What Can the USA Learn from the UK Election?

An attempt by an American blogger to make sense of tomorrow’s General Election in the United Kingdom and what the United States can learn from the British system.

This Thursday’s nationwide election in the United Kingdom will likely see the end of rule for Gordon Brown and the Labour Party. The race is very close and most observers expect the Conservative Party to pick up a majority of the seats in Parliament, but it is quite possible that they will not have to get the needed 326 seats to place their candidate, David Cameron, as Prime Minister.

The great difference in the UK between major elections in the UK and the United States is the lack of direct voting for Prime Minister and that coalitions are often needed to bring closure to a national election. If Cameron’s Conservative Party falls short of the 326 parliamentary seats, they will have to make strange bedfellows with enough MPs (Members of Parliament) of either the Labour Party or with strong running Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. Smaller parties, like the regional parties from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have the potential to wield considerable coalition-building power if they can provide a block of seats to a larger party that needs them. This could possibly allow the Conservative Tories to not have to deal with Labor or Nick Clegg when attempting to build a coalition. The need for coalitions forces parties to concede on points and work together – something that is lost in our “all or nothing” electoral system.

The British system does not have regularly scheduled national elections for Prime Minister. When change is needed or desired the Prime Minister, through the monarch dissolves Parliament and an election is called for in short order – this year it was 30 days from dissolution to the election. While not holding regular elections can be troubling an election season of only 30 days is downright appealing. Our current system has most of the major players in a Presidential election in place two years ahead of time and after a couple of primaries it is often a done deal until the summer conventions and fall debates. The election season becomes a media frenzy and a sensory system overload. In fact this year marks the first time that televised debates have been held. Spouses are NOT fair game in the United Kingdom and ironically in a nation where church and state are one in the same, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg declared that he is a non-believer and there were no repercussions.[1] I would advise against trying this move in the United States.

Clegg is seen as a worldly candidate of mixed European ethnicity. He is very popular and comes across the best in the media of any of the three candidates. Cameron is seen as polished and rehearsed and Brown has Asperger’s Syndrome, lost an eye as a young man and seems to abhor the idea of running for office – he succeeded Tony Blair without an election.[2] Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are at the forefront of pushing the EU agenda in the United Kingdom – which is not necessarily popular right now as the United Kingdom like much of the world is in dire financial straits. Cameron’s Conservatives have changed in a different manner than the Conservative Republicans in the United States. In the United Kingdom they are what we would call “socially liberal” on issues like gay rights and the environment and have recognized the necessity of taxes and government.[3] To become relevant again in British politics, the Conservatives moved to a more centrist and less idealistic position.

The formidable third party in this election is the Liberal Democrats. In my 44 years there have only been three Presidential elections that have had a serious contender from a third party: John B. Anderson in 1980 and H. Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996. The idea that a third-party candidate could have influence or at least a voice in a general election would be good for the United States. Often our third-party candidates are on the fringe and are excluded from any serious debate or air time, and can surely not afford the almighty advertising dollar.

No one knows how this will all pan out in the United Kingdom on May 6. If the polls are correct and the Conservatives win without a clear majority it will be interesting to see what parties play it out and how they will form a coalition. Unless something totally unexpected occurs partnerships will be formed, deals and concessions will be brokered and politicians may actually have to work and deal together to keep a country running. What a novel idea.

Thank you to all of my readers – I am truly humbled by how many folks have been reading and commenting on my essays. If you like what your read – or even if you don’t please consider subscribing for updates by entering your e-mail address on the right-hand side of my blog page. Last and certainly not least I would like to thank my editor, friend and wife, Gail Greenblatt Saporito – thanks to her late night efforts you are reading complete sentences with proper punctuation and not the rambling mess of unclear ideas I started with. – Mike


[1] Jacob Weisberg. http://www.slate.com/id/2252696/

[2] Jacob Weisberg. http://www.slate.com/id/2252696/

[3] Ibid

Background information for this piece was found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_general_election,_2010

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