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Confusion at the top masks a deeper crisis of legitimacy

Theresa May’s palpable discomfort over the Home Office’s inability to read a calendar can only add to the general disdain voters feel for the political class which goes beyond the issue of Abu Qatada and his intended deportation into the hands of Jordanian torturers.

With Tory backbenchers flexing their muscles over House of Lords reform and a host of other issues, the uncertainty in government is palpable. A collapse of the ConDem coalition, wished for by papers like the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, is not out of the question.

It could be hastened by the reported defection of some Tory MPs to the nationalist UKIP party in the coming days. UKIP is now reportedly polling higher than the Lib Dems.

This is not an issue solely confined to the UK either. In France, Sunday’s first round of the presidential election is expected to produce a record low turn-out. No surprise there because the two principal candidates, Nicholas Sarkozy and Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande are committed to making public spending cuts.

The left unity candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who was a Socialist Party minister in earlier political life, is polling well over 15%, clearly an indication that the two-party system offers nothing to the majority of voters.

In Greece, without a government for months since an EU-IMF-ECB coup that led to the installation of a Goldman Sachs advisor as prime minister, it’s a similar story. Next month’s general election is certain to see a massive rejection of Pasok and New Democracy, who have between them carved up Greek politics for generations.

In the United States, Congress is deadlocked by the Republicans while the Democrats are finding it difficult to hide their disappointment at Barack Obama’s first term. There is no enthusiasm for Obama, who has presided over an economy in decline, or his challenger Mitt Romney and the race for the White House is said to be too close to call.

In the UK, the break-up of traditional party politics is the form that the growing revolt against the cosy but totally ineffectual parliamentary system is taking. The most staggering example was the collapse of Labour’s massive majority in the Bradford West by-election, which saw George Galloway triumphant.

In Scotland, Labour has lost control of Glasgow City Council for the first time in 40 years and is expecting a hammering at the hands of the Scottish National Party in local elections on May 3. In London, maverick populist Boris Johnson may well defy the general hatred of the Tories to stay on as the capital’s mayor.

According to a report in the Financial Times, many MPs campaigning for the local elections have returned to Westminster telling the same story, that “voters appear disillusioned with all the major parties and are increasingly turning to smaller parties as an outlet for their frustration”.

Amber Rudd, Conservative MP for Hastings, says the disdain for mainstream politics was palpable on the doorsteps. “There was an exasperation and disengagement with politics that I’ve never seen before.”

The YouGov tracker poll since the 2010 elections shows a rise in support for “others” – none of the three main UK parties – inexorably rising from 8% to 17% today. Neither the Tories nor Labour are likely to win an overall majority again on this basis.

At the back of voters’ minds is a growing understanding that the political system itself – not just the parties – has failed them. At a time of economic crisis, the system has come down in favour of the masters of capitalism – the banks, corporations, hedge funds, bond markets and the rich. Key services like education and health are being turned into commodities where the markets decide what happens.

We should use this tremendous disquiet to open up a wide debate not just about this or that party, but on the historic question of how to create a real democracy in place of the comprehensively undemocratic state that becomes more oppressive by the day. It’s the best way to block the clear danger of right-wing populism filling the vacuum.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
20 April 2012