The Great British Election Switch-off

IT became known in the end as the ‘Rotten Parliament’. Mired in scandal, exposed as money grubbers and expenses abusers, there will be few tears shed in Britain for many of the departing Members of Parliament – forty of them who bade farewell to the Speaker of the House, John Bercow recently in Parliament. Bercow has himself become embroiled in the expenses scandal – revealed in the teeth of opposition from Parliament, due to the due diligence of an American born journalist, Heather Brooke, who realised that the Labour Government’s own Freedom of Information Act, could be used to shine a light on the murky goings on in the Mother of Parliaments.

So some 150 MPs, a record number will be going – not all of whom have abused an admittedly lax system. Many will be household names in Britain, but few, if any have really made their mark on the international stage.  Veteran, departing MP and former Defence Minister, Peter Kilfoyle is withering about the Labour Government’s record. He says “We have failed to be a voice for peace in the World, while failing in our duty as a critical friend of the United States”.  Kilfoyle, a Member of Parliament for a deprived area in Liverpool goes on in damning frame; “Most of all we have failed to keep faith with our own party members and supporters”. Ouch!

So what will the new Parliament in Britain look like? Well, so much depends quite obviously on the outcome on May 6th. Presently, the aggregate of polls is close for both main parties, the Labour Government and the Conservative Opposition, with the Liberal Democrats making a stronger showing. But increasingly British pollster seem to feel obliged to skew their polls to whoever is their paymaster, which may explain why in recent days one poll put the Conservative 10 per cent ahead – nearly enough to have an overall majority, and another had them at just 3%. And so far the election campaign seems largely to have been fought in a Westminster media bubble, on established political lines, with remarkably little to seriously differentiate one party from another.

A recent, probably more accurate indication of actual voting intentions revealed that not only have a majority of voters not made up their minds, but 38% say that the MPs expenses scandal will decide their vote. So, with at least 140 MPs who are standing again, and who were caught up in the scandal, that leaves a great deal of room for highly unpredictable results – and the emergence of independent candidates. The Speaker of Parliament falls into this category in Buckingham, and faces a fight on two fronts from two determined Independents – one of whose sites, in this increasingly acrimonious, viral election, can be seen here  The candidate behind this web site, John Stevens says; “Many people want to register a protest against Mr Bercow’s outrageous expenses claims”.

The far Right British National Party, which won two seats in the European Parliament, is honing in on traditional white working class, Labour supporting areas, where unemployment remains stubbornly high, and where there has been a large influx of migrants over the past decade. Because of Britain’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system, the far Right has never gained a foothold in Parliament, but this time the BNP has high hopes of winning in the depressed Midlands city of Stoke, and in East London.  This election may become defined by regional disparities, quirky results, and if the Conservatives emerge as the largest party in England and Wales, but score poorly in Scotland, a major boost will have been give to the Nationalists, even now preparing for a referendum on independence for Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party, believe that they will do particularly well as voters weary of the two main parties. In their Finance Spokesman, Vincent Cable, the Liberal Democrats have a rare voice in British politics, as someone the public actually quite likes and respects. Their leader, Nick Clegg, has not had the same degree of visibility, but will be hoping that along with Labour leader, Gordon Brown and Conservative leader, David Cameron, Britain’s first US style television debates with the main contenders, will bring dividends.

Despite the record number of retirees, and the record number of new MPs set to take their place, it is only possible to form a rough idea of the type of people the new MPs actually are. Both main parties, with a rapidly declining membership have increasingly taken to ‘parachuting’ candidates over the heads of local activists into safe seats. These individuals are more often than not, professorial young politicians whose preferment is based on their commitment to supporting the official party position at any given time.

Interestingly, the Conservatives have managed to select – or appoint – more black and Asian candidates than Labour, traditionally the party that receives the bulk of the ethnic vote. They also have a fairly high preponderance of businesspeople and ex military personnel. Labour on the other hand has a high proportion of candidates who have been local councillors, a few who have been trade union officials, and more still who have worked for the Government machine as advisers.

Underlying all of this however is a remarkable nationwide mood of apathy and cynicism. Large sections of the population seem to believe that all of the main parties “are the same”, and when it comes to abuses of parliamentary expenses “they are all at it”. If this mood continues until polling day, the turnout of voters could hit a record low.

But I am beginning to wonder if this will be the case. Apathy can turn to anger. While apathy could deliver a ‘hung Parliament’, with no party with an overall majority, anger could deliver some really hard hits for the main parties. Or it is possible that the Conservative’s mantra ‘time for change’, could catch the public mood and do the seemingly unthinkable and deliver them a landslide. Or it is just possible that the public, scared of what lies just around the corner as recession turns into spending cuts, will vote for experience, rather than gamble on David Cameron and his un-tested team? If they do, Gordon Brown could still be leading the party with the most seats after May 6th, in a new Parliament, which hopefully will look and sound very different from the old.

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