Britain's Lib Dems take poll hit but step up as kingmakers

7th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain's Liberal Democrats Friday endured a disappointing election result after what had seemed a strong campaign, but leader Nick Clegg was still playing kingmaker in the deal-making of a hung parliament.

Despite a surge for Britain's third biggest party after Clegg's performances in pre-election TV debates -- dubbed "Cleggmania" -- the Lib Dems emerged from Thursday's election with fewer seats in parliament than before.

It was a blow for Clegg, who had claimed his party's opinion poll boost marked the end of two-party politics, and he admitted Friday it had been a "disappointing night", adding: "We simply haven't achieved what we had hoped."

But the Lib Dem leader soon found himself as the power-broker in the first hung parliament since 1974, as the Conservatives took the most seats but failed to win a majority -- meaning the keys to 10 Downing Street remain up for grabs.

Tory leader David Cameron said second place Labour Party has "lost its mandate" and that Britain needed "new leadership", but Prime Minister Gordon Brown made clear he was in no hurry to leave office and his party immediately began to court Clegg.

In a short speech mid-morning, Clegg indicated his sympathies lay with the Tories, saying: "It seems this morning that it is the Conservative Party that has more votes and more seats, though not an absolute majority.

"That is why I think it is now for the Conservative Party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest."

But he pointedly raised the issue of reforming Britain's electoral system, a key Lib Dem demand but something the Conservatives oppose.

With 625 of 650 constituency results declared, the Lib Dems had lost five seats, giving them just 53 seats in the House of Commons compared with 252 for Labour and 294 for the Conservatives.

This was despite slightly raising their vote share -- the Lib Dems at this point registered 22.9 percent of the vote, compared with 29.3 percent for Labour and 36.1 percent for the Tories, according to a BBC tally.

"The arbitrary and unfair nature of the electoral system has been highlighted very brutally by these results," Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable told Sky News television.

The Lib Dems want some kind of proportional representation to replace the existing first-past-the-post system, which awards power to the candidate with the most votes and has the effect of squeezing out smaller parties.

Labour has promised a referendum on electoral reform, and Brown's de facto deputy Peter Mandelson backed a change Friday, in what could be a key factor in the discussions to come, saying the current system was "on its last legs".

The Conservatives meanwhile indicated a willingness to talk to the Lib Dems in a short statement announcing a press conference by Cameron at 1330 GMT.

"He will set out how he will seek to form a government that is strong and stable with broad support, that acts in the national interest," the party said, using similar language to that used by Clegg.

Tory education spokesman Michael Gove said earlier that any pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be "a coalition of the defeated".

Lib Dem lawmakers and peers are due to meet over the weekend and any coalition deal that Clegg strikes would have to be approved by three-quarters of the parliamentary party and the Lib Dems' ruling federal executive.

Among the party's losses on election night was the colourful Lembit Opik, known for his relationship with Cheeky Girl popstar Gabriela Irimia. He lost the Welsh seat of Montgomeryshire to the Conservatives.

But they also scored some notable wins, including snatching Norwich South from former Labour interior minister Charles Clarke, and Redcar from Labour solicitor-general Vera Baird.

Professor Steven Fielding of Nottingham University suggested the Lib Dems fell down because their policies could not live up to Clegg's rhetoric.

"Most of the people who supported Clegg after the (first TV) debate didn't really know what the Lib Dems stood for," he said, adding that their pro-European views and plan for an immigration amnesty "are really unpopular".

© 2010 AFP

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