Angry voters, inept leaders: Why British politics is at breaking point
There is no denying that the British political system is going through one of its most severe crises and is rapidly reaching breaking point. Between the local elections earlier this month, and the European parliamentary elections later this week, if opinion polls are to be believed, it has become evident that the British electorate has lost its faith in the country’s two major parties, the Conservatives as much as Labour.
By the end of a long night following the local elections on May 3, the Conservatives had lost 1,269 councillors and Labour 63, while the Liberal Democrats, who not that long time ago looked politically dead in the water, gained 676 seats in councils up and down the country.
Worryingly for the two big parties, their share of the vote dipped to 28 percent each. It was a night when the British electorate dealt the government and the official opposition a painful bloody nose that might be followed by knocking them to the canvas on Thursday, when elections for the European Parliament that were never supposed to take place will be held in a country that voted to leave the EU almost three years ago.
Blaming the shambolic manner in which both the Conservatives and Labour parties have handled the UK’s exit from Europe for their decline is an obvious platitude. How could voters, Brexiteers as much as Remainers, trust a government and an opposition that have repeatedly failed to deliver a Brexit which is palatable to the majority of British people or been brave enough to pull back from the brink?
If the local elections were a painful blow for the two parties, it could turn into a colossal embarrassment if Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party win a majority of UK seats in the European Parliament, as most polls suggest. Farage, who turned his back on politics once his ultimate dream of Brexit was supported by a majority of British voters in the referendum, is making another anti-European comeback, and neither the Conservatives nor Labor have an adequate response to contain him. This is the strongest indication of the weakness of these parties and the political crisis facing the UK. They are unable to provide a convincing answer to an opportunist-populist who has no single policy other than leaving the EU — and whose arguments even on this subject are largely figments of his own imagination.
Brexit has served as a litmus test for the ability of a political system to lead the country through difficult decisions, even crises, and it has been found wanting.
Nevertheless, Farage and his ilk are not the problem but the symptom. Plain and simple, the British public is sickened by the dismal performance of the two major players. But in the same way that the local election gains by the Lib Dems are not evidence of a public shift toward Remain, Farage’s expected electoral success will not signal any overwhelming support for leaving the EU, and definitely not for leaving without a sensible deal. It is a sign of something much more threatening for British society: The spread of malaise, anxiety and even despair. It is hard to decipher a coherent message from the electorate about policy direction, but on the other hand there is crystal-clear public anger at the traditional political establishment, and a call for responsible leaders who can work together for the country and not for their own vested interests.
Brexit has served as a litmus test for the ability of a political system to lead the country through difficult decisions, even crises, and it has been found wanting. It is no longer just about Brexit, but about a bunch of politicians exposed in their ineptitude, not to mention their detachment, from the people they supposedly represent.
To be sure, Brexit, a colossal historical accident, was born in sin. Most MPs didn’t support it at the time, and still don’t support it, but lack the courage to admit that this entire debacle was a mistake from the outset, or at least to find a way to minimize the damage inflicted by leaving the EU. Instead, the British public is witnessing political parties that are becoming further divided and a prime minister who, in her desperation, is ready to quit, but only if her deal is approved.
Because of the way the Brexit deal reached with Brussels has been handled by the British government, the country has become a global laughing stock. And the voters’ verdict is that they don’t trust the government any longer, and they don’t see the Labour Party and its leader as a viable alternative. Jeremy Corbyn’s wavering over Brexit and his weakness in dealing with persistent pockets of anti-Semitism in his party do not make him look like a prime minister in waiting.
One must feel sorry for the councillors who lost their seats through no fault of their own. The local elections were won or lost on national and international issues. Local polls, as much as European parliamentary elections, tend to be used by voters as as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with the government and the way it deals with the bigger picture. However, it is rare for both major parties to be ticked off by voters simultaneously.
In the final analysis neither the Lib Dems nor Farage and his brand of Little Britain xenophobia offer an answer. But the British people are angry. They want not only closure with Brexit, but also for the political establishment to deal with other issues, such as a health system that is collapsing for lack of adequate resources, soaring education costs with no jobs to justify young people’s qualifications, and property prices that all but exclude the young. And voters don’t seem to know where to turn.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program.Twitter: @YMekelberg