Scandal in Britain pushes voters toward far-right political parties

McClatchy NewspapersJune 3, 2009 

LONDON — Britain's political crisis escalated Wednesday with new calls for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to quit amid a sudden string of resignations by his Cabinet officials and Labor Party allies. Opposition politicians charged that the government was "collapsing" and "in total meltdown."

The timing of resignations of senior government officials couldn't have been worse, coming on the eve of Thursday's national elections for local councils and European parliamentary seats. Polls have found Labor with abysmal public support, with voters indicating that they may vent their disgust by turning to fringe and far-right parties that want to distance Britain from the European Union. A similar increase in support for far-right parties is seen elsewhere in Europe.

All three of Britain's main political parties, Labor, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, have been damaged by a recent scandal over abuse of expense accounts by members of Parliament, but Brown's Labor government is bearing the brunt of the criticism.

The expenses-related resignations this week of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who was responsible for immigration, policing and the intelligence services, and then Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, who was responsible for running the local elections Thursday, moved the scandal a step closer to Brown.

Brown recently criticized Blears, a 4-foot 10-inch redhead who often rides a motorcycle in full leather jacket and pants, for failing to pay capital-gains taxes on an apartment transaction. Exiting the prime minister's office on Wednesday morning, she wore a brooch that read: "Rocking the boat." News of her resignation broke just before Brown was due to appear in Parliament at midday, and opposition politicians were quick to attack.

"The government is collapsing before our eyes," Conservative Party leader David Cameron charged during a verbal slugfest with Brown, repeating calls for a general election as soon as possible.

"The country doesn't have a government, it has a void — Labor is finished," chimed in Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. "The prime minister is thrashing around, fighting for his own political survival." Clegg warned of the danger that "people feel there's no one in charge."

Brown, who's fought back from near-political death before, gave a robust defense in the House of Commons.

Public disgust over the expenses scandal has reached such a point that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England, recently made an unprecedented statement recently urging voters not to support far-right groups such as the British National Party.

The anti-immigration group, which was formed by former members of the extremist National Front and wants Britain to break away from the EU, is the fastest growing political party in Britain. It's been on the rise since the 1980s.

Matthew Goodwin, a research fellow at the University of Manchester, said the BNP could also benefit from voter apathy on Thursday. "When we have low turnout, we tend to have stronger performance for the BNP," Goodwin said.

Recent polls suggest the BNP could attract 7 percent of the vote on Thursday, enough to win it a seat in the European Parliament. The party already has more than 50 elected local councilors across Britain and a seat on the Greater London Assembly.

The UK Independence Party, another conservative party also known as Ukip, is expected to pick up protest votes from Britons disillusioned with the major parties, Goodwin said. Ukip, which also wants Britain to leave the EU, has polled as high as 16 percent in the run-up to Election Day.

Goodwin said far-right parties across Europe — in Britain, France, Hungary, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Belgium — are cooperating more closely than in the past.

Their aim is to form "a unified bloc" in the European Parliament that can oppose Turkey's entry into the EU, and push for more limits on immigration. French, Italian and Belgian far-right parties already have a significant presence in the European Parliament.

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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