LONDON -- British voters go to the polls today, and it appears likely that they will boot out the party in power for only the second time in 31 years. Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives ousted a Labor government in May 1979, and Tony Blair's "New Labor" party ousted the Conservatives in May 1997.
Thatcher's party held on for 18 years and Blair's for 13 years in large part because the opposition indulged its extremes to the point of becoming unelectable. But long tenure tends to fray even the most successful party. Intra-party feuds become poisonous: The Conservatives quarreled over Thatcherism for a dozen years, and Labor was nearly immobilized by the bitter enmity between Blair and his rival and successor Gordon Brown.
My impression, watching from abroad and this week in Britain, is that in the course of this campaign voters have, to varying extents, rejected both of the two major parties and the third party Liberal Democrats, as well.
Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown's strength was that during his 10 years as chancellor of the exchequer, with something like total control over economic and domestic policy, he seemed to manage the macroeconomy well.
But he also presided over a slow and insidious expansion of government spending and employment. When the financial crisis plunged Britain into recession, his reputation for economic management was rendered inoperative. His performance in the three televised debates -- the first in British history -- made me feel sorry for him.
So did his off-camera, on-mike description of a 66-year-old Labor voter as "a bigoted woman." It betrayed the attitude of left politicians who foster a culture of dependence on government but have contempt for the values of the presumed beneficiaries.
The big story for most of the official campaign period was the rise of the Lib Dems as a result of their leader Nick Clegg's performance in the first debate on April 15. Clegg damned both parties for mismanagement and bickering -- something you can do when your party holds only 67 of 650 seats in the House of Commons.
But the polls indicate that the Lib Dem surge has ebbed. Clegg's call for legalization of illegal immigrants hurt him in the third debate and so did his past support for Britain to drop the pound and join the euro -- a position that's hard to defend when the Greek fiscal crisis is putting the euro at risk.
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