How the British Do It

March 13, 1992

Envy the British. They were informed on March 11 of a national election. Late on April 9, they will hear the returns come in. Where Americans endure an endless campaign, the British will get it all done in 29 days. The transition in power, if mandated, will take place the next afternoon.

But duration aside, the prognosis for this election is bleak. A hung Parliament, perhaps. The same plague-on-both-houses that American anti-incumbent sentiment displays.

British people are tired of the Conservative government after 13 unbroken years, and a worse recession than ours. They may attribute its failures, as they did its successes, to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But they are not excited by her successor, John Major, whom they find bland if unobjectionable.

The neutralist-leftist Labor Party thundered to defeat in 1979, 1983 and 1987. It is reborn under the silver-tongued Neil Kinnock as reasonable, centrist and fit to govern. Not only has Labor accepted most of the Thatcherite reforms, but the Tory government, in a blatant election budget that lowers taxes and raises the deficit, borrowed Labor ideas. In policy, the parties are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. So the credibility of Labor's transformation will become the chief issue. If the British voters don't trust it, they have the devil they know.

If both major parties win 38.5 percent of the vote, as polls suggest, each would fall short of the 326 seats needed to form a government. That might put the Liberal Democratic Party in position to pick the winner and join a coalition. Liberal Democrats are reasonable centrists on everything except the electoral system, about which they are radical. Present rules favor the big parties. The Liberal Democrats can have 15 to 20 percent of the popular vote and still win only 22 seats out of 650. Their price for coalition is a change to proportional representation, which would institutionalize their role, like Germany's Free Democrats.

Two regional parties just might win a niche to call the shots. One is the Scottish Nationalists, given a new life by Mrs. Thatcher's blundering use of Scotland for experiments in local taxation that everyone opposed. Their price for coalition is creation of an elected Scottish assembly that might lead to independence within the European Community. Ulster Unionists, once dependable allies of the Conservatives, would demand scrapping the Anglo-Irish consultations on Northern Ireland, a price that no British government should pay.

The best result would be a decisive one-party victory. It could be Labor's turn. The question is whether Labor has learned its lessons or needs more time in the wilderness.

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