*The following is a guest post.
Election time in the US can be a trial for expats; as a US citizen, you are expected to know what all the candidates are up to, as if they call to chat about foreign policy while you’re trying to watch Strictly Come Dancing. So a word of advice to you folks planning to move or visit abroad during election years; make sure you are up on your politics, because you will be asked. And I have no idea why; the US elections get ample coverage on our national news, but being a bona fide US citizen leads the locals to believe that you have information the BBC isn’t privy to.
Another thing you will be asked about is the American electoral process, so you’d better bone up on that, as well. The Brits are pretty curious about it because it differs so much from theirs, but I have confused a fair number of them trying to explain the Electoral College. I tell them not to feel bad, even American citizens find the Electoral College confusing. The British system isn’t hard to understand on a technical level, but to an American, it is hard to comprehend the reasoning.
Take, for instance, the fact that British citizens cannot actually vote for the person who is going to run their country. And I’m not talking about the Queen: the Prime Minister—the person Americans would equate to the President—is not elected by popular vote. When an election is called (more on that in a moment) you get to vote for the person who will represent your district in the Parliament—your MP—and that is all. When the election is over, the party who has the majority of representatives gets to put their party leader up for Prime Minister. Generally, you know who that is going to be, but that doesn’t preclude the party membership from changing their minds, and the Prime Minister.
When I try to explain to people here that I could vote for a Democratic Governor, an Independent Senator and a Republican President, they shake their heads in disbelief and wonder why we would do such a thing.
But the biggest difference, and the one I am most grateful for, is the way they run their elections. Unlike the US, they do not have a set schedule. A general election must be held within 5 years but it can be held at any time during those 5 year, and when a general election is called, the date is kept secret. Three months before the secret date, the Prime Minister asks the Queen to dissolve the government and then—and only then—can the campaigning begin.
This keeps the election season short, unlike the endless months of ads and posturing and news stories in America. And not only that, each party is allotted a specific amount of television time to air their party political broadcasts. Election season in the UK is, therefore, not as saturated with paid advertising and endless mudslinging as the run up to the US elections. That said, there is still the feeling that too much money is spent on elections and that caps ought to be put in place, but the figures are nowhere near as staggering as they are in the US, which anticipates a projected spend of around 5 billion for the 2012 election while the UK spent just over 30 million on the last general election.
To me, the oddest thing that happens is after the election, when the seats of Parliament are counted up to see who has the most because if no one has a clear majority (i.e. 51% of the total seats) then there is no winner. If that happens, and if the parties can’t do some backroom dealing to form a coalition of more than 51%, then the elections are void and have to be run all over again.
When I ask why this is, I am told, “Well, if no party has the majority, then no bills could get passed,” to which I respond, “Hooray, that’s just the sort of government I want—one that can’t continue mucking up my life.” But the Brits are not convinced, and they continue to vote until someone comes out with more than half of the seats.
In the last general election, in 2010, no one got 51% of the seats, so the Conservatives—who had the most—talked the Liberal Democrats into joining with them to form a coalition government, which is a hybrid of ultra-conservatives with an occasional squawk of liberalism in the background. No majority wanted the Conservative Party, no majority wanted the Labour party and practically no one wanted the Liberal Democrats, but the country is united by the coalition government because NO ONE wanted that. Seems fair to me.
The major difference in political coverage, of course, is that the Brits prefer donut charts while the US favors pie.
This is what a coalition government looks like:
Also, the British lean toward more hard-hitting issues (chart below is from the UK Politics and Current Affairs web site)
So that’s the British system in a nutshell; study up if you want to appear knowledgeable when you visit. Otherwise, enjoy your elections, vote responsibly and be thankful that you can have a Republican Senate blocking a Democratic house to keep your government locked in stalemate as much as possible: remember, that government is best which governs least.
Michael Harling moved to Britain unexpectedly (and through no fault of his own) in 2002. He is the author of three humorous books about expat life: Postcards From Across the Pond, More Postcards From Across the Pond and Postcards From Ireland. He is also the author of Finding Rachel Davenport a novel set in Horsham in Sussex.