Britons Reject Electoral Changes, Dashing Hopes of Minority Party

BY Larisa Epatko  May 6, 2011 at 5:10 PM EST


Board showing vote tally of British referendum. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

Britain’s junior partner in the national coalition, the Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg, got a double whammy Friday when they took a beating in local elections and lost a referendum vote that would have changed Britain’s electoral system in their favor.

The referendum would have changed the way members of the House of Commons are elected from a system — like the U.S. — in which the candidate with the most votes wins the seat, to voters ranking a series of candidates according to their preference. If no candidate gets an outright majority, the one with the least votes gets eliminated and the rest go through further rounds of preference votes until one gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

This alternative system would have favored the Liberal Democrats, who tend to get more votes nationally than reflected in their number of seats in Parliament.

The referendum — a rarity in Britain — was part of an agreement the center-left Liberal Democrats made last year with the center-right Conservatives, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, to form a coalition government. Clegg pushed for the change, while Cameron opposed it.

Thursday’s referendum had a number of factors working against it, according to Ned Temko, a journalist and political analyst who writes for the Observer in London.

It was held the same day as local elections, and the losses the Liberal Democrats suffered in the local elections appeared to spill over into the result on the referendum, he said.

Also, while many British people feel there’s a disconnect between politicians and the electorate, and that the electoral system needs improving, England is an inherently conservative country that doesn’t tend to change something unless there’s an overriding urgent argument to do so, said Temko.

In London, where residents were voting only on the referendum and not in local elections, there was a low turnout indicating some indifference to the electoral change, he said.

Also a drawback — explaining the referendum itself. “It’s kind of complicated to explain in a way that’s sexy and simple,” he added. “Any argument that requires a minute and a half to explain to an electorate is probably going to be difficult to sell.”

The Liberal Democrats also got trounced in local elections, which was not entirely unexpected in light of the government’s cost-cutting measures, said Temko.

“Particularly with the scale of public expenditure cuts that had been approved by this government, it was always going to be tough. I think the only thing Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats didn’t know the answer to yesterday morning was how tough. And the answer is very,” he said.

On the other hand, the Labor Party, bumped out of power in May’s general elections, appeared to be rebounding after gaining council seats in England’s councils in traditionally Labor strongholds, said Temko.

But they are still not where they want to be and fared poorly in Scottish parliamentary elections. Labor lost seats to the Scottish National Party, which got a majority in the Scottish assembly — the first time any party has achieved this since the Scottish Parliament’s creation in 1999. (The Guardian mapped the results.)

The Scottish National Party is seeking a referendum in the next five years to separate from Britain — something Britain’s Cameron said he would campaign against “with every fiber that I have.”

Looking ahead, the defeats will not likely result in Clegg leaving his leadership post in the Liberal Democrats or lead to a disintegration of its coalition with the Conservatives, said Temko.

Both parties still need each other and have calculated these losses from cost cuts into their long-term plans, he said. They believe that “when the economy recovers some strength and the results of what they’re doing begin to show through, which they calculate about two or three years down the line, they’ll be in a much stronger position.”

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