A
British election is one of those things that’s better timed for
Australia than for its home audience. Most of the results come in
between about 9am and 1pm eastern Australian time, ideal for a working
psephologist. But in Britain itself that’s midnight to 4am. The very
late closing of the polls (10pm) and the fact that results are only
reported by constituency combine to make it much less user-friendly
than it could be.

What’s more, most of the results weren’t
really worth staying up for. There were no major surprises, although
the Tories did a bit better than I expected, gaining 32 seats. The main
exit poll picked Labour’s majority exactly at 66 seats – down
significantly from 160, but still very comfortable. The BBC estimates the two-party swing at 3%.

The
exit poll erred, however, when it came to the Liberal Democrats. They
gained 11 seats instead of the predicted two, for a new total of 62 – a
record for a British third party since 1923. If this is not the
breakthrough result for them, it’s a pretty good imitation of it. This
should be a matter of some interest for supporters of the non-Labor
side in Australia. By its very name, the Liberal Party of Australia
proclaims its descent from the political tradition of which Britain’s
Liberal Democrats are a living representative – the party of Fox and
Gladstone. But John Howard and his like have moulded the Liberal Party
so much to their liking that most people have forgotten that such a
connection ever existed.

British politics look set for a
fascinating period. The Conservative Party’s modest revival means that
Labour is now beatable, and the next election will offer the very real
possibility of a hung parliament. That will in turn bring the Lib Dems
more into the spotlight, and the new Tory leader will have to battle
for relevance against them as well as Labour. Labour will be led by
Gordon Brown, probably sooner rather than later, and he may find that
Tony Blair is a hard act to follow.

Peter Fray

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