The Lib Dems surge in Britain 

The leaders of the three major British political parties participated in a televised debate last Thursday, April 15, and it’s widely agreed that Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the descendant of the Liberal party which governed Britain for much of the period from the 1850s to 1916, but which hasn’t won a general election since 1910, was the winner. Conservative party leader David Cameron failed to dazzle, and Labour party Prime Minister Gordon Brown did even more poorly. Before the debate, the big story in the campaign was the narrowing of the Conservatives’ lead in the polls and the increasing possibility of a hung Parliament, in which Conservatives would fail to win a majority of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. Polls since the debate have shown the Lib Dems rising sharply, with Labour and Conservatives both falling off.

Clegg did well in the debate by attacking the two larger parties as insiders, and he was helped by the fact that he is freer to mouth appealing slogans because no one thinks he will be prime minister or that his party’s manifesto will be the basis of the new government. His primary goal is to get into government by denying the two larger parties a parliamentary majority and exacting from one of them as the price for the Lib Dems support some form of proportional representation. This might mean that there would never be a clear Labour or Conservative government again, and that the Lib Dems would, like the Free Democrats in Germany from 1973 to 1998, determine which larger party would form the government. This strikes me as a profoundly undesirable result. Instead of parties being chosen by the voters and being held responsible by them, a few insiders of a small party would make those decisions.

British commentators are divided on whether the Lib Dem surge is likely to persist or not. In any case, there is a clear change from the pre-April 15 opinion. The table compares the percentages for the parties in five post-April 15 polls with those in six pre-April 15 polls.

                       Cons Lab LibDem

Post-April 15       32     27    30

Pre-April 15         36    30     21

Using this website to predict the actual number of seats each party will win if they receive those percentages of the vote, we come up with the following. In each case minor parties get 14 seats.

                     Cons Lab LibDem

Post-April 15    258   251  109

Pre-April 15      292  268    58

These results will look odd to most Americans. Post-April 15 the Lib Dems are getting more votes than Labour but are winning only 109 seats to Labour’s 251. One reason for this disparity is districting. This is the first election in which district boundaries are based on the 2001 census, but Britain does not require exact population equality in districts and the Labour party has been far better than its rivals in gaming the complex districting system. As a result, many lightly populated areas in Britain’s old industrial cities, almost all heavily Labour, are overrepresented. Turnout was low in such districts in the 2001 and 2005 general elections, so that Labour gets more seats per national votes cast than the Conservatives, and much more than the Liberal Democrats.

Beyond that, the formula this website uses for translating poll results into victories in each district assumes a uniform swing in each district. But British voters are well practiced in tactical voting. They have a keen idea of the partisan balance in their own districts and vote accordingly. In 1997 and 2001 tactical voting was almost all aimed at defeating Conservatives: in many districts negligible numbers of votes were cast for either Labour or Lib Dems, as anti-Conservative voters swung to the locally more viable opposing party. In 2005 there was also some tactical voting against Labour, primarily from high-education opponents of British military involvement in Iraq. I met a two-generation family of four in Putney, a London seat south of the Thames, who told me that two of them were voting Lib Dem, one Conservative and one Labour. The reason? “We want Labour to win with a reduced majority”—which is what happened.

There is speculation in the British press that after the April 15 debate many voters swung to the Lib Dems with a view to denying Conservatives a majority and installing a “hung Parliament.” But such a swing raises the possibility that the widely reviled Gordon Brown will continue to be prime minister—the opposite of what a clear majority of British voters want.

I certainly don’t regard the current numbers as set in stone. There will be two more debates, on April 22 and April 29, and opinion may swing again in response to them. Also, and perhaps more important, tactically-minded British voters may reflect on the outcome projected from current polls and decide that they prefer another outcome—and may switch again to produce that. It will be fascinating to watch. I plan to be in Britain for the election May 6—God and Icelandic volcanoes willing.

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Michael Barone

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