Only one thing seems certain as Britain's electoral race, the closest and most volatile such contest in living memory, approaches its last full week. The majority of voters want change. A slew of opinion polls show the incumbent Labour party in third place. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, the latter boosted by their leader Nick Clegg's performances in televised debates, both claim to offer a new kind of politics.
"Three salesmen in suits trying to persuade us their soap powder will wash politics whiter." That's how one weary Briton described the debates. She still hasn't decided how or whether to vote. Her faith in the political classes is at rock bottom after revelations last year that some parliamentarians routinely milked their expense accounts. And she may be right to be skeptical that the May 6 elections, even if they produce a hung parliament giving the Liberal Democrats leverage to lobby for electoral reform, really herald any fundamental shift in how Britain does politics. The Westminster system evolved over centuries and may take more than a little while to overhaul.
But anyone hoping for a shake-up in the cozy world of party politics and machine politicians can find some comfort in the colorful array of candidates contesting this election. Thanks to the expenses scandal and the sense in Labour ranks that the party's years in power may be drawing to a close, a record number of MPs 149 are not seeking re-election. Another three seats already stood vacant at the dissolution of parliament.
Meanwhile a second record has been smashed, with 315 independent candidates standing for parliament, including well-known British TV presenter Esther Rantzen and outspoken newspaper columnist Suzanne Moore. And even candidates for the main parties include an eye-catching number of independently minded mavericks, the sort to induce permanent migraine among the party "whips," the MPs charged with enforcing party discipline. If even a fraction of these are elected, Westminster will never quite be the same.
Take Zac Goldsmith, one of a clutch of demi-celebrities hoping to make the House of Commons a little less common. The 35-year-old ecologist, scion of a billionaire tycoon and fixture in the gossip columns of British society glossies, hopes on behalf of the Conservative Party to wrest the affluent southwest London constituency of Richmond from Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer. Here he is telling the London Evening Standard newspaper what (among many other things) he doesn't like about Kramer: "It's like she's had a political lobotomy. In 99% of cases, she votes with her party. Why get involved in politics if you're just an automaton? Why not buy a laptop and program it to do what the whip says?"
If Goldsmith grabs Kramer's seat, that will boost Conservative chances of securing an overall majority. And if the Tories do manage to get a slim majority, they'll need every MP to toe the party line. Goldsmith seems unlikely to do that. The same must be true of another Tory candidate, Rory Stewart, at 37 already a veteran of several distinguished careers. He taught human rights at Harvard, was deputy governor of an Iraqi province, served as a soldier and wrote a book about his epic trek across Afghanistan. A public disagreement with the Conservative leadership's policy on Afghanistan didn't impede his selection as Conservative candidate for a constituency in northern England.
At the other end of the country, the siblings Annunziata and Jacob Rees Mogg, children of the former editor of the Times, are seeking to swell Tory numbers in parliament by contesting neighboring constituencies. If successful, they'd certainly add to the gaiety of public life. Annunziata reportedly resisted advice from Conservative central office that she should change her fancy first name to the more demotic Nancy. Jacob failed to secure a parliamentary seat at an earlier election, despite the support on the campaign trail of his childhood nanny.
"Are you a Labour voter?" asks David Rowntree, the Labour party candidate for the Cities of London and Westminster constituency. "Me, no, I'm too lazy," comes the answer, as the door slams in the candidate's face. This isn't the kind of reception Rowntree is used to as the drummer in the chart-topping band Blur. But as a politician in modern Britain, it's pretty much par for the course.
Rowntree became active in the Labour party after a "midlife crisis around 40. I lay awake wondering what I'd been doing and why I hit bits of plastic for a living. There seemed to be givers and takers in life and up to that point I'd been more of a taker," he says. What he's giving to politics isn't just his time and his dedication and a frisson of celebrity. Candidates like Rowntree bring a visceral determination to resist the system. "If the trend is people like me and Zac Goldsmith [getting into politics], that means the disintegration of the ability to whip MPs. That's what I'm pushing the complete remaking of the way we do politics," says Rowntree.
The drumming pol, who is also studying to become an attorney, takes this ambition a step further than most candidates. Even though he's pounding the streets for Labour, he's not aiming to win. "If I were elected, I'd have the whip removed in six months," he says.
Rowntree doesn't look to be in danger of an accidental victory in his constituency, where Labour lags the Conservatives by a wide margin. But across Britain the disaffected electorate are likely to serve up some shocks and deliver seats to some candidates not even their parties hoped or feared might win. With so many joyously bloody-minded individuals working to reshape British politics, for once voters might actually get what they want: change.