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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.

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Mindful of this – and the challenges ahead – Conservative Party leader David Cameron was reaching out quickly to the Liberal Democrats and other factions to try to head that off.

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“The new government will face the worst inheritance of any incoming government for at least 60 years,” he said the day after the election. “That is exactly why it is so important that we have strong stable government that lasts.”

No matter what the precise makeup of the government, it probably won’t change transatlantic ties in any meaningful way. During the campaign, all three parties supported the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan, even though it is highly unpopular with the British public.

The country’s ties with Europe may be less definitive. Britain has always harbored conflicted feelings about the European Union. As recently as 2008, a Pew Global Attitudes poll found that more Canadians (71 percent) and Americans (56 percent) expressed favorable opinions of the EU than Britons (50 percent).

These crosscurrents surfaced during the campaign. At one point, Mr. Cameron faced accusations that his party’s alliance with hard-line nationalist and allegedly anti-Semitic fringe elements in the European Parliament would marginalize Britain in the EU.

The election may hold a few lessons for the United States. One is the enduring difficulty of a third party to break through in many democracies. While in this case that was due in part to the winner-take-all nature of the British political system, the Liberal Democrats couldn’t make major inroads on Conservatives and Labour even with a leader who drew comparisons during the campaign to Churchill.

There were signs all along, to be sure, that the Liberal Democrats’ appeal might be transitory. Polls showed that as many as a quarter of the Lib Dems’ potential supporters knew little or nothing about the party’s plans. That suggested “Cleggmania” did, in fact, stem from one man’s charisma more than any ideology or defined set of values.

Yet the support the Lib Dems did garner, along with that of many other alternative candidates, suggests that major parties shouldn’t take the electorate for granted. The message for mainstream parties may be this: Don’t become too narrow.

Cameron was able to rejuvenate the demoralized Conservative Party in part by moving it away from the hard right. After taking over a bitterly divided party in 2005, he forced it to end an obsession with immigration and anti-European rhetoric. Concepts such as climate change and gay rights were embraced in a bid to broaden the appeal of the Conservative brand.

“The Conservative Party’s strong showing – their biggest swing against the Labour Party since the 1930s – may have a lot to offer for those looking towards conservative renewal in the US,” says Stefan Andreasson, a political expert at Queen’s University, Belfast. “What Cameron has done is move very much towards the center, attracting a greater diversity of voters including those from ethnic minorities. It’s very different from the US where the Republican Party has been taking account of an increasingly vociferous ‘tea party’ fringe.”

Is anyone in America listening?

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