U.K. Election: The Brits Learn from Us


Well, it's probably true that we Americans inherited much of our political practices from Britain -- it is the home of the "mother of all Parliaments" after all. But in their just-completed elections, our political forebears appear to have picked up some practices -- and lessons -- from this side of the Atlantic.

First, they staged televised debates. Up until now, Brits have seen their leaders debating in the House of Commons (accompanied by the sort of tumult we usually see in the bleachers of Yankee Stadium). This is, on balance, a plus for the British electorate, but it appears that many of their analysts read a bit too much into the debates.

In the first telecast, Nick Clegg, leader of the perennially third-party Liberal-Democrats, turned in what was by most accounts the strongest performance. Polls suggested that his victory had catapulted the Lib-Dems into rough equality with Conservative and Labor, the two parties that have governed Britain for the lost 85 years.

Yet, just as America's long tradition -- and its political system -- weigh heavily against third parties, so Britain's system once again put the Lib-Dems into a distant third place in Parliament.

In the U.S., it's not just how many votes you get but where you get them -- that's how Al Gore managed to lose (barely!) the Electoral College despite getting half a million more votes than bush in 2000. In Britain, a party's national total matters little; it has to win seats in the 650-member Parliament. Even though the Lib-Dems won about a quarter of the vote, they will have less than ten percent of the total seats in the House of Commons.

British voters also seem to have taken clue form our side of the pond. When Nick Clegg's debate performance made him the man of the hour, he began spending less time talking about politics -- which party he would align with if no one got a majority of seats -- and less time talking about his ideas.

This may be one big reason why his party, despite the big run-up in pre-election polling, did no better than it did in past elections (and actually losing seats).

Finally, the British appear to have emulated two of our most dubious contributions to democracy. First, Brits woke up the day after not knowing who won. Second, glitches and human error deprived tens of thousands of citizens from casting their votes.

Bad news, chaps: It's been ten years since our muck-up, and we still haven't figured it out.

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Nick Clegg: Stealing Britain's Change

Jeff Greenfield is CBS News' senior political correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here