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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Still, many voters did opt for alternatives, even in a system
that makes it tough for small parties to thrive. In the southern
coastal city of Brighton, the Green Party won its first member of