Uncle Sam’s Lead

Election seasons and political initiatives in the U.K. follow in the footsteps of the U.S., as demonstrated by the sensationalism of members of Parliament in the media.

On May 7, there was a general election in the United Kingdom. The people of England (my home country), Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cast their votes in what was billed by many commentators as the most important election in decades. Against all predictions of another coalition government, the Conservative party won a slim majority of seats in Parliament, and David Cameron will remain as prime minister for another five years. Aside from that regrettable swing to the right, the more alarming trend has been our electoral cycle and process edge moving towards the blinding cult of celebrities that plagues American elections, turning the focus away from real policy and towards simplistic placation of the populace.

In a U.K. general election, one does not vote for the prime minister directly. Instead, citizens vote for the Member of Parliament who will represent the area, or ‘constituency,’ around their living space. There are 650 constituencies in the U.K.; therefore, 650 MPs must be elected every five years. Each MP represents a party (or, somewhat uncommonly, they may remain independent), and the party that is represented by the most MPs after the election is the ruling party. What this should mean is that the MP representing the constituency in which you live is a man or woman well-known to you and all of the community, whose work you can judge individually. A vote should be cast in favour of a person who would best represent one’s home in Parliament and not be entirely dictated by affiliations with a particular party and its leader.That has always been the process de jure. Today’s practices do not often work that way, however. It is inevitable that the household names in politics will be the most visible individuals, especially in the age of mass media. However, unless you happen to live in a constituency that is represented by one of a few high-profile party leaders (since even the incumbent prime minister must be re-elected as an MP in a general election if he or she is to remain in power), there is no chance that any of those who participated in the televised electoral debates will appear on your ballot paper. Those candidates who are actually running for Parliament in one’s constituency should be the focus of attention. This may sound idealistic and perhaps it is, but it’s also notable that the shift towards more party leader-based elections have been a consciously new development.

Until recently, the date of a U.K. election would not be fixed until four weeks prior to that date.The date of this election, by contrast, was announced six months in advance. This allowed fully-realised prime ministerial campaigns to be organised and implemented nationwide — debates were be shown on television, innumerable pundits arbitrated on the electoral chances of each party (and its leader) and the results of dozens of opinion polls were run as speculative newspaper headlines. But none of this is real politics. True, it may engage a greater swath of the population with politics and encourage a larger turnout on Election Day, but at the cost of any hope of precision or deep understanding.

The nature of televised debates encourages generalisation, since campaign strategists seem to believe that the most effective way to engage the working classes are to approach them in a condescending manner. Debates on television also give a very wide audience to the execrable notion of the ‘campaign promise.’ It is difficult to understand why anybody is surprised anymore when a prime minister or a president does not follow through with their promises; they are never realistic in the first place. They are only made to win elections.

The presidential election cycle for 2016 has already begun, only halfway through Obama’s second term. This only serves to heighten the feeling that no president really has the opportunity to enact his or her own ideologies before the election cycle and the concomitant mud-flinging begins again in earnest. The United Kingdom’s cycle is not yet even close to the American version, but in time, the big money, the attack ads, the corporate involvement and everything else will surely be adopted as well.

In 2010, in the U.K. general election, according to the Electoral Commission report, £31.5 million (around $50 million) was spent on all campaigns in total. In the 2012, U.S. presidential election, that figure was closer to $6 billion. Almost all of this money goes towards fanfare, not substance. We Britons are nowhere close to the American level yet, and there is still hope that we will never get there. One can only hope that some measure of intelligence will prevail.