What on earth just happened in the British election?

And what comes next?

Published May 7, 2010 12:08PM (EDT)

The British have had their election. So what the hell does it mean?

In some ways, yesterday's results were more ordinary than anyone expected from what was a genuinely unusual campaign: the unpopular incumbent Labour Party took a hit, though not as bad as expected. Labour's been cut down to 29 percent of the vote, which won the party 253 seats, so far, out of the 650-member House of Commons. (The counting isn't all the way done yet.)

The once-hated Conservatives (also known as the Tories), after spending 13 years out of power trying to reinvent themselves, managed to retake a narrow plurality. They've won 36 percent of the vote, and 298 seats.

And the Liberal Democrats, long stuck in a distant third place, stayed there. Voter disgust with both major parties failed to materialize into the expected surge for the center-left third party, which got 23 percent of the vote. Breaking all expectations, the Lib Dems actually suffered a net loss of six seats in Parliament (again, according to the count so far), bringing them down to 53 in total.

These results wouldn't have been that out of place in any of the recent, previous votes. The vaunted three-way election turned out not to be, and 2010 now looks like a fairly regular swing of the pendulum, five points to the right.

And yet the electorate has failed to render any kind of clear decision, and produced a once-in-a-generation hung Parliament. Tory leader David Cameron seems right when he says, "Labour has lost its mandate to govern this country." But no one else has won it. So what happens next?

The party leaders have to figure out among themselves whom the Queen will call up and ask to form a government. As the incumbent party, Labour traditionally gets the first crack. But it now looks like a coalition with the Liberal Democrats will likely be insufficient to get them over the top. In an apparent overture to the Lib Dems, Prime Minister Gordon Brown last night suggested that the country needs "far-reaching reforms to our political system" -- the main item on the Lib Dem agenda. But even if the numbers are there for a center-left coalition -- which they don’t yet appear to be -- it looks like no coalition will form behind Brown; if Labour wants to run the show, the party may have to oust its unpopular leader.

Besides, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has said that, by dint of their clear edge in the popular vote and seats in Parliament, the Tories have earned the right to try to form a government. However, it's much more difficult to imagine the Lib Dems cooperating with the Tories than with Labour. Cameron and the Conservatives are simply much less amenable to the progressive third party's ideas, in virtually every area. What Clegg and the Lib Dems want most is a switch from the current system of electing Parliament from single-member constituencies with first-past-the-post voting, in favor of a proportional representation system that will give the third party a much better shot. But, while Labour is open to this, the Tories are apparently not.

It is technically possible, though very difficult, to govern without a majority. Cameron will make a statement at 2:30 Greenwich Mean Time -- 9:30 eastern -- about how the Tories plan to form a government. They may try to bring into a coalition the eight members elected from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party. That wouldn't put the Conservatives over the top, but it'd bring them a bit closer, and maybe make a minority government viable.

All of this is to say that there's no obvious way to run this country. The voters wanted to punish Labour, but still don't trust the Tories, and seem not even to know what to make of the Lib Dems. Whoever does get control of the government, lacking anything in the way of a broad base of support, will have an awfully hard time keeping it. If the last hung Parliament, back in the 1970s, is any evidence, then a split like Britain has today is a recipe for indecision and ineffectiveness, and another election soon. Cameron is probably the best bet for prime minister a month from now. A year or two from now is anybody’s guess.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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