'A real longing for greater choice'



Those of us who are monitoring the British elections can be excused for feeling a tad envious.

In our own country, we talk constantly about how great it would be to have a viable third party - yet, on the far side of the pond, we have the Brits, on the eve of their unprecedentedly tumultuous election day, showing serious interest in the Liberal Democrats, an ever-present third party that lately has thrived in the national polls due to public disgust with the political establishment.

As Nick Clegg, the telegenic leader of the Liberal Democrats, remarked recently, there is "a real longing for greater choice. People say to me, 'We don't like being told the only choice is between these two old parties" - referring to the Labour party (which has ruled Britain since 1997) and the Conservative party (which ruled from 1979 to 1997). In a campaign speech today, Clegg said: "It's now time to make a choice, a choice between the politics of the past, the old politics, and something new and different for the future....We will deliver the real change, the real fairness that people want."

It's highly doubtful that Clegg and his party will catapult to the top of the balloting tomorrow, but at least anti-establishment voters have a credible alternative outlet for their grievances.

These British voters complain that both major parties are too chummy with the financial elite and too distant from the pressing economic concerns of the average Brit (sound familiar?); that Labor sold out its constituents by blindly following George W. Bush into Iraq; and that both parties have been sullied by a notorious '09 scandal, in which members of Parliament misused and abused their official expense accounts. Clegg, who's particularly strong among younger voters, seems poised to take advantage at the polls - which means, in British terms, that the Liberal Democrats could gain a considerable number of seats in Parliament, perhaps giving them sufficient leverage to reform the political system and influence national policy.

So you might be wondering: How come the Brits have a viable third-party option, and we don't?

The short answer is that, while no American third option has sustained itself for very long (partly because the patchwork of state election laws make it difficult to organize), the British Liberal Democrats have been around for decades, in various iterations, generally occupying the ill-defined middle ground between the traditionally white-collar Conservatives and the traditionally blue-collar Labourites. And even though Nick Clegg is touting a left-leaning agenda (a greener economy, closer ties to Europe, a more redistributive tax system), his biggest asset is that he's in the right place at the right time to reap the protest vote.

And perhaps most importantly, he's charismatic. A third party arguably becomes viable only if its leader can schmooze effectively on TV - and it's noteworthy that this British campaign marks the first time that the leaders of all three parties have met in nationally televised debates.

For better or worse, the personality factor has become more significant in British politics. Clegg leveled the playing field simply by sharing the debate stage with Labor prime minister Gordon Brown (whose telegenic qualities are minimal) and Conservative leader David Cameron (telegenic, but with party baggage). BBC deputy political editor James Landale wrote: "The television debates changed the balance of power in this election, introducing Nick Clegg to an electorate seemingly hungry for change, keen for an alternative to what we can perhaps for a few more hours safely call the two largest parties. The Lib Dem leader revealed himself to be articulate and passionate, comfortable in his skin and in a format that his two opponents struggled at first to master. Whether this signals the political earthquake that some hope for depends still on how people vote on Thursday."

Perhaps Clegg's appeal will wane once the voters actually decide. But for the moment, he seems a bit like Barack Obama, in the sense that he has a message of transformational change, a youthful following, and a cosmopolitan pedigree (his mother is Dutch, his father is half-Russian, and he's married to a Spanish lawyer).

I won't even attempt to explain the convoluted British voting system; it'd be easier to explain the rules of cricket, or even Wall Street derivatives. Suffice it to say that if the Liberal Democrats finish strong tomorrow (as many expect), the top-drawing party may not be able to form a government without Clegg's support. And Clegg insists he won't form a government with anyone unless there's a promise to overhaul the traditional voting system. He wants Britain to adopt the European model - specifically, the rules of proportional representation, whereby lawmakers are elected in direct proportion to the votes they receive.

If Clegg's third party gains the leverage to reform the British electoral system, that would be a truly historic event - the equivalent of America summarily dumping its antiquated Electoral College. Imagine that. Now I'm really envious.