LONDON — Britain’s parliamentary Question Time is famous for its rhetorical jousting, but on Thursday night an audience of ordinary citizens in Leeds, England, showed that they are the equal of professional politicians at putting their leaders on the spot — and even more genuinely passionate about their frustrations.
One after another, the leaders of the three main parties came onto the stage in Leeds. They left after half an hour of give-and-take, having been roasted by relentless questions and expressions of disbelief from the audience. If anyone needed a clear expression of voters’ lack of confidence in their political leaders, it was there for all to see.
This was the kind of encounter that is almost never seen in U.S. politics. Politicians may do town hall meetings or take questions in coffee shops or living rooms in Iowa or New Hampshire. Occasionally someone throws a tough question, but voters are generally polite and rarely too pointed. American politicians would be stunned by the style of voters in Britain.
The three — Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader; Ed Miliband, the Labor Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Party leader — rarely got a respite from the pounding, and though each fought back in his own defense, their answers most of the time seemed not to satisfy their skeptical questioners.
Given what happened, it’s much clearer why neither of the country’s two main parties —the Tories and Labor — is likely to win enough votes to claim a majority in the House of Commons after next week’s elections. As in the United States, public cynicism is high, and there’s little the politicians can say right now to persuade people otherwise.
This was the last major televised event before those elections. Both Cameron and Miliband, one of whom will try to form the next government (perhaps both will have a go at it before someone succeeds), had urgent missions for the evening. But they were hard pressed to stay focused on the messages they wanted to deliver as they were rocked by scathing questioning that began or ended with “how can we trust you?”
The BBC’s David Dimbleby, who moderated the 90-minute special, had promised to give the power to the voters, and he was true to his word. He followed up at times with piercing questions of his own but let the audience take the lead. The event featured neither opening nor closing statements. The leaders walked out and immediately took it on the chin. Perhaps it was choreographed that way out of fairness: Nobody would get a pass right from the start.
The event covered a range of policies: spending and taxes, education, welfare and housing, immigration and the future of Britain in Europe. It added up to a long litany of what the audience saw as a succession of broken promises. Whatever assurances the leaders tried to offer met with skeptical and occasionally hostile pushback. The voters were not shy about interrupting the politicians when they didn’t like what they heard.
It was no wonder that the members of the audience came away with some sense that they were being dealt with straight away by the leaders. Every poll here indicates the next government, like the current one, will be formed as some kind of partnership or understanding between one of the two major parties and some combination of other parties. But neither Miliband nor Cameron would engage in any discussion about it. Each insisted he hopes to win a majority next week, which did nothing to enhance the credibility of either man.
Miliband didn’t want to talk about the kind of government he would try to lead, because to do so Labor will need support from the Scottish National Party, which is loathed by many voters in England for its desire to sever ties with the United Kingdom. He ruled out in stronger terms than ever any kind of coalition or deal.
Cameron didn’t want to talk coalitions, though it was his boldness five years ago after a hung Parliament that brought the Liberal Democrats into government with the Conservatives. He needs every possible seat, even if short of a majority, in order to stay in power and can’t afford any bleeding away of the Tories’ strength in the Commons.
Clegg was honest enough to say there will be some kind of multiparty arrangement in the next government, but after the battering his party has taken as a result of his decision to accept Cameron’s offer five years ago, he wanted to set conditions of his own.
What came clear from the questions, beyond the voters’ lack of confidence, was the sense of government not in control.
The British economy has recovered from the worst of the financial crisis, but outside London the effects are not being felt. That’s causing problems for Cameron and the Tories. Voters also fear that government spends too much, that the last Labor government was undisciplined and overspent, and that Miliband would be a poor steward of the country’s fiscal future.
On immigration, neither party has a record or plan that satisfies, which has given rise to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose strength now threatens the Conservatives.
That has left things unsettled with just a week of campaigning ahead, and Thursday’s televised forum made clear that it won’t be easy to change minds in those few days remaining.
To read Dan Balz’s previous columns, go to washpost.com/politics.