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British election: What it means for the UK and the US

Britain searches for a new direction after 13 years of Labour rule, the first hung Parliament in 36 years, and one of the worst economies since World War II.

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More than just economics, though, has driven the restiveness of the British public. To a certain extent, the election results were the culmination of a wave of public anger and distrust within Britain’s political classes in the wake of last year’s scandal over the misuse of taxpayer-funded allowances by parliamentarians.

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Many MPs announced months ago that they would not be running again. More than 150 MPs retired in all, resulting in the largest number of new members on the stump since World War II. Some experts also trace a distrust of the Westminster elite to the way Britons felt misled over their country’s involvement in the Iraq war.

“Iraq was my biggest problem,” says Bridge, faulting Blair for sending troops. “He knew that a lot of the party’s most loyal supporters would have voted against. We marched against it.”

Yet along with the general disaffection, many Britons have clearly grown weary of the two-party system. “British society today is so much more schizophrenic than in 1979 [the year Thatcher was elected prime minister],” says Mark Garnett, an expert on political culture at the University of Lancaster.

“The whole point is that class borders are much more fluid and difficult to identify. Often it’s people who have risen successfully from working-class roots, but still want to refer to their working-class credentials as a badge of honor.”

Britain’s changing ethnic mix has contributed to the unpredictability. At his restaurant in the Islington-Finsbury district, Mohammed Nurus Safa notes that while he has voted for the Conservatives in the past, he wanted to reward Brown this time for saving Britain’s banking system from collapse following the 2008 financial crisis.

An accountant who came to the UK 40 years ago from Bangladesh, Mr. Safa remembers the 1970s differently from the way many others do, who regard it as a period of decline. “I think we need to go back there; it was a time when the government was more caring for the people, when the National Health Service was No. 1,” says Safa, whose three daughters work as doctors.

Safa typifies a generation of older immigrants whose families continue to add new dimensions to British society. For one thing, voter turnout among many ethnic minorities is unusually high. In the 2005 general election, for instance, the national average turnout was 61.4 percent, while for Bangladeshi voters alone it was 76 percent.

Despite the rise of ethnic minorities, experts fault the two mainstream parties for not heeding their interests enough, adding to the veneer of volatility in the land. Confronted with a complicated and “footloose electorate,” says Dr. Garnett, every major political party has tailored its message to an imagined caricature of Britain, centered around a vision of middle-class voters receptive to the language of the “Westminster bubble.”

The result: Large swaths of the public feel alienated – particularly the white working classes.

This was epitomized most visibly by Brown’s “bigoted woman” incident late in the campaign. The prime minister, stumping in the northern English town of Rochdale, listened to a woman – a lifelong Labourite, it turned out – complain about the number of Eastern European immigrants. Unaware that a microphone was still attached to his lapel, Brown described her as bigoted.

For many, the remark summed up the detachment of mainstream politicians, and particularly the ruling party, from the concerns of ordinary voters.
Immigration, already a big issue, exploded as a hot-button concern. It generated some of the liveliest exchanges in the final televised debate.

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From here, Britain could be heading into a prolonged period of political fragility. Even if a coalition government is formed quickly, there is nothing to guarantee that it might not fall in the months or immediate years ahead, given the divisions in Parliament and among the electorate.

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