Neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party has won an absolute majority in the British elections.  Each can try to rule as a minority government. This means roughly that each policy proposal would be voted on in an ad hoc fashion.  If a key vote fails to win majority support, the minority government would fall and there would be another round of jostling for position.  An alternative is to form a coalition with another party to form a government with majority support.  This would mean the large party in the coalition would have to compromise on its ideal policy positions.

Both Labour and the Conservatives need the Liberal Democrats if they are to go the latter route.  The Liberal Democrats suffer under the British electoral system where power is related to seats won in Parliament not total vote won across districts.  Hence, they support “proportional representation”.  Can the Liberal Democrats play the two parties off against each other to win this prize?

The difficulty for the Liberal Democrats is that the other two parties are in an asymmetric situation.  The Conservatives are in better shape for running a minority government than Labour because they won more seats in Parliament.  They are willing to offer less than Labour.  Labour is willing to offer more but even the total number of seats held by the Liberal Democrats and Labour is not enough to form a majority coalition government. Plus it would involve a deal with a party mired in scandal and win a dark, brooding unpopular leader who refuses to step aside.  Neither option looks good.

Hence, the real issue is the next election which may happen in days not years.  The Liberal Democrats had great hopes of breaking out of their third party status and replacing the Labour party as the alternative to the Conservatives.  It seems that in the end, voters were too worried about putting their faith in an unknown unknown.  To break out of this hole,  the Liberal Democrats have to look statesmanlike and work in the national interest not party interest.  If neither party offers them a solid commitment to electoral reform, the Liberal Democrats should stay out of any coalition and maximize influence and publicity in Parliament.  They can support sensible common values policy proposals put forward by the minority government and build themselves up in the eyes of the electorate.  Only if they win significantly more seats in the next election will the Liberal Democrats get electoral reform