In Britain’s upcoming general election, the nation’s public may end up unable to decide which of their political parties they dislike the least.
According to traditional logic, Gordon Brown’s world should be collapsing around his ears. Following a coup attempt by disgruntled colleagues in his Labour Party, the embattled prime minister has found himself at the center of a fresh row after being accused of “bullying” his staffers. It’s the kind of political poison that should have the Conservative opposition circling in for the kill. Yet recent polls show support for the party at its lowest ebb in two years.
On current projections, the country is headed for a so-called hung parliament in elections this spring, with neither party able to secure the majority required to form a government. This is less a consequence of a tightly fought contest than it is of an almost complete collapse in political trust among British voters, a deadlock swept in on a tide of apathy and disgust.
For a brief moment last summer, Britain’s misfiring political system appeared to have hit rock bottom. Explosive revelations about politicians’ misuse of taxpayer-funded expense accounts to pay for anything from duck shelters to pornography whipped up a storm of public fury. Angry and alienated at the end of a decade that has seen parliamentary debate descend into a meaningless squabble for the political center, the British public turned on the political classes with indiscriminate ferocity. One report released glumly concluded that a whopping 82 percent of Britons now expect their elected representatives to lie through their teeth whenever they open their mouths.
For a few short months, both Parliament and the media resounded to the sound of clarion calls for political reform. Despite the absence of war, revolution, or other traditional stimuli, Britain was, according to commentator Timothy Garton-Ash, on the cusp of a “constitutional moment.”
This low period generated a movement to tie together the confusing mess of laws, precedents, and gentlemen’s agreements that make up Britain’s “unwritten constitution,” to create a new system that would reenergize the nation’s politics and restore the trust of its people.
Suddenly, the corridors of Westminster were crackling with ideas once more. Hoping to encourage ordinary people to break career politicians’ virtual monopoly over Parliament, the Conservatives proposed using US-style “open primaries” to select new candidates. The Liberal Democrats (Britain’s third party) suggested readjusting the political system to ensure fairer representation for minorities. Labour and others proposed replacing the appointed House of Lords with an elected senate.
All were measures aimed at expanding the British voters’ stake in their own political system. But well-intentioned as they were, not one proposed reform made it much further than the drawing board. As fall came, stories of corruption at home gave way to news of electoral chaos in Afghanistan, and the summer’s electric atmosphere fizzled. The constitutional moment, it seemed, had passed.
For months, it seemed as though the Conservatives would sweep to power simply by merit of “not being Labour.” But a prolonged failure to produce any firm policies has taken its toll – since November, polls have consistently shown David Cameron and his party struggling to garner the 42 percent of public support they would need to form a government. A Guardian/ICM poll released Monday shows the Conservatives drawing 37 percent, Labour with 30 percent, and Liberal Democrats with 20 percent.
As a consequence, Britain is potentially headed for its first hung parliament in over 30 years. Unlike other European democracies, the country’s political system isn’t designed to handle something like this.
The consequences could be dramatic. In a system accustomed to stable, majority government, hung parliaments generally end up both chaotic and short-lived. With parties often unable or unwilling to work toward consensus, political paralysis is a major risk. In an extreme scenario, Parliament could end up being dissolved unilaterally by the Queen.
There are fears that the ensuing period of instability would cause unemployment and national debt to spiral ignored and out of control, sending investors scurrying for the relative safety of the Continent. As one prominent Conservative put it, “a hung parliament would be one of the biggest disasters we could suffer.”
This may be true. But perhaps no less than a disaster is needed. Unlike the scandals of last summer, this will not be a crisis that can be quietly swept under the mat once public attention has moved on. The resultant sense of urgency could finally spur politicians across the political spectrum to recapture that constitutional moment and start work fixing Britain’s broken democracy.
Oliver Lough is a researcher at the New America Foundation.