As British Election Nears, Voters Weigh Third Party
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This year's general election in Britain is shaping up to be the most interesting in decades. For months, it seemed the Conservative Party, also known as the Tories, would almost certainly seize power from the ruling Labour Party. But the sudden popularity of Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, has thrown the whole race wide open.
Now, it's unclear which party is going to win, and there's a very real possibility that the election could change the entire political system. NPR's Rob Gifford reports.
ROB GIFFORD: The British election this year will be decided in places like Ealing in West London. It's a typical suburb of the city, a mix of professionals and working class with an increasingly diverse ethnic mix. And crucially, it's a neck-and-neck race between the three main parties.
The election will be decided by voters like 69-year-old Gwendolyn Trauss(ph), sitting on a bench, enjoying her lunch in the spring sunshine.
Ms. GWENDOLYN TRAUSS: I've been a bit disenchanted with Labour, and I've never voted Tory. I don't think they stand for what I believe in, and so it seems as though I'll be going Liberal, you know, Democrat.
GIFFORD: Trauss was born in the Caribbean, came to London 50 years ago, worked hard, raised two children who now have professional jobs, always voted Labour and supports hard work and good working-class values. The difference this year for her is that there's a third party in contention: the Liberal Democrats, led by 43-year-old Nick Clegg.
Ms. TRAUSS: I think there's a need for change. I like what Mr. Clegg represents. I'm still trying to decipher the policies.
GIFFORD: On the other side of the traditionally two-party divide, many Conservative voters are also being tempted to vote for Clegg. A combination of voter weariness with two-party politics as usual and an impressive showing by Nick Clegg in the newly established television debates between the leaders has thrown the election wide open.
What's more, the current winner-takes-all electoral system, which has always benefitted Labour and the Conservatives, is coming into question, says John Curtis(ph), an expert in British politics at Strathclyde University.
Mr. JOHN CURTIS (Strathclyde University): It's a system that makes it possible for both those parties to win an overall majority of seats while maybe winning no more than 40 percent of the vote. Indeed, the Labour Party of the last election in 2005 only won 36 percent of the popular vote. So both those parties have been of the view that, well, this is a system that means yes, some of the time we're completely out of power, but the rest of the time, we have a chance of winning absolute power.
GIFFORD: Support for the Liberal Democrats has always been spread too thinly. So they could win more than 20 percent of the popular vote across the country but often end up with less than 10 percent of the seats. Not surprisingly, Nick Clegg wants to change a system that currently means a party can come third in the popular vote but still win the most number of seats.
Mr. NICK CLEGG (Leader, Liberal Democrats, United Kingdom): A party which has come third, and so millions of people have decided to abandon, lost the election spectacularly, cannot then lay claim to providing the prime minister of this country.
GIFFORD: Clegg wants to change to a system of proportional representation so that if his Liberal Democrat Party gets 30 percent of the vote, it will get 30 percent of the seats in the House of Commons.
Clegg is unlikely to win a majority himself, but if neither Labour nor Conservative wins a majority, as seems likely, he may well be the kingmaker, able to make electoral reform his price for forming a coalition with another party. Now, Clegg is trying to reinforce his image as a reformer.
Mr. CLEGG: I think people have become very enthusiastic over the last week or so about the idea of a new approach to politics. Now what we need to do is harness that enthusiasm and say let's do something different on the economy, as well. We're the only party saying split up the banks, make them lend to viable British businesses, a new approach to the economy where we never again allow our economy to be held hostage by one clique in one sector in banking, as it is.
GIFFORD: As always, the final choice will be down to the voters themselves, and they can be a hard bunch to persuade, especially when the consequences of their vote this time are more dramatic than they have been for generations.
Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.
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