British voters' scepticism has deepened into outright cynicism about the motives and credentials of those who seek to lead. This is reflected in the marked rise of other parties, meaning a hunger for alternatives. In the Bradford West by-election, that old-stager and playboy socialist George Galloway pulled off an extraordinary victory over Labour that not a single member of the political class saw coming. Journalists, this one included, did no better, seeing it purely in narrow Westminster terms of whether or not Ed Miliband could increase the Labour majority in the constituency after the Chancellor's rather botched Budget. In the event Galloway won by more than 10,000 votes.
That opens up the worrying possibility of more ethnic identity politics and contests in which a party such as Galloway's hard-left Respect vehicle might be able to marshall an Islamic block vote.
In Scotland, it is the separatist Scottish National Party that is riding high, with Labour in trouble and the Lib Dems on the verge of wipe-out. The Conservatives still have only one MP north of the border and they have made little impact in the devolved parliament in Edinburgh either. A significant element of First Minister Alex Salmond's appeal is that he defines himself in opposition to Westminster and the old party structure. It may not be enough to secure him full Scottish independence, but all the parties other than the Conservatives are starting to push for even more devolution of the kind that has weakened the bonds of the UK.
Then there is UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, feasting on Tory discontent over the compromises the prime minister has made with his pro-EU Liberal Democrat coalition partners. It is regularly hitting 7 per cent in polls and in one survey scored as high as 11 per cent.
The mood is fractious and that is before the vast bulk of the government's cuts designed to get the deficit under control are introduced. Ministers admit that soon the government will have to come back for another round of spending reductions, which will only further fuel resentment.
It is not just in Britain that the mainstream parties are being challenged. On the far-left in France's presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front demanded the confiscation of earnings above £300,000 and railed powerfully against international finance, while Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front denounced globalisation.
In Germany, the Pirate Party has started rising in the polls, to the astonishment of its founders, who have not had time to organise even the most basic party structures. Disaffected young voters seem to find the ramshackle platform of free file-sharing and open access to all internet content attractive.
After the financial crisis and the ongoing eurozone emergency, with youth unemployment shockingly high and such uncertainty about the prospects of the West, there is a palpable mistrust of alleged experts in general — economists, journalists, etc — and politicians in particular.
In Britain, this remoteness from the public and widespread resentment is not what the early adherents of the war room and the "permanent campaign" envisaged. Greater responsiveness to public mood would surely please the public? The use of polling and research between elections as well as during campaigns was supposed to make candidates and parties much more in touch with the desires and impulses of voters, particularly those floating in the middle ground.
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