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Why the British Elections Fascinate This American

5 years ago
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By any measure, the British general elections on May 6 are shaping up to be a real nail-biter. The race is very competitive. The outcome is highly uncertain. The implications for Britain's future are profound. And for this American citizen living in London, at least, it's one of the most engaging electoral contests I've ever seen.

Don't get me wrong. Like many Americans, I was captivated by the 2008 American presidential race. I understood that a lot was at stake on policy terms. I described how -- in an article I did from London that year -- Americans of all political stripes and classes were becoming mobilized politically, some for the very first time. Sarah Palin added a certain "je ne sais quoi" to the Republican ticket. And the long, drawn-out nomination battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was dramatic and consequential.

I can't vote in the British elections, so by definition, I don't have as much at stake in this election as I did in that one (though it will undoubtedly affect my day-to-day life much more). But I find that I'm glued to the news cycle nonetheless, following every twist and turn that the contest has taken (of which there have been quite a few). These elections are truly exciting. And they're exciting in ways that few American elections (in my lifetime, at least) have been.

Here's why:

1. The pool of candidates is very impressive. The conventional wisdom is that the two opposition candidates for Prime Minister -- Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg -- are better politicians (in the narrow electoral sense) than Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And that's true. Cameron and Clegg are handsome and charming and better at delivering sound bites than Brown, who suffers from a "radio face" and tends to talk in lists of policy accomplishments. But what that characterization misses is just how smart, well informed and well spoken all three of these gentlemen are. When they debate one another, you really feel like you're watching a bunch of seasoned public servants who know the issues and care deeply about them. President Barack Obama notwithstanding, that is simply not the cloth of which most American politicians on either side of the aisle are cut these days.

In policy terms, I happen to be much closer to Brown or Clegg than I am to Cameron on things like engagement with Europe and how to deal with immigration. And unlike my colleague Suzi Parker, I don't have a crush on David Cameron. But I could certainly live with a Conservative leader like David Cameron, who not only has sensible views on things like homosexuality and the environment, but actually talks to the electorate like a grown-up. As Conservatives go -- and yes, I'm talking to you, Glenn Beck -- he's not a "nutter" (as we say over here). I'm also not alone in thinking that the best way for Labour to drum up some new ideas might be to spend a few years in exile.

In short, I'd feel pretty comfortable if any one of these guys was to be named the next leader of the United Kingdom. I can't think of an election in America where we've had that solid a line-up across the board and where I've felt that confident in the alternatives.

2. The televised debates have changed the course of electoral politics. I've noted before that televised political debates are an entirely new animal in British politics. That makes them fun to watch in and of themselves. They are also -- in my humble opinion -- done in a way that's infinitely preferable to the way we do them in the United States. For starters, they are far more substantive than American presidential debates. You do get a bit of the tiresome references to the "average Joe" they've just met on the street who illustrates this or that policy concern. (David Cameron's "I met a black man" comment has been the most egregious -- and politically inept -- of these so far.) But it's nowhere near the level of the whole "Joe the Plumber" phenomenon that took over the election briefly in the fall of 2008. For the most part, these debates are about policy.

There's also a genuine back-and-forth between the candidates such that they are able to actually talk to one another and ask questions, rather than the stilted, overly rigid formats we tend to stage in America. Finally, there are far fewer ad hominem attacks. (The closest we got to this was David Cameron's assertion last week that some of the Labour leaflets were spreading "lies" about the Conservative Party's manifesto. But even then, Cameron was careful to say that he was not calling Brown a "liar"...which, as we all know, is perfectly within the norm these days in U.S. politics).

Most surprisingly of all, however, the debates are also transforming the way electoral politics is being done. I noted last week that the debates have introduced the whole concept of personality as a factor in British voting. There have been other changes as well. The International Herald Tribune ran a story today talking about the ways in which the debates have given voters direct access to the candidates and their platforms, rather than these being endlessly filtered through the political parties. The debates have also given traditional news media less influence over setting the agenda for how voters digest the election. Above all, of course, the debates have been responsible for the extraordinary -- and sustained -- surge by the Liberal Democrats, which had been a party that was forever a distant third and seemed more symbolic than anything else.

3. The elections may result in fundamental electoral reform. Finally, these elections have the potential to change the course of how politicians in the United Kingdom get elected. Britain has a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all electoral system. As in the United States, this means that whoever wins the majority of votes in a given electoral district takes the seat, rather than allocating seats proportional to a party's vote share, as you find in countries like Italy or Israel. Historically, this system has tended to favor single-party dominance. But that may all soon change.

Right now, most pundits are forecasting a hung Parliament, where no single political party has a majority of members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons. If this happens, two or more parties may decide that they have enough in common to form a coalition government. And in light of Clegg's recent surge in the polls, it is looking more and more likely that one of the two traditionally dominant parties -- whether Labour or the Conservatives -- will have to share power with Clegg's Liberal Democrats.

But here's the real (potential) game-changer. The Lib Dems have long championed an electoral reform for the United Kingdom that would make it closer to pure proportional representation. (The precise kind of voting system the Lib Dems favor is described in detail here). Clegg is now insisting that electoral reform be a precondition for any future alliance with either Labour or Conservatives. Clegg has also
categorically ruled out forming a coalition with a Gordon Brown-led government if Labour comes third in the popular vote but wins the largest number of seats at Westminster thanks to the first-past-the-post election system. He's on the record as saying that if such a scenario comes to pass, his party will reject the constitutional convention, which holds that the sitting prime minister should be allowed to try to form a government first.

There's no question that American elections have also had their
share of ground-breaking surprises. We all remember the 2000 election, which saw Al Gore winning the popular vote but George W. Bush taking the presidency. What may come to pass here in just over a week is analogous in magnitude. Except that instead of sending the issue to the Supreme Court to resolve, it would be as if we tossed out the electoral college altogether. While that solution has its proponents in the States, it hasn't taken hold (at least so far). In the United Kingdom, in contrast, real electoral reform is looking quite feasible.

All of which is to say that there's a lot going on here that makes for fascinating viewing. Stay tuned...

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