This piece originally appeared in the Louisville Courier Journal on June 17, 2015.
By: Scott Jennings
We spend a fair amount of time in this space discussing American political campaigns and elections. But how we do it differs tremendously from our friends in the United Kingdom, which held a national election on May 7 to choose 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) and ultimately their Prime Minister.
I had occasion to travel in England for several days ahead of the election, and to meet with MPs, candidates, political party workers, voters, and journalists. My travels took me to Manchester, London, and surrounding areas.
The Brits were very engaged and passionate about their policy views. Interestingly, they were extremely curious about the upcoming American presidential election. I found their country beautiful, the people lovely, and the politics fascinating. I jotted down some notes along the way:
British elections are much shorter. The Parliament dissolved on March 30, when campaigning officially began for a six-week election (even that was too long for many Brits I met). That is far shorter than our presidential elections, which have evolved into “two year marathons,” according to The New York Times.
Campaign financing is much different. Candidates for Parliament are permitted only to spend £12,000, which is about $18,500. By comparison, targeted U.S. congressional races can see millions in spending. Parliamentary districts, with about 70-thousand constituents, are much smaller than U.S. congressional districts, which average 710-thousand people. The MP races resemble our state legislative contests in some ways – less spending, smaller districts, and more personal interactions.
There are no television ads. Election rules in Great Britain don’t allow for TV and radio ads, perhaps the biggest difference between their campaigns and ours. Spending and advertising limits put a tremendous amount of power in the hands of the British press, as most information voters see about the election filters through media outlets. The American system tilts toward free speech, whereas the British model values a “level playing field,” according to National Public Radio report. Lacking paid media, there is pressure on political parties to develop what British political operatives called “ground war” tactics.
MP personalities matter less than party platforms. The political parties choose which candidates will stand for election in the various “constituencies” (what they call districts). There are no primaries, just general elections. Outside of a handful political personalities, such as London Mayor and new MP Boris Johnson, most of the candidates rise and fall based on their national party’s performance. British parties have far more control of their politicians than do our Republicans and Democrats.
They are debating the same issues we are. What is the government’s proper role in health care? Should immigration be scaled back? Is the economy recovering fast enough? What is our role in the world? Sound familiar? All of these questions were central to the recent British election, and will be in America’s upcoming in 2016.
Factions here are actual parties there. The British system is multi-party, meaning that political factions in Great Britain sometimes become their own parties. Take for instance the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which has been compared to our Tea Party (one UKIP candidate told us his hero was American libertarian Ron Paul). While UKIP took a bath in the recent election, it did win 3.8 million votes nationally but just one seat in Parliament.
How is that possible? The Brits use a “first-past-the-post” system, which means the candidate who wins the most votes in a geographic constituency goes to Parliament. Some political parties—like UKIP—earn more votes nationally than other parties but win fewer seats. In fact, the Scottish Nationalist Party received just 1.4 million votes but won 56 seats versus UKIP’s dismal outcome of winning one seat. Two-thirds of British voters chose either the Conservative or Labour Party (their Republicans and Democrats), while the rest of the votes were mainly spread among nine other parties. There’s a debate in the U.K. about whether a proportional representation system would make more sense, rewarding parties based on national performance rather than individual constituency results.
Polling was inaccurate. Most British pollsters predicted a hung Parliament with no party winning a majority. In reality, the conservatives won a clear majority of 330 seats to form a government without a coalition with any other party. The understating of conservative performance was similar to American polling in the run up to the 2014 midterm, in which Republicans fared much better than predicted.
Losing party leaders face swift justice. Following their party’s staggering losses, the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties resigned immediately despite holding their own seats in Parliament. The UKIP leader tried to resign but his party rejected the overture.
American political consultants invaded. Much to the chagrin of several British journalists and partisans, American political consultants worked for both the Conservative and Labour Parties. In the end, Obama advisor Jim Messina helped the Conservatives defeat Labour, which was aided by Obama advisor David Axelrod.
Voter turnout was higher than American presidential elections. Brits turned out at a rate of 66.1% for their election, compared to 54.87% for us in 2012. The last American presidential election to eclipse 60% was 1968.
Scott Jennings is a former advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The online version of this column contains hyperlinked citations.