown, despite having all the charm of a toadstool, has managed a surprising level of resilience in the face of the Tory challenge. The prime minister has doggedly defended Labour’s record since 1997 and attacked the Conservatives as preparing to launch massive cutbacks on key services, including the national health-care system and education.

Brown’s position is considerably strengthened by Britain’s non-proportional electoral system. Because national popular votes do not have any direct bearing on the election — much like in a U.S. presidential race — opposition votes in safe districts have little impact. Across the country, 49 percent of constituencies have not changed party since 1970. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, for example, Labour won 35.3 percent of the popular vote — just 3.6 percent more than the Conservatives. However, they walked away with 356 seats, or 55 percent of the House of Commons, compared to the Tories’ 198 seats, or 31 percent of the House. Turnout is quite low in these safe districts, regardless of the dominant party, giving them a disproportionately small impact on the overall vote total.

The biggest loser from Britain’s winner-take-all voting system, however, has been the country’s perpetual also-ran, the Liberal Democrats. In the elections since 1970, the party has earned between 15 and 25 percent of the popular vote, but has won less than 10 percent of the seats in Parliament. Their largest haul was in the 2005 election, where they gained 22 percent of the popular vote and took 62 seats, or 10 percent of the total, in the House.

This election could change that, however. Clegg’s impressive performance in Britain’s first nationally televised debate on April 17 turned the campaign on its head. The Lib Dems’ strong polling numbers have slackened only slightly in the weeks since that event, and the party appears to be positioned for its strongest showing in decades.

Currently, the Liberal Democrats are neck and neck with Labour for second place in national polls, with our FiveThirtyEight polling average putting them one point ahead of Labour and seven points behind the Conservatives. However, the biased electoral system stills works to their disadvantage when it comes to winning seats in Parliament. Our projection model predicts that the Conservatives will win 308 seats, Labour will take 198, and the Liberal Democrats will hold 113.

A few last-minute twists could affect these results along the margins. If Labour can mobilize their base in Scotland and Wales effectively, they are likely to claw back a half-dozen seats from the Lib Dems. The Tories could also get a last minute boost from centrist voters, whose initial enthusiasm for Clegg is cooling.

These minor changes, however, should not distract from the fact that the Conservatives are on track for their first national electoral win since 1992. However, governing will be difficult: The Tories could easily fall short of the 326 MPs required for a majority in the House. A minority government would be challenged to pass legislation and vote down measures of no confidence, which would dissolve the parliament and force a new election. The possibility of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition government also looms — though it remains to be seen whether Clegg would risk his mantle of change by throwing his support behind the tired Labour Party.

These developments place the Liberal Democrats in their strongest position in a century to address their top issue: electoral reform. By changing the plurality voting system to a proportional system, which apportions seats in a district based on the percentage of the vote won, the Lib Dems will bolster their ability to win seats in future elections.

The Tories will likely still emerge victorious — but this may not be the election’s most important result. The Liberal Democrats’ rise has brought an air of inevitability to the issue of electoral reform that had not existed previously. If the party plays its cards right, this election could fundamentally alter British politics — a fitting end to an intriguing campaign.

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