WASHINGTON—Britain produced an electoral earthquake all right, but not the one so many expected. The real lessons have less to do with two-party systems than with how economic change has challenged old strategies on both the right and the left.
The Conservatives under David Cameron came in first with the most votes and the most seats. The big Tory gains reflected Cameron's shrewd understanding that only a moderate and forward-looking conservatism stands any chance of victory.
But Cameron failed to win a majority, and the cause of this indecisive result was not, as seemed likely just a few weeks ago, a breakthrough by the third-party Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg. On the contrary, against all the hopes inspired by Clegg's first debate performance, the Lib Dems actually lost seats and only marginally increased their share of the total vote.
What kept the Conservatives from going over the top was the durability of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labor Party. It took a drubbing but survived.
Just days before the election, many were speaking of a third-place popular-vote finish by Labor that would, indeed, have exploded the old two-party system. Instead, Labor held on in many constituencies the Conservatives needed to take, outpolled the Lib Dems by six percentage points in the popular vote and won more than four times as many seats.
It did so because in parts of the country that have never shared in the great metropolitan prosperity around London, mistrust of the Conservatives still runs deep. In the final days of the campaign, Brown stoked memories in the country's older industrial areas of the havoc created by Margaret Thatcher's economic policies. He warned that Cameron's Conservatives were not as shiny and new as they claimed. It was not enough to win Brown the election, but it was enough to ward off utter disaster.
Clegg got caught in this crossfire. He was presenting the Lib Dems as the ultimate win-win, a center-left alternative that would allow voters to disentangle themselves from Labor without having to vote Conservative. Given the decline of Britain's old working class, always the heart of Labor's vote, this seemed a realistic prospect.
But many of Labor's bastions held. Britain's geographical and economic periphery proved quite resistant to the tides that swept across wealthier and trendier parts of the country. Labor actually gained ground in Scotland, where it was already dominant. It suffered losses in Wales, but still won nearly two-thirds of the Welsh seats. In the northeast and northwest of England, Labor also took some hits but largely held its own.
The outcome in Britain underscores a problem roiling so many democracies. The economic change brought about by globalization and technological advances is not creating the happy, unified world of progress its promoters keep promising. Instead, it is splitting regions within nations that are fully part of the global market from those being left behind.
This is a particular problem for center-left parties. They need to bring together progressive voters of the middle and upper middle classes—they were the moving force behind Cleggmania when the Liberal Democrat leader was surging—and older working-class voters who are the base of the social democratic left everywhere.
When sufficient numbers in these two groups of voters ally, the moderate left wins. This is how Barack Obama did it in 2008 and how Labor won elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005. The left fails when this alliance falls apart or is divided. That's what happened this time in Britain.
Cameron's genius was to accept that the future of conservatism lies in winning over moderately progressive voters in the classes doing reasonably well in this new economic world. In his post-election statement offering to form a governing alliance with the Liberal Democrats, he began by declaring victory for "a new, modern Conservative Party," a socially concerned, open-minded and tolerant band you don't have to be ashamed of supporting.
Cameron understands—as many Republicans in the U.S. seem not to—that conservatism needs to sand off its rough edges and present itself as a stabilizing, unifying force.
Clegg, despite his party's disappointing showing, found himself in a position to make or break the next government because Cameron could not eke out a Conservative majority. But no matter how the next government is shaped or how it fares, it is Clegg's voters who are the big prize over the long run. The renewed competition for their hearts began the moment the polls closed.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.