As I settle in for a year and a half of non-stop coverage of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I find myself bracing for blistering attack ads, billions of dollars in campaign spending, partisanship capable of offending even the Montagues & Capulets, and the inevitability of a conclusion that is unlikely to satisfy me in any tangible way. It’s enough to make me want to avoid watching the news for the next 18 months, but why should that be?
After all, elections used to be fun, or so I thought. I would take to them much as Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Sherlock Holmes reacts to news of a gruesome murder with a gleeful, “The game is on!” Political elections are, after all, both the highest and lowest form of competitive sport. If only it were possible to cut down on all the TV commercials, reign in campaign spending, and force leading politicians to debate with many points of view rather than just one other! If only there was a way to enjoy watching all those glorious campaign gaffes and still know that none of my tax dollars would be negatively affected by the incompetence of said politicians!
Ladies and gentlemen, there is a way, but not in America. Instead, we need to go to a far older country – a kingdom, in fact. Yes, I’m talking about the United Kingdom, where the official campaign period is less than two months long, TV advertising is subject to strict regulations, and voters have some legitimate third (or fourth, or fifth) parties to choose from. Politics here plays out like Shakespearean drama about a mile from the location where Shakespearean drama was first performed.
Take, for example, the governing coalition which has held sway over Britain’s Houses of Commons and Lords since the last general election in 2010 ended in a “hung parliament”. (A parliament is said to be “hung” when no single party achieves an outright majority of seats, something that until recently was a rarity in British politics.) The Conservative Party (a.k.a. the Tories) currently holds the largest number of seats, but in order to gain a voting majority, they were forced to enter into a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the party with the third highest number of seats.
Now, if you’re thinking that the Liberal Democrats don’t sound like a party that would get on well with the Conservatives, then you are right. Many people wondered why the “Lib Dems” did not instead form a coalition with the second place Labour Party, which despite some major policy differences is more ideologically akin to them. But in 2010, the Labour Party had just overseen the biggest collapse of the British economy since the Great Depression, a hugely unpopular war in Iraq (largely blamed on Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair), and a series of scandals and personality conflicts that would have certainly provided Shakespeare with plenty of material, were he still alive. Also, the Lib Dems presumably thought it more in keeping with democracy to empower the party that won the largest share of the national vote.
The last five years have not gone as swimmingly as some might have hoped, but neither have they been as bad as many predicted. Faced with a budget deficit in the wake of the financial crisis that made the American one seem a bit tame in comparison, the Conservative-led coalition imposed significant cuts on government departments, taking care only to shelter the National Health Service, Britain’s government-run public health care system.
Naturally, this caused a lot of displeasure among average Britons, who much like their American counterparts did not see why they should be forced to bear the burden for a series of bailouts given to uber-rich bankers. University students were particularly incensed when their maximum tuition fees to public insitutions were raised by nearly 300%, though to be fair, their rates had been ridiculously low for some time due to heavy subsidies: a student would have previously paid a maximum of £3,375 a year for an undergraduate education (a little over $5,000), which is a pittance compared to what many Yanks spend on tuition.
The political pressure created by this program of “austerity” threatened to tear the coalition apart at the seams, but an uptick in economic growth and a drop in the level of unemployment helped to temper public anger. While the coalition was not able to fulfill its promise to balance the annual budget, it is safe to say that the country is on more solid financial footing at this point than it was five years ago. Now the British people must decide if they want to endorse another five years of Prime Minister David Cameron’s economic plans, or if they would rather go back to the Labour Party, which is pledging a more equitable form of budget cutting.
Here we find another epic storyline: a fraternal struggle which, while less barbaric than Cain and Abel, has nevertheless captured the imagination of the British press. When former Prime Minister Gordon Brown stood down as leader of the Labour Party following the electoral defeat of 2010, a contest was held to choose the party’s next standard bearer. The new party leader would then become the Leader of the Opposition and potential prime-minister-in-waiting, provided that Cameron and the Conservatives were to be voted out at the next election.
The two leading candidates in this internal party contest were brothers David Miliband and Ed Miliband, both sons of the late Marxist political theorist Ralph Miliband, though it’s safe to say that neither of them have fully embraced their father’s ideals. Happily, the brothers also represented the two ideological wings that currently exist within the Labour Party: the more centrist, business friendly “Blairites” (named after former PM Tony Blair) and the more traditionally leftist “Brownites” (named after former PM Gordon Brown, whose feud with Blair is the stuff of legend).
Even as Blair and Brown themselves exited stage left, the Milibands were seen as their natural successors and provided an equally juicy storyline. Had younger brother Ed stabbed his brother in the back when he chose to stand against David, the anointed one of the establishment? Or were they merely both putting forward competing visions for the country’s future? Either way, little brother Ed won a bit of an upset victory in a very close result.
Unfortunately for Labour, Ed Miliband has no charisma, or so many people complain. Words like “awkward” and “weird” are also commonly applied to him. Although Labour’s policies may be more popular with the public, opinion polls have generally shown that Conservative leader David Cameron is viewed more positively by the public, though that may be changing a bit in recent days. But the Conservatives are also seen as friends of the rich, which is perhaps an easier argument to make given that several party leaders went to Eton College, one of the poshest prep schools in the country.
So it comes down to a choice between David Cameron and Ed Miliband – except that it actually doesn’t. After all, the citizens (or subjects, if you want to be old school) of the United Kingdom do not get a vote for prime minister. They vote for individual members of the House of Commons. Thus, while the major opinion polls currently show a virtual tie in national support for the Conservatives and Labour, that is not really the best number on which to focus. The UK Independence Party, for example, has a wide base of support around the country, but it has trouble coming in first place in individual constituencies, which means that it might only win a handful of seats out of the more than 600 being contested.
The major projections indicate that while the Conservatives might end up with a few more seats than Labour, no party will win an outright majority. The site Election Forecast currently gives a 98% probability for this scenario. With the public mood somewhat against the Tories, it would seem like a golden opportunity for Labour, but they are almost certain to miss out on a majority because they are projected to lose a lot of seats in Scotland to the Scottish National Party. The result is that in order to cross the magic number of 323 (the number of votes needed for a majority*), Labour would have to form a coalition with the SNP. Mathematically speaking, unless the Liberal Democrats win a lot more seats than everyone believes they will, there is really no other way for Labour to get a majority. The other parties (besides the Conservatives) are just too small to make up the difference. The rise of the SNP and its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, in the wake of last year’s Scottish independence referendum is the most important historic shift taking place in this race.
The Conservatives have a similar problem. Both they and their current coalition partners, the Lib Dems, are projected to lose some seats this year. Thus, it is likely that even together, they will not be able to pass that mark of 323. As the Scottish National Party would probably never side with the Tories, based on all their public pronouncements, then the current prime minister is going to have to get creative if he wants to stay in his position for five more years, courting the support of some parties that do not really see eye-to-eye with the Conservatives…or each other.
There is another possibility, and one that is looking increasingly more probable. This would be a minority government, where a party (most likely the one with the largest number of seats) forms a government (i.e. installs a prime minister and Cabinet) without having a majority. This would require the government to rely on their ability to convince enough people to vote with them on any given bill to get it to pass. In the UK, members of parliament typically vote with their party on absolutely everything, unless they are given a somewhat rare “free vote” in which they can select as they please. With a majority, this ensures that the party in power can pretty much enforce their will. But in the case of a minority government, the largest party would have to work to win people over on all major pieces of legislation: quite a change of pace from the usual method of doing things. Such a situation could result in the Prime Minister calling another election early on in the hopes of gaining more seats. (Elections have to take place at least every five years, but technically the government can call one whenever it wants before that.)
One last wrinkle to consider: Current Prime Minister David Cameron has stated that the failure to win an outright majority for the Conservatives for a second election in a row would amount to a failure of leadership on his part. Thus, even if the Tories can somehow manage a minority government, there is reason to believe that Cameron might be pressured to step down as party leader, opening the door for a new personality to step to the forefront and try to bring greater success to the party. The one name that is floated around more than any other is that of London mayor and soon-to-be-MP Boris Johnson, like the most popular Conservative politician who draws loads of media attention with his colorful comments and behavior. Boris always claims that he isn’t seeking out the job of PM and would only step in if called upon, but I wouldn’t set much store by that.
It looks like the identity of the UK’s next prime minister will be decided as much by frantic negotiations in the days after the election as anything that the actual voters have to say. How does any of this effect the United States? There are some differences between the main parties on foreign policy. For instance, some want a closer relationship with the European Union while others want out of it completely. Some are more in favor of military interventions than others. Certainly, the economic decisions taken by any British government could have a secondary impact on the U.S. economy.
Despite this, the fact remains that elections in other countries are unlikely to have a big impact on the average, uninterested American, which is what makes the whole thing so fun. This election has all of the entertainment value without that annoying “my country’s falling off the deep end” feeling. If for no other reason than that, I submit that Americans should spend at least a little time over the next week watching the British and seeing how even though things seem really crazy here, they’re equally crazy somewhere else. You might just find it a bit cathartic.
* The political party from Northern Ireland known as Sinn Féin is expected to win a few seats again this year, but abstains from votes in the House of Commons. This means that the number of votes needed for a majority drops from 326 to 323.
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Scotland’s Referendum in Perspective, 3 September 2014
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