Why British politics are even more dysfunctional than America's

U.K. Election: Betting the odds
U.K. Election: Betting the odds

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U.K. Election: Betting the odds 02:32

Leeds, United Kingdom (CNN)If politicians feel unloved in America, they should try Britain.

Here, voters castigate politicians as liars on live television, tell pollsters by 10-1 margins that their leaders don't care for the national interest and have descended into a corrosive countrywide funk challenging the very legitimacy of government.
Now the electorate may add a dose of Washington-style gridlock with a May 7 vote likely to leave no big winner and instead produce a fractious coalition or a weak government without a mandate that would struggle to survive, let alone get anything done.
    At the campaign's final televised candidate showdown on Thursday night, an audience member encapsulated in just one sentence the nation's view of the people that want to lead it.
    "You are frankly just lying," he said to opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.
    In some ways, the concerns of voters here mirror those in the United States -- the high cost of living for the middle class, worries about quality and access when it comes to health care and rising national debt after the worst economic crisis in decades.
    And just like the United States, where 2016 presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are battling one another to show they empathize with the struggles of "everyday Americans," no politician appears to have the answers.

    Voters united in contempt

    But whereas U.S. electoral schisms deepen political polarization between the parties, in Britain the electorate has united -- in complete contempt for all the leaders.
    There's none of the sense of future possibility that American candidates conjure up among their followers in the early days of a U.S. primary campaign, or of the call to national renewal that presidential candidates invoke before the November general election.
    Will Jennings, a professor of politics at Southampton University, said the U.K. was caught in a cycle of "huge, pervasive distrust" of political institutions and other traditional centers of power, including the scandal-ridden parliament, print media and the police.
    The bile that poured out at the leading candidates in the question-and-answer session on Thursday was comparable to the assaults American politicians are used to receiving on conservative talk radio and partisan liberal websites. But in the U.S, candidates rarely confront such copious fury from the general public face-to-face.
    When South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!" at President Barack Obama during an address to Congress, it was roundly criticized. In contrast, the vitriol at the candidates forum on Thursday night barely raised eyebrows.
    The U.K.'s political distemper comes at a consequential time, when the unity of the nation is again in peril from Scottish independence aspirations and support for continued European Union membership is in doubt.
    And it is informed, in part, by the fallout from the global economic crisis, from which Britain was far slower to recover than the United States.
    "The message of austerity has depressed people. Politicians have been telling them for five years how hard this is going to be," said Jennings. Though the British economy is on the mend, the belt-tightening has made progress painful.
    The U.K. political dysfunction may be a lesson for America about what happens when politicians are perceived to have stopped listening to the people and there is no defining figure able to lift the national narrative from the mire of partisan politics.
    Thursday night's event in Leeds may end up being the signature moment of a campaign that has seen political leaders shy away from direct contact with voters to avoid mistakes in a neck-and-neck race -- and perhaps distance themselves from the anger and disgust they would face.
    But in Thursday nights Q&A session, they had no choice but to confront that anger head on.
    The BBC, which organized the debate, set the stage for fireworks by choosing to host it in Yorkshire, home to an ornery tribe of English people who combine the bluntness of Philadelphia with Texas's independent streak.
    Instead of debating one another, as in a U.S. presidential debate, the leaders of what are currently the country's three biggest parties in parliament -- Miliband, Prime Minister David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg -- each appeared on stage separately for a 30-minute grilling from audience members, alone and unprotected. Veteran BBC presenter and the evening's moderator David Dimbleby smoothly made sure that each one was fed to the lions.

    Deadly serious contest

    Financial Times columnist Matthew Engel said that having the party leaders make separate appearances made them seem like "defendants in a gangland trial who have to be kept apart for fear they will slit each others throats."
    Miliband wasn't the only one to face an audience member questioning his veracity.
    Cameron's suave political persona was no match for one voter who told the prime minister that anyone who believed his promises on Britain's state-run health service must have "half a brain."
    "I don't agree with you, sir," Cameron replied, trying to deflect the anger.
    "Well you're wrong," the man said.
    It's not as if the British leader does not appreciate the anger boiling up in the electorate. This week he made a desperate pledge to pass a law making it illegal for him to raise taxes in order to placate those who don't trust his promises.
    British politics no longer a two-party race
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    British politics no longer a two-party race 02:27
    Though his austerity medicine has been a tough dose for the British people, Cameron argues that the economy is finally recovering, and his best hope of remaining Prime Minister may lie in the fact that voters may not be ready to trust Labour with the nation's purse strings again.
    By the end of his time on the stage Thursday, Cameron, despite putting in one of the best performances of his campaign, looked rattled -- his upper lip was soaked in sweat.
    Miliband was up next, and drew guffaws when he insisted the last Labour government had not overspent. That elicited the audience member's skeptical response: "How can you say that? You are frankly just lying."
    In the end, Miliband had little option but to plead he was not like every other politician who talks big at election time but doesn't deliver.
    "I'm not the guy who makes all those easy promises," he said, before almost stumbling to the ground in an undignified exit from the stage.
    Clegg, for his part, has never recovered from breaking a promise to oppose a rise in tuition fees for university students, and his own parliamentary seat in the north of England is now under threat. His party is expected to see its tally of seats drastically cut, so much so that it may be mathematically impossible for the Liberal Democrats to prolong the coalition they made with the Tories in 2010.

    An irrelevant party?

    "Have you got any plans for next week when you're unemployed and your party's an irrelevance?" one voter asked.
    "Charming," Clegg replied.
    Things have always been tough for politicians in the U.K. Voters famously thanked Winston Churchill for winning World War II by unceremoniously booting him out of office and choosing Labour in 1945.
    And there was plenty of grumbling at the premierships of Tory Margaret Thatcher and Labourite Tony Blair when they were in power, even as voters kept returning them with huge majorities that no one today has any chance in matching.
    Blair, in fact, won a hope-and-change-style mandate in 1997, but partly due to his support for the Iraq war, the love affair cooled. In some ways his tenure was the root of the disaffection being seen today.
    The one exception to the political antipathy may be in Scotland, where there is a fresh, dynamic political leader rallying the people to her cause. Nicola Sturgeon has taken the campaign by storm -- and could wipe Labour out of its north-of-the-English-border heartland just six months after her Scottish Nationalists lost an independence referendum.
    The SNP surge is in many ways part of the disillusionment with politics in London that has led some Britons to flirt with smaller parties like the UK Independence Party, which opposes the EU, and the Greens -- potentially crimping the ability of Labour and the Conservatives to win enough seats for a majority.
    According to a YouGov survey in January, only 1 in 10 Britons believes that U.K. politicians want to do what is best for the country.
    Seventy-two percent, meanwhile, thought politics was dominated by self-seeking politicians determined to protect the rich and powerful.
    Things are considerably better in the United States, where a February 2014 Pew Research poll found that 24% of the public trust the government in Washington always or most of the time.