The Old Parties Turn On Clegg

If Nick Clegg emerges as the king-maker in the British election, his core demand will be a change in the electoral system to some sort of proportional representation. Currently, the system is like the American: all voters are organized into geographic constituencies, and the candidate with the most votes in each goes to parliament. This obviously penalizes third parties, who can do very well - say 20 percent of the vote - and yet get a tiny number of seats. You can see the point most clearly in the current polling.

Check out the poll above. The Lib-Dems are now solidly in second place and have stayed there for a week or so. They are getting 30 percent of the vote, compared with Labour's 27 percent. But in parliament, the Lib-Dems would get a mere 85 seats and Labour would get 226. A system which rewarded a third party more fairly makes democratic sense, but it all but guarantees that Britain's political system would become like Germany's. Instead of clear, one-party, accountable governments, there would be permanent coalition politics, with the Liberal Democrats (like Germany's Free Democrats) in the role of power-broker. The Liberals have long dreamt of this, and tried to get it in the 1970s when the parties were in the last deadlock similar to today.

I'm against it. Why?

I like clear, strong governments with clear mandates that can be held accountable at elections. My hope is that the Liberal Democrats will slowly overtake Labour - as Labour overtook the Liberals in the early part of the twentieth century. At that point, Labour becomes the third party (yay!) and Britain can oscillate between a Whiggish Toryish and a Tory Whiggism.

This is highly unlikely in the short term - but this election suggests some kind of deeper shift may be taking place. The likeliest result looks to be a liberal Tory government in coalition with the Lib-Dems. That's good for the Tories (they get a win) and good for the Lib-Dems (they have the most successful election in decades). But the struggle over proportional representation may make a deal impossible. Clegg, meanwhile, has clearly ruled out putting Gordon Brown back in at Number 10.

In some ways, as socialism has entered the ash-heap of history, even the Labour party under Blair was moving to a classic Liberal party position. Brown reversed that and is revealing the hard limits of a truly left party in the UK. Hence his third place. What we need is for Labour to start collapsing in some seats to Liberal Democrats. If Labour sinks below 25 percent (I can hope, can't I?), all bets are off. To see the Liberals replace Labour as the rotating second party under the current electoral system would be my wet dream. But who knows in this unexpectedly riveting election, what permutations are yet to emerge?