Anyone looking for clues to why Britons defied the predictions of polls and pundits to deliver an electoral result that could take some time to untangle and longer to fully decode might have done worse than to spend the early hours of May 7 in a school gymnasium in southwest London. As officials counted paper ballots cast the day before in the constituency of Richmond Park, it became clear that the Liberal Democrat wave had broken and was now receding. And in place of the optimism that had transfigured the campaign, there was something else a taint of cynicism. Harry Cole, 26, a candidate in the neighboring constituency of Twickenham for the Citizens for Undead Rights and Equality party, explained what had motivated him to co-found a party demanding equality for the living dead. He and his friends felt alienated by mainstream parties and set out to mock as zombies the politicians seriously aiming for public office and the voters prepared to back them. Politicians "represent a very small, elite group of people, not the general public," he said.
Cole wasn't expecting to win not even his mother had pledged to vote for him and satirical parties are part of a long and ignoble British tradition. But Britons' disaffection with mainstream politics appears to be beyond a joke. As results rolled in across the country, it became clear that the first national election since revelations last year of widespread misuse of parliamentary expense accounts had provided voters with a chance to put the boot into the big parties. David Cameron's Conservatives failed to win the overall majority despite their long-term status as favorites to take power. Gordon Brown's Labour Party lost more seats than at its 1979 rout by Margaret Thatcher.
Remarkably, the recipients of the heftiest kicks were the Lib Dems, rocket-propelled by leader Nick Clegg's strong performance in the U.K.'s first ever televised debates from the party's traditional third place to rank second or even first in some opinion polls. In the heady days of Cleggmania, Lib Dem supporters dared to dream that their party might net a record number of seats and a higher share of the popular vote than the incumbent Labour government. Instead, with 649 of 650 seats declared, the Lib Dems have lost five seats, including Richmond, where Susan Kramer was unseated by suave Conservative challenger Zac Goldsmith.
Clegg admitted disappointment at his party's performance. Britons had been excited by the Lib Dems, he said, but "it seems that when they came to vote, many of them in the end decided to stick with what they knew best."
But the situation confronting Britons is hardly familiar. For now, a Labour Prime Minister occupies Downing Street, as has been the case since Tony Blair led the party to a landslide victory in May 1997. But Britons woke up to the first hung Parliament since 1974. With Labour trailing the Tories and Clegg making clear that he believes the bigger party has the stronger mandate to try to form a government, Brown will find it hard to cling on. "It is my duty as Prime Minister to take all steps to ensure Britain has a strong, stable and principled government," said Brown in a statement issued as the final results trickled in.
The problem is, nobody quite knows how to fashion a strong and stable government from the awkward constellations British voters have gifted themselves. Before all the votes were counted, Cameron made a start, unveiling what he described as "a big, open and comprehensive offer" to the Lib Dems. This would involve identifying and prioritizing common policy areas the Conservative leader mentioned both parties' commitment to a low-carbon economy and to civil liberties and could even include Cabinet positions for Lib Dems in a Cameron-led government, although Cameron didn't spell this out. He also mooted an all-party committee to examine the Lib Dems' key platform of electoral reform. That might not satisfy Clegg, who has long campaigned for the first-past-the-post system to be replaced by proportional representation. The Tories argue that the first-past-the-post system promotes a close relationship between members of Parliament and their constituents; they also fear that the introduction of a proportional system would entrench a center-left majority that would shut out the Conservatives from power.
It's hard to tell whether the offer is a genuine opening position in negotiations or a clever bit of brinkmanship to push the Lib Dems into a public rejection of such an alliance. That would allow the Tories to govern alone and seek support from smaller parties to push through legislation. But as fears that a minority government might not have the muscle to make real the tough deficit-cutting measures that were a central plank of the Conservative manifesto immediately undermined the pound and weakened shares, it looked as if the Conservatives were serious about the idea of a formal Lib-Con pact. Continuing uncertainty would deepen the unease over whether Britain's recovery can be maintained and its credit worthiness improved.
There's a sense of urgency in Westminster. The Conservatives aim to make concrete progress in negotiations before Monday. Anyone wondering what might happen if a government attempts to impose an austerity package without wider public consent need only look toward Athens to understand why the Conservatives are seeking a solution that would give a new government a more clear-cut mandate.
Britons rarely express their anger in the kind of violent clashes that have convulsed Greece. Their contempt for the political classes has typically translated into disengagement or found an outlet in the carnival of fringe parties, not all of them intentionally humorous, that accompanies every election. On May 6, British voters discovered a new way to inflict pain on their would-be rulers. It will take some time to figure out how badly they may feel that pain themselves.
With reporting by Tara Kelly / Richmond