Could This Be the U.K.'s Worst Election Ever?

One thing's for sure: It won't be pretty.

Photographer: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images

Pity the fiscally responsible, socially tolerant British voter, a believer in openness to the world and its markets, who is looking for a party to support in the U.K.'s national elections on May 7. There are no good options.

Wednesday's annual budget release marked the start of campaigning in earnest, pitting Conservatives' claims that without them economic recovery will collapse in a flood of deficit spending, against Labour's warnings of impending doom for the nation's health and other services. Both claims are familiar, but in this contest the usual certainties of the U.K.'s ancient two-party democracy won't apply. Many outcomes are plausible: Choose from a variety of coalition or minority governments led by either Labour or the incumbent Conservatives. All they have in common is that none of them is any good.

The Conservatives, driven by their isolationist wing, have promised a referendum by 2017 on leaving the European Union. Having cracked open the EU's exit door, Prime Minister David Cameron has said he hopes to close it again by campaigning for the U.K. to stay -- but only if he has first "reformed" the EU. The trouble is, the EU may not want to be reformed at the U.K.'s direction. Most business leaders think leaving the EU would be bad for the country, and they're right.

Worse, the Tories are unlikely to get enough votes to rule alone. They might have to cut a deal with the surging U.K. Independence Party. UKIP is fanatical about leaving the EU, as well as anti-immigrant to the point of paranoia. Its leader, Nigel Farage, has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Enough said.

The Labour Party's leader, Ed Miliband, has resisted pressure to match the Conservatives' referendum promise, saying that it would effectively hang a "Closed for Business" sign over the country. Labour is better than the Tories on Europe -- but, despite that little concession to enterprise, not much use on economics.

Miliband has displayed a hostility to market forces that harks to the pre-modern version of the party. When energy prices rose in 2013, he called for a price freeze -- a policy guaranteed to halt investment in energy production. He's promised to hire more public-sector staff, raise the top rate of income tax to 50 percent, and levy a new "mansion tax" that would hit relatively modest apartments in London's inflated property market while sparing more luxurious second homes elsewhere.

If that isn't discouraging enough, a Labour victory might cause a different kind of constitutional crisis. The Scottish National Party -- which campaigns for independence -- is expected to wipe out Labour north of the border. The result could be a Labour-SNP coalition, giving Scottish members of Parliament a decisive voice on issues affecting England, while English MPs would have no say on the same issues in Scotland.

Miliband has ruled out cabinet posts for the SNP but not an arrangement that would let a minority Labour government rely on SNP support to pass laws. Such a deal would poison relations between England and Scotland and reignite the issue of Scottish secession. It's also worth remembering that the last time the U.K. had a minority Labour government was in the late 1970s. The country suffered an economic collapse and the indignity of being bailed out by the International Monetary Fund.

The weakening of mainstream political parties and growth of insurgent populists and separatists is hardly unique to the U.K. -- the phenomenon is sweeping Europe's democracies, from France to Greece to Spain. That's of little comfort to voters seeking moderation and common sense, or to businesses trying to invest for the future and revive the world's sixth-largest economy. The splintering of British politics has given the country plenty of choices in May -- all of them bad.

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