Wednesday, March 17, 2010

U.K. General Election

One of my favorite times in the political cycle is fast approaching: the next British general election. The BBC sets out a tentative timetable of election events.

Why should an American like me be interested in politics on the other side of the ocean? Of course, events around the world affect the interests of America and Americans, and that's more true of the U.K. than of most countries. But that's not really it.

There are two aspects to my interest in politics: 1) the substance of public policy, how it's made, and its effects on myself and others; and 2) politics as a sport. In other words, I follow congressional debates, wondering what the future of American health care will be as I move further into middle age. But I also speculate about upcoming elections the same way I wondered in the spring of 2009 who would win the Stanley Cup playoff final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings.

I can watch the sport of foreign elections more lightheartedly than American ones, because, when the politicians involved inevitably screw things up, the foreign ones have less effect on my life. And, with our common language (more or less) and the incomparable British pomp that accompanies certain parts of the process, the U.K.'s elections are toward the top of my list of favorites.

A review of some key elements, many of which I've written about in this blog:

Elections are not on a regular schedule (as, for example, the quadrennial U.S. presidential elections are). Queen Elizabeth decides, based on advice from her prime minister, when to dissolve Parliament and schedule the election (which means, if effect, that Prime Minister Gordon Brown will set the election date). As that BBC report has it, everyone expects him to call the election for Thursday, May 6, one month before the five-year deadline.

The election is for members of the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament. If one party wins a majority of seats, that party's leader will become prime minister. If no party has an absolute majority, the result is a so-called "hung Parliament". Polls currently indicate that might be the result, which would be the first such occurrence since 1974. More about that in a later post.

As is the case with the U.S. president, the U.K. prime minister is not directly elected. The electoral systems are somewhat similar, in that, in each case, the result is a function of the sum of pluralities in individual sections of the country (states (and D.C.) in the U.S., and parliamentary constituencies in the U.K.) So, the winner is not necessarily the candidate/party with the highest overall vote.

In the U.S., of course, the controversy regarding recounts in Florida of the 2000 presidential vote was compounded by the fact that, even after George W. Bush was found to be the winner of Florida's electoral votes, his opponent Al Gore had a clear plurality of the nationwide popular vote.

The U.K. had a similar result in that indecisive 1974 vote, to which I referred above. While more people voted for Conservative (a.k.a. Tory) parliamentary candidates than for those of the Labor Party, Labor won more House of Commons seats than the Tories (though short of an overall majority). This year, there could be either a repeat of that 1974 result, or a scenario in which the Conservatives get a substantial plurality of the overall vote, but, while they win more seats than any other party, they fall short of an overall majority. Here is an analysis, on the 538 blog, of how the vagaries of British redistricting disadvantage the Conservatives.

The Tories have been ahead in the polls, by fluctuating margins, ever since Brown's popularity started downhill, shortly after he became prime minister, in 2007. Recent polls have shown a relatively narrow lead for the Conservatives, so expectations of a Tory overall majority are decreasing as the election gets closer.

One aspect of British general elections that always gets much comment in the U.S. is that, once the date is set, the campaign will only take one month. Why, then, does an American presidential campaign seem to take forever? There is now a period of about 10 months between the first primaries and caucuses, and the November election day. The vast majority of that time is occupied by the process of the parties nominating their candidates. Once the general election campaign gets underway, it's not that much longer than a British campaign.

In the U.K., each party's candidate for prime minister is its leader, and a party always has a leader in place. That's different from the American practice, which is to nominate candidates 2-4 months before the date of the general election. The Conservatives chose their current leader, David Cameron, in 2005. In a sense, the campaign will have gone on for about 4 1/2 years, by the time election day gets here. And, indeed, the British parties do campaign constantly; it is not, in any meaningful sense, limited to the month immediately preceding election day.

Part of that campaigning takes place in the House of Commons, at the weekly Prime Minister's Questions sessions. The opposition parties' leaders, and backbenchers of all parties, get their opportunity to direct questions at the prime minister. Those debates have gone on between party leaders for about half a century, and have been televised for about 20 years. But apparently that's not enough. This will be the first campaign during which the party leaders will engage in televised campaign debates, similar to those that have been a regular feature of American presidential races since 1976.

That seems superfluous to me, in light of those regular parliamentary debates. But, rightly or wrongly, they didn't ask for my opinion. We'll see what effect they have on the future of that ancient political system.

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