As Britain Prepares to Vote

By Gelb, Norman | The New Leader (Online), January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

As Britain Prepares to Vote


Gelb, Norman, The New Leader (Online)


London

BRTTAIN is bracing itself for a plunge into uncharted political territory as it prepares for national elections that must be held by June at the latest. Uncertainty is of course common when voters are about to decide who will lead them. This time here, though, more is involved than meets the eye.

It is five years since the Labor Party, led by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, won a third successive victory. When Blair retired in 2007, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown was tapped by the party to fill out the term. A fourth straight win for Labor, according to public opinion polls, seems unlikely.

The lamentable state of Britain's economy is the main reason. The country is clawing out of the global recession slower than the United States or any of the major Western European nations. Media critics place most of the blame for this on Labor's faltering attempts to reduce jobless levels, revitalize manufacturing industries, and keep public services functioning efficiently. That criticism is being echoed by ordinary citizens, including many traditional Labor supporters. Their loyalty to the party has been further shaken by a recent government sponsored study which concluded that, after more than a decade of Labor rule, the gap between rich and poor in Britain is greater today than it was 40 years ago.

But more is at stake than whether Labor or the opposition Conservative Party will emerge the victor on election day. Unlike the United States, where the power of the government is divided among the executive, legislative and judicial branches, in Britain Parliament is the primary authority - superior to the prime minister, to the judiciary, even to Queen Elizabeth, in whose name it officially functions. And Parliament is about to experience a momentous upheaval. Already 135 of the House of Commons' 646 members have publicly served notice that they will not stand for re-election this spring, and others are expected to join them. Included are some who have been the most active figures in Parliament.

This could have a serious impact on the government's postelection complexion. In parts of the country, voters are thought to be more loyal to their individual Members of Parliament than to a particular party. Who will gain their support, or whether they will even bother to vote, no one can say.

What can be said is that the imminent mass departure of Parliamentarians - the largest such exodus proportionally since the English Civil War in the 17th century - is partly a result of the revelation during the past year that over half of those quitting received taxpayer money by illegitimately claiming reimbursement for expenses not essential to the performance of their public duties.

Examples are mortgage and rent payments well beyond what is considered appropriate, expensive furnishings, and putting relatives on the public payroll. Most of the MPs insist they were acting within Parliament's rules. Nevertheless, some 300 of them have been instructed by an auditor to pay back much of the significant sums they received for dubious claims. As of this writing, three of them and one House of Lords member have been arrested for false accounting. Other cases are being investigated by the police.

Questions of actual guilt may end up in court, where a decision would have to be rendered on whether "Parliamentary privilege"can be invoked in this instance. It is generally believed to only protect MPs from prosecution for anything they might say in Parliament, but some of the accused contend that it extends further.

Whatever, there is no doubt about the widespread public disgust with what the London Daily Telegraph has described as MPs "stealing from the taxpayer." The anger was compounded by the disclosure that even some of what are considered the most outrageous claims - for cleaning the moat of an MP's ancestral estate, and for employing an expensive, seemingly excessive personal round-the-clock security service - were permissible under dodgy House of Commons expense rules. …

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