Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How is Britain coming to resemble Canada?

The expectation is still that, when the U.K. votes in its general election on Thursday, no party will win an overall majority in the House of Commons.

That sort of outcome has become standard operating procedure in one of Britain's former New World colonies, Canada.

2000 saw the last Canadian general election in which a party (the Liberals) achieved an overall majority in the House of Commons. Four years later, the Liberals won a plurality of seats, and formed a minority government. Two subsequent general elections followed in quick succession, in 2006 and 2008, in an unsuccessful effort to break that impasse. The Conservatives have led a minority government since 2006.

As I see it, there are close parallels between the circumstances that created that situation in Canada, and those that have led to the expected deadlock in Britain. In each case, the sequence of events has been: 1) a third party makes a significant gain in seats, and 2) the main center-right party experiences a resurgence.

In Canada, the third party is the Bloc Quebecois, which I described in this post. Pro-independence Quebecers left the other parties, and formed their own party at the federal level. Siphoning off votes from the established parties, the Bloc made it more difficult for any party to win an overall majority.

In three elections between 1993 and 2000, that wasn't a problem. The center-right was split, so the Liberal Party could amass a majority, even with the loss of some Quebec seats. But, by 2004, the center-right had united under the banner of a new Conservative Party, and the Liberals lost their majority. Later, they fell from power, as the Conservatives overtook them, albeit short of a majority of their own. As of now, a Conservative minority government elected in 2008 continues to govern.

In the U.K., the ascendant third party are the Liberal Democrats. Formed in 1988, via a merger of the Liberal Party, a once-major party that had long since fallen into third place, with the Social Democrats, a centrist faction that had recently broken away from the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats made steady gains in subsequent general elections.

But, as was the case with the Canadian Liberals, the British Labour Party became so dominant during the 1990s, that they were able to put together large majorities, even while the Liberal Democrats were gaining seats of their own.

Now, the U.K. Conservatives are overcoming their post-Thatcher hangover, and achieving their best poll numbers in many years. However, those poll numbers point to, at best, a small overall majority, and, quite possibly, a plurality of seats that falls short of a majority. Further gains by the Liberal Democrats during the current campaign may well contribute to such a result.

If Thursday's British election plays out that way, the question will become: is the U.K. fated to experience a series of inconclusive general elections, as their friends across the ocean have done?

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