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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Polls: Conservatives Fall Short of Majority in UK

Associated Press

LONDON – The Conservatives captured the largest number of seats and the ruling Labour Party suffered substantial losses Thursday in Britain's national election, according to television projections based on exit polls.

The projected result did not bode well for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Britain's prime minister since 2007, and triggered widespread uncertainty over who will form the next government. The country's top three parties — the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats — immediately began jockeying for position in possible coalition.

Frustrated voters, meanwhile, said they were turned away from polling stations and some stations appeared overwhelmed by late voter turnout — a sign of the intense interest in this election.

An analysis by Britain's main television networks suggested David Cameron's Conservative party will win 305 House of Commons seats, short of the 326 seats needed for a majority.

The projections also showed a substantial drop for Brown's ruling Labor Party, giving it 255 seats — its smallest number since 1987. Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats were seen as winning 61 seats — far less than had been expected. Smaller parties got 29 other seats.

The projection suggests that the Conservatives will gain 95 seats, Labour will lose 94 and the Liberal Democrats will lose one.

If the vote does not give any party a majority, that could produce a destabilizing period of political wrangling and uncertainty. Brown could resign if he feels the results have signaled he has lost his mandate to rule, or he could try to stay on as leader and seek a deal in which smaller parties would support him.

"Let's see how it pans out. Gordon will know whether he should stay on or not," Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson said. "I think Gordon deserves the dignity to look at these things and make up his own mind."

Hard results began to trickle in about an hour after polls closed. The first seat to declare, Houghton and Sunderland South in northern England, was retained by Labour.

Hundreds of British voters across the country claimed they were unable to vote because they were left still standing in long lines when polls closed at 10 p.m. (2100 GMT, 5 p.m. EDT).

Police in London said they were called to a polling station in east London when about 50 angry voters denied the chance to cast their ballot staged a sit-in protest. Voters in Sheffield, Newcastle and elsewhere in London also complained that they had been denied a vote because of lines as polls closed.

Theresa May, a senior Conservative Party lawmaker, said the exit poll result showed Labour's heaviest losses since 1931, and that the incumbent party had lost "the legitimacy to govern."

But Labour's Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, pointed out that the sitting prime minister is traditionally given the first chance to form a government.

"The rules are that if it's a hung Parliament, it's not the party with the largest number of seats that has first go, it's the government," he said. "I have no problem in principle in trying to supply this country with a stable government."

He extended an olive branch to the Liberal Democrats, who have called to end the first-past-the-post system, where the number of districts won — not the popular vote — determines who leads the country.

"There has to be electoral reform as a result of this election," Mandelson said. "First-past the-post is on its last legs."

The results may yet change. Projecting elections based on exit polls is inherently risky — particularly in an exceptionally close election like this one. Polls are based on samples — in this case 18,000 respondents — and always have some margin of error.

Britain's census is nine years out of date and the polling districts haven't caught up to population shifts. Many voters also refuse to respond to exit polls.

Thousands have also already cast postal ballots but those results don't factor into the exit polls. About 12 percent cast postal ballots in 2005.

The election result would be disastrous news for the Liberal Democrats, Britain's longtime third party, who enjoyed a big poll surge after the charismatic Clegg appeared in televised TV debates.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Vince Cable described the outcome of the exit poll as "very strange" and insisted they had been "horribly wrong" in the past.

The Tories are hoping to regain power for the first time since 1997, when they were ousted by Labour under Tony Blair. After three leaders and three successive election defeats, the party selected Cameron, a fresh-faced, bicycle-riding graduate of Eton and Oxford who promised to modernize the party's fusty, right-wing image.

Whoever wins faces the daunting challenge of introducing big budget cuts to slash Britain's huge deficit.

In late trading in New York, the British pound sank to its lowest point in a year to trade at $1.4715.