By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, May 10, 2010; A17
Britain is offering the world a live seminar on some of the most important questions of democratic theory and practice. We would do well to pay close attention.
Sometimes, you can't just stay in the political middle, smugly criticizing those to your right and left. You have to choose. That is exactly where Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, finds himself after his country's indecisive election.
After most elections, politicians declare that "the people have spoken." But sometimes, the people mumble. Other times, they speak in a cacophony, drowning each other out.
Britain did a combination of both, and to understand what happened, it's important to start with the raw numbers. The Conservative Party under David Cameron won 306 seats in Parliament, 20 short of a majority, and 36 percent of the popular vote. Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labor Party won 258 seats and 29 percent of the vote. The Liberal Democrats won 57 seats and 23 percent.
Minor parties, mostly regional and nationalist groupings, picked up 29 seats and a remarkable combined 12 percent of the vote.
The lesson: You can count on chaos when a country has an electoral system premised on just two parties even though two-party politics has broken down. Back in 1970, the two big British parties got 90 percent of the vote between them; last week, they secured only 65 percent.
As a general proposition, I prefer two-party systems because they allow voters to elect the government directly. With multiparty systems, coalitions formed after the elections sometimes only dimly reflect what the voters wanted. But Britain began abandoning two-party politics long ago and needs at least some element of proportional representation, as the Lib Dems have been demanding.
There is also this: The Conservatives are the closest thing to winners in this election, especially since they picked up 2 million more votes than they got in 2005. This is why, after all the maneuvering is done, Cameron may simply try to govern without a majority.
But you can also argue that everybody lost this election. If 71 percent of the voters rejected Labor, 64 percent rejected the Conservatives, and Clegg failed to achieve the big breakthrough many had expected.
That's why Clegg is in a very hard spot. He was negotiating with the Conservatives over the weekend because he said during the campaign that the party with the most votes and seats should have the first shot at forming a government. And if Cameron gave Clegg the binding referendum on proportional representation the Lib Dems have long demanded, a Cameron-Clegg coalition government would be a real possibility.
But Cameron, facing resistance in his own party, wants to get away with giving up far less on electoral reform. And were Clegg to align with the Conservatives without getting electoral reform, the deal could blow up his party.
Grass-roots Lib Dems lean left, and many of its winning candidates got substantial support from Labor-inclined voters in districts where Labor had no chance. Over the past few days, many Lib Dem sympathizers have angrily warned Clegg against an agreement with Cameron, which some British news reports said was close Sunday night.
Yet the Lib Dems also won protest votes against Brown and the current Labor government. If Clegg's party simply propped up another Brown Labor administration, the Tories could denounce it as a "coalition of the losers."
By my reckoning, the best solution for Clegg would be a time-limited coalition government with Labor to get electoral reform and emergency economic measures, combined with Brown's resignation. The new government could be headed by a new Labor leader or, in a variation suggested by the Observer, a pro-Lib Dem newspaper, Brown could lead temporarily -- he is, after all, good at dealing with economic crises -- but step down before a new election.
But this path would require courage. Clegg's party built a progressive image without having to bear the burdens of national government or declare precisely where its philosophical sympathies lie.
Thus a final British lesson worth pondering: The sensible center is a lovely place, and moderation is a virtue that, as it happens, is practiced rather devoutly by all three of the major British parties.
Ultimately, though, voters want to move somewhere, even when they produce ambivalent election results. What's happening in Britain is a test not only of Nick Clegg but also of whether popular middle-ground politicians have the nerve and clarity to make hard and inconvenient decisions, even if they cost them their purity.