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Friday, May 7, 2010

The Next British Prime Minister Is...

In yesterday's British national election, the British people clearly voted for change. The growing unpopularity of Gordon Brown, the current Prime Minister of Britain, was made manifest at the voting booth as the Labour Party was given a severe rebuking by the people. But this public rebuking was not free from controversy. Despite the obvious shift in public opinion, no political party received a majority vote. As a result, Britain has been left with a hung Parliament...the first hung Parliament since 1974.

Ok, let's first back up for a moment here. I realize that most Americans are probably unfamiliar with how British politics are conducted, so let's first explain some of the basics. Here, in a nutshell, is how British elections/politics are conducted:

First off, it's important to know something of the political parties in Britain. Unlike the United States, Britain has several political parties that span across the political spectrum. The three "big gun" parties are the Conservatives, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. The best way to understand these parties is to think of the Conservatives as being the equivalent of America's Republican Party (though not as far right as many republicans. They are more along the lines of Scott Brown, Mitt Romney, etc. than Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann). The Labour Party represents the centrist viewpoint (moderates), while the Liberal Democrats are roughly the equivalent of the American Democratic party.

In a general election, the British people elect local MP's (Members of Parliament) who become members of the House of Commons. Much in the same way that Americans elect candidates to the House of Representatives (heck, the Founding Fathers based our current system on Britain's), the British people elect candidates to represent their districts in Parliament. Currently there are 650 seats in the House of Commons. So, before any political party can rise to power they must have 326 seats (51%) in order to have a majority in Parliament. Once a party has gained a majority in Parliament, the head of that party is (usually) nominated to become the Prime Minister of Britain. In essence, the Prime Minister is considered to be the "highest amongst equals" since he/she is originally a member of Parliament.

In last night's election the British people expressed their disdain for the current Prime Minister (and the Labour Party in general) by voting primarily for the Conservatives. As a result, the Labour Party lost its majority in Parliament. But the election was not as cut-and-dry as you might think. Though the Conservatives received the most seats in Parliament, they fell short of gaining a majority. As a result, the question of who has the right to rule in Parliament comes into question.

Now, you may think that the Conservatives clearly have that right, since it was they who hold the most seats (albeit not a majority) in Parliament. And, in part, you are right...at least some British leaders would agree. The only problem is that the British Constitution clearly states that the governing party MUST have a majority in Parliament to form a government. And since they don't they cannot rule as a majority party.

So what is the solution? Well, it's complicated. One possibility is that the Conservatives or the Labour Party could form what is called a "Governing Coalition" with another party, presumably the Liberal Democrats. And since the Lib. Dems have more in common with the Labour Party, it seems more likely that a coalition would form between them. The problem with such a coalition (and the Lib. Dems know it) is that the election was a clear rebuking of Gordon Brown and the Labour Party in general. Any alliance with them would have to include the removal of Brown as Prime Minister.

So who are the likely candidates to replace Gordon Brown? Right now there are two leading contenders. David Cameron, who is the head of the Conservative Party, seems to be the front runner right now. His party has the most seats in Parliament and has the political "momentum" at the moment. If, however, the Lib. Dems are able to form a legitimate coalition with the Labour Party, Nick Clegg, the head of the Lib. Dem Party, could be the man. Right now it all depends on who, if anyone, is able to form a coalition that gives them a majority in Parliament. But no matter who gains control, it is extremely likely the Gordon Brown is on his way out.

But there is a small caveat here. Technically, the Royal Crown (in this case Queen Elizabeth II) does have a say in who becomes Prime Minister. She can "veto" whoever is chosen, since she is still the Head of State in Britain. Bottom line: the next few weeks should be a lot of fun to watch!

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