Our community here exists largely to get progressives elected to office. It is my belief that we in America need to study elections abroad to gain insight into how we can do things better here. Since our British cousins are holding a general election on May 6, I thought I might do a few diaries to see if we can't glean some nuggets of wisdom from their month-long process.
For my sins, I lived in London for about 3 years while attending grad school, and I was there when Mrs. Thatcher won her second election. At the time, I was active in student politics with the Liberal Party. Whether this experience and outlook is of any value, I will leave to the readers.
Naturally, the Internet has brought to this site people from all over the world, and not a few from the UK. Feel free to critique, flame or otherwise comment on this series. I only ask that we use this not as an opportunity to score political points one side against the others, but rather that we learn things about the democratic process.
Since I am aiming this at an American audience, I think the first place to start is with the rules and follow that with the cast of characters. I won't go into too much detail in this first piece – details will pile up nicely I suspect in the next 30 days.
The UK is a parliamentary democracy meaning that the legislature chooses the executive. Only the lower house, the House of Commons, matters in this. The upper chamber, the House of Lords' constitutional duties are rather circumscribed, and its composition is not part of this election. At stake in this election are 650 seats in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That means a majority is 326; any party winning 326 or more gets to form the government. That party's leader becomes the prime minister, and his inner circle will take over various cabinet portfolios (Defence, Health, Home Affairs, etc). Currently, the polls are saying that no single party is likely to reach a majority; that is, we will have a hung parliament. This will prove interesting, as about 500 seats are not really in play, these safe seats are almost sure to go to the party that traditionally wins them. The 150 marginal constituencies (swing districts in American) are where the action will be.
OK, so how do you get elected to be a Member of Parliament? As in America, you need your party's nomination, usually the local constituency party will interview candidates and select their favorite – and sometimes, the national party foists someone on the locals. In order to get your name on the ballot paper, you have to deposit a certain amount of money with the election officials. This is known as your deposit. If you get a certain small percentage of the vote, you get the money back. If not, you have lost your deposit. This is designed to keep silly candidates from joining in. It has not proved very successful as the late Screaming Lord Sutch of the Raving Monster Looney Party used to demonstrate. I don't know what the deposit amounts to these days nor what the threshold is for keeping the deposit. I'm sure someone “over there” can clue us all in.
When it comes to voting, it's exactly like the way we Americans elect a Congressman or Congresswoman. Whoever gets the most votes in the constituency on polling day is elected. Note that doesn't mean a majority of the votes, just the most. And Britain has several different parties that make it more likely than not that you get elected with a plurality rather than a majority.
Fair enough, let's move on to the three main parties' leaders: Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Labour, David Cameron of the Conservative Party (also known as the Tories), and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats. Mr. Brown has been in government for 13 years, first as the Chancellor of the Exchequer (sort of a Treasury Secretary and Budget Director rolled into one), and for the last couple of years as Prime Minister succeeding Tony Blair. He hails from Scotland and has had a rather bad time of things the last few months. He is fighting an uphill battle here. Mr. Cameron has spent his time as leader of the Conservatives trying to get rid of the “nasty party” label that the Tories acquired over the years. He is what the Brits call a “toff,” rich from birth, educated at Eton and Oxford. I count a few of these types as my pals and frankly, someone has to win life's lottery. The big problem he has connecting to the British underclass. As for Nick Clegg, he was a member of the Conservatives at Cambridge, become a pretty fair journalist for a time, got elected as a Liberal Democrat to the European Parliament, and represents Sheffield Hallam winning more than 50% of the vote in 2005. His problem is that the Liberals haven't won an election in decades. More of these guys over the next month.
Let's have a quick look at the parties and what they stand for:
The Conservatives are just that, conservatives. But in the UK, that pushes them left of the American Republicans. As Mr. Cameron said, he just doesn't get Sarah Palin. Still, free markets, small government, balanced budgets, strong military etc.
Labour used to be an avowed socialist party, down to nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy and funded by the unions. It is still tied to the unions, and it believes in social democracy. Kucinich or Sanders would feel at home here, but some say that New Labour (as Tony Blair dubbed it) is really a Tory party with a smiling face.
Liberal Democrats are an odd bunch. They describe themselves often as the party of the radical center. They pushed green issues ages before most people thought of the environment, opposed Britain's nuclear weapons program, and most important to me, they were the only major party to vote against the war in Iraq. I think Jerry Brown would fit here.
The UK Independence Party is a right of center party that opposes British membership in the European Union. The party's symbol is that for the pound, £, since they don't want the euro. They may win a few seats, but most importantly, they will take votes from the conservatives on the right
The British National Party is a white racist crowd. Think George Wallace of the 1960s with a British accent, and you have the right idea.
The Greens are almost exactly like the Greens in the US. They are influential, but because of the voting system, they have never one a seat in Commons. Maybe this is their year
Miscellaneous socialist parties exist that reject Labour. They are small, and relatively unimportant except in one or two constituencies.
Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists) are left of center parties that want independence, or at least much greater autonomy, for their respective nations. They will win seats in this election and may have quite a bit of influence if there is a hung parliament.
Northern Irish Parties account for 18 seats in Commons, but they are divided largely by politics about Protestantism and Catholicism. The various Unionists will back the Tories, the Social Democratic Labour Party (a Catholic entity) will likely support Labour, and Sinn Fein (the most nationalist of the bunch) won't take their seats in Westminster.
I appear to have gone on much longer than I expected. So let me close here by saying that I hope this project will prove instructive, and that I have engaged your interest to some small degree.
Next time, a quick rundown of the geographic strongholds of th various parties, and an outline of what the big issues facing the UK are.