Politically Thinking: British election both short, intense

I recently returned from a two-week trip to England, which coincided with the last two weeks of the British general election campaign. The British election presented some very interesting comparisons to an observer of American politics.

British campaigns are short and intense compared with American campaigns. While presidential elections in the U.S. last nearly two years, a British election campaign is over in less than a month. Because so much election activity is concentrated in such a short time, public involvement and interest in the election is considerably higher than in the U.S. Voter turnout in last week’s British election exceeded 70 percent, compared with 50 to 55 percent in recent American presidential elections.

British law does not allow paid broadcast political advertisements. Instead of the 30- and 60-second television and radio commercials that dominate American campaigns, political communications in the U.K. takes place through grass-roots activity, billboards (what the British call “posters,” which can be either fixed or mobile, as on the side of a truck), and political coverage in the press.

There are nine newspapers that circulate nationally in the U.K., ranging from down-market tabloids to quality papers that appeal to a highly educated audience. While the print press in the U.K. is much more aggressively partisan than in the U.S., the broadcast media is much more scrupulous than its American counterparts in avoiding political bias. In part this is because the dominant broadcast media organization in the U.K. is the state-supported BBC, which must be politically neutral by law, and in part because British media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch prefer to grind their partisan axes in print rather than on television. There is no British equivalent to Fox News or MSNBC.

The British election ballot is very simple compared with the long American ballot, where multiple offices, at federal, state, and local levels, may all be at stake on the same election day. British voters choose only one candidate, for their local parliamentary constituency. Most, but not all, U.K. voters make their decisions in the parliamentary contest on the basis of the candidate’s party affiliation, which is printed on the ballot paper. The candidate with the most votes in each constituency is elected to the House of Commons, with no minimum percentage of the vote required to win a seat in parliament.

The winner of a British general election is normally the party whose candidates are successful in a majority of the 650 parliamentary constituencies. The leader of this party becomes prime minister, and other cabinet positions are held by his party colleagues.

Last week’s election was unique in that no party won the 326 seats needed to form a single-party majority government in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party is the largest party, with 306 seats, while the incumbent Labour Party finished second with 258 seats. The balance of power is held by the centrist Liberal Democrat Party, whose candidates received 23 percent of the vote nationwide, but only 57 seats, or less than 10 percent of the House of Commons.

Both the Conservatives and Labour are holding talks with the Liberal Democrats in an attempt to put together either a formal coalition or an informal arrangement in which the Liberal Democrats would support one of the other two parties on major votes in the House of Commons. As I write this column on Tuesday morning, these talks are still in progress, but whatever government emerges is likely to be short-lived, with another general election in the not too distant future.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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