If you’re feeling perplexed by today’s faceless and lifeless British election, you’re not alone. So are the voters themselves.
According to the final polls, the normally decisive Brits cannot decide which of their leading candidates they dislike more: the wishy-washy Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, or his wishy-washy Labour opponent, Ed Miliband.
For the second election in a row, the Great British voter looks likely to return a coalition government patched together with minority interests ranging from the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party and the separatist Scottish National Party.Cameron’s current coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, appear to be heading for their own shellacking after redefining wishy-washy by running simultaneously to the left and right of every other major party.
Coalitions might be fine in exotically idealistic democracies like Germany and Israel. But in British politics, this just isn’t cricket.
Prime ministers govern in the name of the Crown, which means almost complete legislative and executive power. They lead the biggest party in Parliament, drawing on the votes of MPs who have won the most votes in their own constituencies. Winning the election means winning pretty much everything for five years.
If the PM loses a major vote in Parliament, he or she loses 10 Downing Street. His or her budget is simply untouchable. You may call POTUS the most powerful office in the world, but you can be sure that nobody in Congress takes the president’s budget very seriously.
To understand today’s close-fought British election, you need to travel back to the turmoil of 1979.
That was a time when the first punk rockers were still terrifying polite society, the labor unions were terrifying business leaders, and Margaret Thatcher rose to power terrifying everyone else.
Thatcher promised to heal a divided country that appeared to be in chronic economic and international decline.
Never mind that she divided the country further and presided over race riots, various civil unrest, and the collapse of Britain’s manufacturing base. As an ideologically hard-right leader, she ended the period of weak governments of the 1970s and dominated the country with huge majorities for more than a decade.
Thatcher also established the model of a strong leader that Tony Blair emulated, leading the left-of-center Labour party to a decade of power with similarly huge majorities in Parliament. (We’ll politely skip over Thatcher and Blair’s short-lived successors, John Major and Gordon Brown.)
Three decades of powerful Prime Ministers have definitively come to an end with today’s election. Whatever the final results, Cameron and Miliband appear weakened, not strengthened, by their election campaigns.
Both have appealed to voters by attempting to scare the country: Cameron will supposedly destroy the beloved National Health Service, while Miliband will allegedly drive the economy into bankruptcy. Neither has sought to inspire the voters or paint a convincingly optimistic future. No wonder the voters are turned off.
Along the way, the British press has reverted to its partisan roots. Cameron is a high-class toff who only looks after his wealthy pals. Miliband is Red Ed, a throwback to the Marxist union agitators who halted work in Britain’s factories in 1979.
Strangely, both men can call on consulting advice from leading figures in President Obama’s orbit. David Axelrod (full disclosure: an msnbc analyst) is an adviser to Miliband, while Jim Messina (Obama’s campaign manager in 2012) is an occasional adviser to Cameron.
If there is an Obama effect in this election, it will be Labour’s adoption of the extraordinarily effective voter targeting and turnout operation perfected by Team Obama in the 2012 cycle.
But in reality this election is defined less by political tactics than the post-recession malaise affecting most of western politics.
Trust in institutions, including political parties, is at historic lows. There is deep economic insecurity after the devastating unemployment that followed the financial crisis. Nationalist politicians are on the rise across Europe, just as nativist politics have intensified in the US making immigration reform harder to achieve. On the international stage, the old powers seem less in command of world events.
And the leaders that have emerged, at least in the UK, seem as small as the politics.
Back in 1979, the mood of the country was summed up by the blockbuster book, “The Book of Heroic Failures.” Its subtitle was, “The Official Handbook of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain.” But that subtitle was supposedly removed when the club proved too successful and attracted too many membership applications.
If the club ever needs a leader, Cameron and Miliband might find themselves in another close contest.