The returns are still being tallied, but the overall contours of the results of yesterday's UK elections are already becoming clear. First, the results seem to more or less confirm the exit polls. The Conservatives gained big; Labour lost big; and the Liberal Democrats did worse than anticipated, given Nick Clegg's strong showing in the debates. With nine seats still undetermined, the Tories have 302, Labour have 255, and the LibDems have just 56. With 326 seats required for a clear majority, the result will surely be a "hung parliament," which means that no one party will be able to form a government by itself. A coalition government will be required. The chance that the Tories and Labour will form a coalition government is, of course, zero. It is possible, but unlikely, that the Tories could enter a coalition with some of the smaller parties. Absent that, it appears that the LibDems, despite their relatively poor showing at the polls, are in the catbird's seat.
According to constitutional convention in the UK, the sitting Prime Minister - Labour's Gordon Brown - gets the first crack at cobbling together a coalition, despite the fact that the election was, in effect, a repudiation of his leadership. However, this morning LibDem leader Nick Clegg stated that victorious Conservative leader David Cameron should have the first chance to create a government. Moreover, in the days leading up to the election Clegg rejected any possibility that the LibDems might enter a coalition with Labour with Brown remaining as Prime Minister. Despite this, Brown has already offered a coalition to the LibDems, dangling a carrot they might find hard to refuse: electoral reform.
Under the current system - "first past the post" - a candidate does not need to win a majority of votes from their constituents to be elected; he or she just needs to win more votes than any other candidate in that district. This rule serves the interest of the two main parties, and reduces the influence mainly of the Liberal Democrats, who regularly receive over 20 percent of the national vote, but usually wind up with fewer than 10 percent of seats in Parliament. The LibDems want to change to a system of proportional representation under which each party would get a number of seats in Parliament proportionate to their national vote tally.
In contrast to Labour, which has recently come round to support the LibDems call for electoral reform, the Tories have remained adamantly opposed to electoral reform, in which they would surely lose seats. This greatly reduces the prospects that David Cameron will tempt the LibDems into a coalition. If he fails, that leaves Gordon Brown and his offer of electoral reform.
No matter what the outcome, it will be fascinating to watch the inter-party negotiations that ensue over the next few days. The worst case scenario would be a deadlock from which no government emerges, requiring another round of elections with no guarantee of any chance in outcome.
UPDATE: According to this story in The Daily Telegraph, Tory leader David Cameron has offered to create a "committee of inquiry" to "look at the possibility" of electoral reform, which is far short of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's standing promise to immediately introduce legislation that would lead to a public referendum on switching from first-past-the-post to proportional representation.