Crashing Britain's Two-Party System

Nick Clegg has already pulled off an even more important victory -- reforming his country's unfair electoral rules.

Thursday marked the end of the most fascinating British election in recent memory, a two-way race between David Cameron's Conservatives and Gordon Brown's Labour Party that was unexpectedly hijacked by the Liberal Democratic candidate, Nick Clegg. The rise of the Liberal Democrats has highlighted the biases of the British electoral system -- and raised the possibility that it may finally be reformed.

Entering this campaign season, the storyline of this election seemed fairly simple: Cameron, facing off against an unpopular prime minister, would oversee a changing of the guard after 13 years of Labour Party rule. A year ago, Conservatives were up by a healthy 15 to 20 points.

Then the 2009 expenses scandal hit, when the Daily Telegraph reported that MPs on both sides of the aisle were claiming expenses on frivolous purchases like oak toilet seats and an island for ducks. The backlash hurt both parties, but it narrowed the Tory lead. Cameron and his top deputy, George Osbourne, have also caused the electorate to hesitate: Despite attempts to broaden the appeal of the party, their biographies play into almost every stereotype of the old Etonian, pro-business Tory aristocracy.

Meanwhile, Brown, despite having all the charm of a toadstool, has managed a surprising level of resilience in the face of the Tory challenge. The prime minister has doggedly defended Labour's record since 1997 and attacked the Conservatives as preparing to launch massive cutbacks on key services, including the national health-care system and education.

Brown's position is considerably strengthened by Britain's non-proportional electoral system. Because national popular votes do not have any direct bearing on the election -- much like in a U.S. presidential race -- opposition votes in safe districts have little impact. Across the country, 49 percent of constituencies have not changed party since 1970. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, for example, Labour won 35.3 percent of the popular vote -- just 3.6 percent more than the Conservatives. However, they walked away with 356 seats, or 55 percent of the House of Commons, compared to the Tories' 198 seats, or 31 percent of the House. Turnout is quite low in these safe districts, regardless of the dominant party, giving them a disproportionately small impact on the overall vote total.

The biggest loser from Britain's winner-take-all voting system, however, has been the country's perpetual also-ran, the Liberal Democrats. In the elections since 1970, the party has earned between 15 and 25 percent of the popular vote, but has won less than 10 percent of the seats in Parliament. Their largest haul was in the 2005 election, where they gained 22 percent of the popular vote and took 62 seats, or 10 percent of the total, in the House.

This election could change that, however. Clegg's impressive performance in Britain's first nationally televised debate on April 17 turned the campaign on its head. The Lib Dems' strong polling numbers have slackened only slightly in the weeks since that event, and the party appears to be positioned for its strongest showing in decades.

Currently, the Liberal Democrats are neck and neck with Labour for second place in national polls, with our FiveThirtyEight polling average putting them one point ahead of Labour and seven points behind the Conservatives. However, the biased electoral system stills works to their disadvantage when it comes to winning seats in Parliament. Our projection model predicts that the Conservatives will win 308 seats, Labour will take 198, and the Liberal Democrats will hold 113.

A few last-minute twists could affect these results along the margins. If Labour can mobilize their base in Scotland and Wales effectively, they are likely to claw back a half-dozen seats from the Lib Dems. The Tories could also get a last minute boost from centrist voters, whose initial enthusiasm for Clegg is cooling.

These minor changes, however, should not distract from the fact that the Conservatives are on track for their first national electoral win since 1992. However, governing will be difficult: The Tories could easily fall short of the 326 MPs required for a majority in the House. A minority government would be challenged to pass legislation and vote down measures of no confidence, which would dissolve the parliament and force a new election. The possibility of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition government also looms -- though it remains to be seen whether Clegg would risk his mantle of change by throwing his support behind the tired Labour Party.

These developments place the Liberal Democrats in their strongest position in a century to address their top issue: electoral reform. By changing the plurality voting system to a proportional system, which apportions seats in a district based on the percentage of the vote won, the Lib Dems will bolster their ability to win seats in future elections.

The Tories will likely still emerge victorious -- but this may not be the election's most important result. The Liberal Democrats' rise has brought an air of inevitability to the issue of electoral reform that had not existed previously. If the party plays its cards right, this election could fundamentally alter British politics -- a fitting end to an intriguing campaign.

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Times Square Taliban?

Jihadists are debating Saturday's "amateurish" attack: Is it smart to take credit for a failure?

Did Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) try to blow up Times Square? That's what a video released following the failed car bombing in Times Square on May 1 would have us believe. Another, recorded by the TTP's emir Hakimullah Mehsud (who was said to have been killed by a U.S. drone in January), promises a series of strikes against American cities. There's no hard evidence to date that the militant group, which is blamed for a host of deadly attacks against the Pakistani military and state and is under assault in its tribal stronghold, has extended its reach to New York (though the group was blamed for a 2008 plot against the Barcelona subway). Law enforcement officials did, however, arrest an American citizen of Pakistani descent late in the evening on May 3, 2010, at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and concede that the attack might be tied to groups in Pakistan.

But from a strategic communications standpoint, it may not matter who is responsible. Jihadi Web forums are abuzz with the news that Mehsud is alive and that the TTP aims to strike in the United States. Not all the chatter is positive, however. Dissenters complain that the Times Square attack failed to produce much fear among Americans and has even been called "amateurish." That consternation is a reminder that a terrorist's greatest weapon is fear, not car bombs, and offers interesting lessons for local and federal leaders planning to communicate in the wake of a terrorist attack.

The two films, one featuring audio from Qari Hussain, the TTP's premier trainer of suicide bombers, and the other audio from Hakimullah, are structured very similarly. They are both about one minute long, have generally poor audio quality, and present that audio over animated graphics, including many images and motifs that are common to both videos. Hussain claims credit for the Times Square attack, but the video does not have a jihadi media unit logo, which has raised some questions about its authenticity. Hakimullah's audio clip claims that the TTP's operational focus is now American cities and uses the logo of Umar Studios, the TTP's in-house media production unit. Both films were released first on YouTube and have English subtitles. The graphical similarities between the two audio productions suggests they were produced quickly and likely by the same people, though the poor audio quality may indicate that the voice recordings were made over the telephone.

The third film is more technically sophisticated. It features actual video of Hakimullah, who claims to have recorded it on April 4 and cites specific aspects of reports about his death, apparently to prove that the video was filmed after they were made. If Hakimullah's video was made in early April, it predates the audio files used in the other films. Mehsud claims his audio clip was made on April 19, and Hussain references the death of Islamic State of Iraq emir Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, which took place on April 19 as well. All this suggests that Hussain's film -- the first to be released -- was the last to be produced.

Mehsud is pictured seated with his legs obscured, raising the possibility that they were injured in the January drone strike that was believed to have killed him. His voice is strong, but his presentation shows some weaknesses. He repeatedly looks at someone to the camera's left, and the video has been cut and edited many times, which is notable because many videos of senior jihadi leaders are long, single shots. The explanation could be that Mehsud stumbled over words, but the bottom line is that editors in postproduction had a major impact on the product released to the world.

Hussain and Mehsud use similar arguments to justify attacks on the United States. They both condemn the U.S. war in Afghanistan and Iraq and specifically mention Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of attempted murder by a U.S. court and suspected of working on an unconventional weapons program for al Qaeda. The reference is not boilerplate in jihadi condemnations of the United States, but it has become more popular among both violent and non violent Islamist groups in Pakistan eager to position themselves as the defenders of Muslim women's honor.

Both Mehsud and Hussain mention jihad fronts outside Pakistan, but they differ in focus somewhat. The Hussain film mentions Iraq and al-Baghdadi by name, whereas Mehsud emphasizes Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Gaza -- geographic regions that recently have been more prominent in al Qaeda Central's propaganda than Iraq. Hussain's reference to al-Baghdadi is important because it emphasizes the message of unity between the TTP and al Qaeda. Hussain -- a Pashtun tribesman from South Waziristan -- has no connection to al-Baghdadi, except for an ideological bond forged by al Qaeda.

The response on jihadi forums to the Times Square attack and these films has been generally positive. Jihadi posters accept Hussain's claim of responsibility for the Times Square attack, though Western officials have not confirmed an operational link. Posters are likewise gleeful that Mehsud is alive. But there is worry among some jihadi supporters that the failed Times Square attack makes jihadists look weak. They hope the bombing scares Americans, but are dismayed that it has already been called "amateurish" in the media. Jihadists want to see fear, and they are not getting enough of it in this case.

The bomb in Times Square has been defused, but its political impact and importance have not yet been decided. The communications battle around an attack is just as significant as the incident itself -- and in this case the TTP and its supporters want to claim victory despite the bomb's failure and even its still-ambiguous origin. But their message is vulnerable precisely because the attack was such a dud. Terrorists use violence to seize political initiative by frightening their enemies, but it only works when the victims of an attack allow themselves to be frightened. One response to the attempted bombing in Times Square should be a renewed call for vigilance by citizens and first responders, but regardless of who ultimately proves responsible, it is also an opportunity for the United States to challenge the jihadists' claims of strength and power, one of many areas where they are vulnerable.

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