Why you should care about the U.K. election and a hung parliament

    On Thursday, May 6, the United Kingdom general election of 2010 will be held.  The race, which some say has resembled certain aspects of American elections, could mark a momentous shift in British power. Of the three candidates in the British elections, it’s safe to say that two of them would not have a prayer in the United States.

    The Labour candidate, current Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is a lifelong technocrat who is widely acknowledged by observers and supporters to be short-tempered, angry and poor at interacting with people. The Liberal Democrat leader (the party to the left of Labor), Nick Clegg is the scion of European (not British!) aristocrats: his wife is Spanish, he loves Beckett, and he is an atheist. David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives (aka the Tories), would be a more typical American presidential candidate. He is the direct descendent of a British King, went to the poshest high school and college, did silly things as an undergraduate, is (relatively) good looking, charming and thoroughly English.

    But how was it possible for this grab-bag of candidates to rise to the top and all vie for the United Kingdom’s votes on May 6? Well, British elections, despite the constant creep of media driven, Americanized personality obsession, are a refreshing reminder of how some think all elections, and governments, ought to operate. First of all, British voters are doing something different than we are. Most fundamentally, Britain has a parliamentary democracy whereas we have a presidential system. We separately vote for president and Congressional representatives, they do not.

    Most importantly, voters in the United Kingdom do not directly vote for the Prime Minister; they instead vote in their parliamentary constituency for a member of the House of Commons, the lower house in the British government. Then, things get all weird and British.

    The monarch, in this case Queen Elizabeth II, asks that whoever is most able forms a government — and this is always the head of the majority party. So, he (Brown, Cameron or Clegg) becomes Prime Minister and appoints fellow parliamentarians to cabinet positions.

    In accordance with having a different system, elections work in a way that would almost seem bizarre to American eyes. The candidate selection process is totally different. There are no open primaries; instead, there are leadership elections where all the Members of Parliament for a given party vote on fellow MPs who want to become the party’s leader.

    So, even though the parliamentary campaign has only lasted four weeks, the party leaders are all familiar faces to the British public. Even if they haven’t been their party’s nominee for four months like in the U.S., they have been the face of their party for a few years. Also, there is no drawn-out primary campaign that adds an additional six or so months of media over-saturation, meaning that party leaders spend more time governing than potential Presidents have the chance to.

    This election is not just different in how the media is treating, it is also different because of the possibility of a minority government or a hung parliament. A hung parliament is simply when no party has an outright majority and thus has to get votes from other parties to form a government and pass legislation. Britain, which is both a parliamentary democracy with, for the most part, a two party system, is strongly majoritarian.

    Usually, if a party wins a majority (326 or more seats in Commons), they vote as a block (no Ben Nelsons) to advance that legislation. This becomes more difficult with a hung parliament. It is widely projected that the Conservatives will win a plurality of seats — but they will only do this because of Labour’s likely disasterous showing. The way the parliamentry constituencies are drawn up, Labour has a huge advantage, for example, in 2005 they won 35% of the vote while the Conservatives got 32% and still had a 356-198 advantage in seats.

    Now, there is also the possibility that Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the two left-wing parties, could combine and have a majority that would form a government despite the Conservatives winning more votes individually. Also, Cameron could try to get some votes to form a government from smaller parties and then call for another election –- British elections must happen every five years, but they can happen whenever the Prime Minister called for one –- to try to get a real majority.

    In the United States, however, the rough equivalent of a hung parliament –- when the President doesn’t have a functioning legislative majority –- is something we see all the time. Either when another party controls Congress or when there is an effective 60 vote supermajority requirement in the Senate, the situation that has Britain atwitter is a regular part of the political landscape at home.

    Perhaps the best hope is that the Liberal Democrats are able to form a majority with either Labour or the Conservatives with the hope of extracting some sort of electoral reform that would bring Parliamentary representation in line with the public’s opinion of the three parties, and so that the Liberal Democrats could beat their 2005 showing where they got 22% of the vote and only 62 seats in Commons, less than 10% of the total. And who knows, maybe with the example of our dear British friends, we could have some electoralreform at home.


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