Yesterday’s UK election has seemingly produced a loss for every party. The Tories gained seats but look to have fallen short of a majority, which means they won’t form the next government. Cleggomania not only failed to translate into big parliamentary pick-ups for the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party actually seems to have lost a couple of seats. And Labour, of course, has lost a majority, although Gordon Brown may have a chance to stay in power if he can work out a coalition government with the Lib Dems. Chances are, what he’ll offer Clegg is electoral reform that will strengthen Labour and the Lib Dems alike against the Tories in the future. One possibility is the “alternate vote,” which allows voters to pick a second choice, as well as a first, on their ballots. Since most Lib Dems would prefer Labour over the Conservatives and most Labour voters would prefer the Lib Dems, the system could keep the Tories out of power for a long time to come — if not permanently.
Considering that this election presented just about the most favorable circumstances imaginable for the Lib Dems — an impressive performance by Clegg in the first televised debate and a political environment of fatigue with both the Conservatives and especially Labour — their under-performance suggests that the party will only increase its share in future Parliaments by changing the electoral system. For all that Clegg occasionally baited Prime Minister Gordon Brown during the campaign, he and his party will nonetheless, I suspect, grasp at the only chance to improve their fortunes. Besides, the taste of power in a coalition government, even as a junior partner, has plenty of allure.
A great deal hinges on how slim a margin of control a Lib-Lab coalition might have — assuming the two parties together even have a majority, which they might not. There are enough other small parties with a handful of parliamentary seats to complicate things. The next few days will be a very interesting time in British politics, a little reminiscent (in tension, if not for the same reasons) of the U.S. electoral logjam in 2000.