Out of Date, Out of Touch: British Politics in Turmoil

By Anthony Painter

The British can be pretty slow on the uptake. Never have we been the slower than on the fundamental need to detonate and then rebuild our democracy. The simple fact is that our parliamentary system is a relic; it was out of date the minute the US Constitution was drafted. We're only 222 years behind the times - but even by our standards that's pretty slow.

For a few weeks now all the main political parties have been thrown on the pyre of public opinion for what is mundanely called "the expenses scandal." The Daily Show hit the spot when it named the crisis "Scamalot." Basically, the expenses system for Members of Parliament has allowed many to profiteer from the sale of homes that were often lavishly furnished, get the taxpayer to fund the dredging of their moats (no, I didn't know that people still had moats in England but apparently they do!) and purchase the sale of elaborate garden ornaments such as the "duck house" one MP financed on taxpayer dough. What is a duck house? It is a house for ducks (and not just lame ones). No, I didn't know such a thing existed.

The whole of our political system has been in crisis. Quite apart from the increasing roster of individual MPs who have lost their jobs, there has been a palpable sense of a system unable to respond to the pressure. Is this just an over-reaction to a media-driven agenda to undermine the political process? That's the easy answer. It is also deeply unsatisfactory.

Quite simply, this scandal has laid bare the woefully inadequate nature of the British political system, where the government controls parliament, where parties control MPs, where only a small number of voters -- those in marginal constituencies -- have a say, and where the selection of candidates is controlled by small cabals of local party activists. The British public has felt irrelevant, ignored, shut out and deeply frustrated for some time. Then they discovered these expenses claims. No wonder all hell has broken loose.

How did they react? Well, they gave an absolute kicking to the Labour government led by Gordon Brown. Labour's 15% in last week's elections to the European Parliament was its lowest percentage of the vote since 1906. The Party was only founded in 1900. For the Conservatives to top the poll in Wales would be rather like the Democrats winning in Oklahoma. But that is what happened. This was as bad as it gets.

What's worse is that the BNP -- a racist, neo-Nazi party of the right -- won two seats in the European Parliament. They actually secured fewer votes than in these elections in 2004 but the collapse in Labour support enabled them to win and get the resources, legitimacy and platform that comes from having a European seat.

So a political crisis has become a crisis for the government as well - and it is consequently a crisis for the left in Britain more broadly. As a result of Labour's travails, a number of Cabinet members quit the administration. Prime Minister Brown was hanging by a thread and just one further significant resignation could have sunk him. He just about survived and will now probably lead Labour into the next general election. It is his government that will have to rebuild both trust in the political system while rebuilding the party itself. But it has a long way to go if it is to have any chance of winning an election which must be held by May 2010.

So we could be witnessing the end of New Labour. Like the New Democrats in the US, New Labour was fundamentally about a compromise with the "aspirational" suburban middle classes. That often hampered it in office and now the truce seems to have broken down. The problem is not that the so-called "aspirational" classes are no longer voting Labour - it's that they don't seem to be even listening anymore.

There is little doubt that Gordon Brown has been formidable in his response to the global financial meltdown as the world witnessed at the G20 Summit in April. However, there has to be a concern that even if the economy turns around Labour may not get enough of a bounce to hold on to office. David Cameron's Conservatives who have made and continue to make the wrong calls on the economy could almost end up in government by default. Never has an opposition been able to say less than the current Conservative Party.

More broadly, the British left is not alone. The results for the left across Europe last week were pretty poor and there has to be a sense that something deeper is happening. Perhaps recession makes people more protective of their own personal position, but the willingness of the center-right governments in Germany and France to adopt interventionist and welfarist policies hardly suggest this to be the case.

No, the left may have an even bigger problem. Its historical constituency -- a largely homogeneous, industrial working class -- is shrinking and fragmenting. New Labour was one short-term fix to cope with this. But there needs to be a fundamental rethink. President Obama's campaign identified opportunity in new migration into the South and West and the growth of idealistic professional classes as a means of coping with a base that had been fragmented by Nixon and Reagan. As a consequence, the Democrats won states in the South and West in 2008 without the helping hand of a Ross Perot-style third candidate. These were secured without the same compromises that Bill Clinton had to make.

We will see whether Gordon Brown is able to turn things around in such a short span of time. Even if he does, the left in the UK and elsewhere in Europe have enormous questions to answer. In the UK, the left has to confront these challenges while simultaneously dealing with financial and political crises as well. How we could do with a Jefferson, a Madison, or an Adams now.

Anthony Painter is a columnist for LabourList and author of Barack Obama: the movement for change.