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British elections: Why U.S. should care

By John Avlon, Special to CNN
  • John Avlon: Conservative candidate revitalized party by recentering it away from far-right
  • Labour candidate and prime minister lost support of the center, Avlon says
  • He writes third-party candidate ran on voter frustration with two-party hold on government
  • Avlon believes British politics illuminate and offer lessons for Americans

Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- The monthlong sprint that is the British elections ended Thursday night with a hung parliament, meaning plenty of wrangling is still to be done before we know who will be the next prime minister.

But there are already clear lessons from the election across the pond that apply to American politics.

Recentering the right: The Tories' David Cameron led his party to its best election performance in almost two decades by moving the conservatives toward the center.

Since the four-election sweep by Margaret Thatcher and John Major that spanned the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the Tories put forward three uncharismatic conservative candidates who were trounced by Tony Blair's New Labour.

Cameron revitalized the right by recentering it, holding the line as a deficit hawk while carving out more progressive positions on issues such as the environment. Although Cameron, 43, offered a generational changing of the guard buoyed by a talent for sound bites and speech making, this was a shift in substance as well as style.

His centrist formulation is still a bit fuzzy, but he presented himself as a "modern compassionate conservative" -- fiscally conservative but socially liberal. In effect, he applied Tony Blair's playbook to the right, reminding us all of one of the essential lessons for any party wanting to emerge from the wilderness: Seize the center.

The left loses the center: Gordon Brown's intra-party advocates pushed Tony Blair into retirement in 2007 by saying that Brown would restore the Labour Party's leftist credentials. Back-bench anger at Blair for his support of President Bush in the Iraq War created a swell of support for Brown's succession from the left.

In fact, Brown has continued his support for the U.S. in foreign policy, and as Blair's chancellor of the exchequer, he held the line against merging the currency with the euro. That was a comparatively conservative position that has proven its wisdom in the wake of the current EU monetary crisis, which has spurred riots in Greece.

Brown was a steady if uninspiring prime minister, defiantly unsuited to televised debates or the crowd-pleasing pleasantries of modern politics. His failure to hold onto the support of the center was, in part, because of normal voter fatigue with one party in power, compounded by anger in an economic downturn. But the fact remains that he led Labour to its worst election performance since the days of Neil Kinnock, when the party still supported the nationalization of industry.

Anger at the duopoly: The big news of this election campaign was the meteoric rise of Nick Clegg as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This was a result of the first nationally televised debates, which presented Clegg on the same stage as his rivals and offered voters a chance to judge them side-by-side. The Liberal Democrats haven't had a prime minister since the legendary David Lloyd George during World War I.

Clegg's appeals were aimed at voter anger at the two-party system in Britain. He used rhetoric that would appeal to independent voters in the United States: "Just think how many times you've been given lots of promises by these two old parties -- only to discover when they get into government that nothing really changes." Also: "There is an alternative to the old parties. A lot of you think all politicians are the same. I hope I have tried to show you that isn't true."

But the brief appearance of "Clegg-mania" failed to translate to a meaningful increase in votes, a reminder that foment and follow-through are very different.

Nonetheless, Clegg's Liberal Democrats are in a position to play king-maker in the hung parliament while pushing for election reforms that open the process, also an urgent issue for many American independent voters.

The U.S. and UK remain one another's closest allies on the world stage. The special relationship is intact and, in fact, essential to meeting the Western world's challenges. That's why we follow the UK campaigns with more interest than we do any other foreign nation's. It is an alternate politics that illuminates our own, reminding us of the common bonds that unite our two nations.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John P. Avlon.