On April 6, the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, asked the Queen to dissolve parliament for a general election on May 6. The campaign will take place with the country in as deep a state of confusion, gloom, and uncertainty as it has known in many decades. It is in its worst recession for 80 years, under a prime minister whose colleagues have tried to remove him thrice in three years, and has been continuously at war for nearly as long as the two world wars combined. In addition, public disgust over the entire condition of British politics is at its greatest in living memory; the continuing scandal over MPs' expenses is only part of a political culture of deceit, the worst such being the orchestrated lying over Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. Public discontent has also been expressed in declining turnout rates, which have fallen from 71.4% in 1997 to 59.4% in 2001 and 61.4% in 2005, when the Labour Party won its third successive majority, this time of 68 seats on the votes of 21.2% of the total electorate. The British political class, however, has only recently heard even part of the message; no fewer than 147 MPs out of 646 are not standing for reelection.
As to the prospects, Labour is doing surprisingly well in the opinion polls and can think in terms of being the largest party. David Cameron's opposition Conservatives, who led Labour by 45% to 30% in November 2008, had a lead of 40% to 32% on April 7, but that is within the variation allowed for by sampling techniques. The Tories, mainly funded by big business and the very rich, will play on Labour's proposed rises in National Insurance contributions. Labour, desperate to recover its core vote, is talking cautiously of state support for the economy and even of less oppressive target-driven monitoring for the public services which are used by almost all in the UK. The third main party, Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats, look coherent, but have seen their major constitutional plans, such as a referendum on the introduction of an Alternative Vote system for general elections and the creation of a fully-elected upper chamber, hijacked by Labour only to be abandoned in the rush to pass pending legislation before the campaign started. A major education bill suffered the same fate, while other and badly-drafted bills were passed. Therefore, even if a hung parliament is elected, British voters will probably not see an improved political culture. On the positive side, the Lib Dems may not be the only beneficiaries of public discontent; the Green Party, led by the highly capable Caroline Lucas and with a strong record from the 2009 European Parliament elections, are fielding no fewer than 300 candidates. The old guard of Labour and the Tories could get some nasty surprises yet.