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London Calling

Why everyone has a reason to be disappointed in the British election results.

2:35 AM, May 5, 2005 • By GERARD BAKER
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London

The British can be famously grumpy. No surprise there, you might think. Neither the food nor the weather is exactly conducive to a sunny disposition. And complaining has long been a favoured national pastime. But these days, with the economy performing well, and even the national sports teams winning on the international stage, you might have expected some lightening in the national spirit.

No chance. In Thursday's election, it was a heightened mood of grumpiness that triumphed.

For the second straight election, about four in ten voters did not bother to show up at the polls, many of them telling pollsters they didn't like what was on offer. And those who did vote managed to leave all the major political parties feeling quite a bit dissatisfied.

In fact it is hard to recall an election in which there were so many losers.

Tony Blair won a historic victory, of course, becoming the first Labour leader ever to win three straight elections. But it was only after losing more than half of his parliamentary majority--much more than the opinion polls had been suggesting.

Popular opposition to the war in Iraq was clearly a key part of Labour's reverses. The party lost seats everywhere--in London, especially, where antiwar sentiment among affluent, well-educated professionals and ethnic minorities is strong; in university towns like Cambridge, in urban and semi-rural seats, in Scotland, and in Wales.

By securing just 36 percent of the popular vote, Labour not only underscored the increasingly bizarre nature of Britain's electoral system--a party can still win a substantial majority in parliament with barely a third of the popular vote--it also established a new and unenviable record: It was the lowest share of the vote gained by a winning party in 170 years.

For the first time in more than 20 years, the battered Conservative party managed to gain a sizable number of seats. But so great have been their reverses in recent years that this advance still leaves them woefully short of mounting a serious challenge to the Labour party. With just 198 members of parliament, to Labour's 356, the Conservatives are still more than 120 seats away from securing a majority at some future general election.

And the Conservatives' share of the vote--33 percent--was another desperately poor showing. The Tories have now been stuck at or near that level since their disastrous defeat in 1997.

Just as some Conservatives were trying to grasp some crumbs of comfort from what was, at least, a slightly better result than the polls had predicted, their leader, Michael Howard, promptly announced he would stand down. He became the fourth Conservative leader to have been bested by Tony Blair in the last eight years.

Until 1997, in the entire 150-year history of the Tory party only one Conservative leader had failed to become prime minister. Now three straight Tory leaders have been unable to get to 10 Downing Street.

If the two big parties had little to cheer, smaller parties didn't fare much better. The Liberal Democrats, who campaigned aggressively on an antiwar platform, did gain both seats and vote share, and will have the highest number of seats a third party has held in the House of Commons in 70 years. But the Liberal Democrats' gain--of 12 seats to 62--was smaller than they had hoped, and they remain a distant afterthought in mainstream political debate.

There was no doubting the power of the antiwar vote. Labour MPs who have supported the war in Iraq fared worse than Labour rebels who had opposed Mr. Blair.

Perhaps the most depressing result of the night was the victory by the admirer of Saddam Hussein George Galloway, a former Labour MP who was expelled from the party after he had expressed the firm hope that the U.S. and British forces would be defeated by Saddam as they marched on Baghdad.

Galloway, as head of his own party--one with the Orwellian name "Respect"--ousted a Blair-supporting member of parliament in an east London seat with a large Muslim community.

Not much more encouraging was the election in Northern Ireland.

Parties there are formed not along traditional left-right lines, but along religious-sectarian divides. On both sides of the Catholic-Protestant split, there is a moderate and a hard-line party--and on both sides it was the hardliners who triumphed on Thursday.

Among Catholics, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, gained seats at the expense of the nonviolent Social Democratic and Labour Party. This, despite the controversy that has swirled around the republicans in the last few months over the murder by IRA members of a Catholic man outside a pub in Belfast.