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British election: What it means for the UK and the US

Britain searches for a new direction after 13 years of Labour rule, the first hung Parliament in 36 years, and one of the worst economies since World War II.

By Correspondent / May 8, 2010

Conservative Party leader David Cameron talked to supporters at a rally at East Renfrewshire, Scotland, on May 4.

Carl de Souza/AP

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Sophie Bridge is an investment banker who, by occupation at least, should have voted for the Conservatives in Britain. She didn’t. The self-
described “hard-line Labourite” grew up in a family with distinct left-of-center leanings.

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Yet last week she wasn’t casting her ballot for the Labour Party either. Instead, Ms. Bridge was committed to a third party alternative, the Liberal Democrats.

David White, a fruit-and-vegetable vendor in a working-class neighborhood, would seem to be a natural supporter of the Labour Party. He wasn’t.
He went for the Conservatives, pining for the tough-love days of Margaret Thatcher’s austerity policies.

The two voters symbolize how unsettled British politics is these days – and why the nation whose empire once bestrode the globe is now facing one of its gravest challenges since World War II. Like other parts of Europe, Britain is struggling to navigate the worst economic crisis since the 1970s, epitomized by the debt problem now ricocheting around the Continent.

Yet it will have to do so with a potentially fragile government, the result of a chaotic general election in which no party emerged in overall control of Parliament for the first time in 36 years. The May 6 vote – a hinge moment in which the ruling Labour Party suffered one of its worst results in decades but in which their resurgent Conservative opponents still fell short of winning an absolute majority – reflects a shifting political landscape that will hold consequences beyond the immediate formation of a coalition government.

It may lead to fundamental political reform, complicate the nation’s ability to surmount a budget deficit that is set to eclipse even Greece’s next year, and could affect how aggressive a role Britain plays on the world stage.

In one way, the election result marked a further fragmentation of the electorate similar to what has been sweeping across Europe. Many voters continue to opt for myriad parties from the far left to the far right, along with Greens as well as Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

In another sense, it was the most Americanized election in British history. A presidential-style campaign focused on party leaders and their personalities, with key roles for their spouses as well as strategists from Barack Obama’s White House run aiding opposing sides.

The main message from the election, however, seems to be the public’s rejection of any one political vision for the future. The two major parties that have ruled British politics for nearly a century failed to achieve a clear mandate for the nation’s direction.

Yet neither did the upstart Liberal Democrats, the third party led by the telegenic Nick Clegg, break the duopoly on power and achieve the dramatic breakthrough everyone thought it would. While the percentage of support for the Liberal Democrats rose slightly, the party actually dropped seats. Still, it finds itself in the enviable and ironic position of potentially being kingmaker as the country tries to cobble together a new government.

Theories abound about why the “Lib Dems” didn’t do better. Some posit that Britain’s powerful right-wing press scared many voters away from the party – and toward the Conservatives – by trumpeting Mr. Clegg’s policies and past pronouncements on issues such as adopting Europe’s troubled common currency, the euro. Some liberals, who might have been tempted to vote for the centrist Lib Dems, clearly stuck with Labour, nervous about what a Conservative government would mean for the economy.

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