The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland held a national election May 7. It was as tumultuous and hard-fought as are our elections here, across the pond. Are there any lessons we can learn from our British cousins?
First, there’s timing. The Brits accomplished in fewer than 50 days what takes us more than 500. Our endless campaign drama can’t be rewritten easily, but we can be reminded that our prolonged election cycle is just silly.
We can be equally envious of the absence of round-the-clock campaign ads on television in Britain. They are prohibited. Free speech rulings here are such that we’ll never escape execrable campaign commercials, but we can duly note that they do things differently.
Connected to TV ads is the role of money. In the United Kingdom, political donations are much more restricted than in the U.S. In their recent campaign, we had the strange occurrence of political parties being given more money than they could legally use.
So they do things differently there.
We should also keep in mind that British politics, compared to ours, skews decisively to the left. All British politicians profess their love for their national, government-run, universal health system. The Conservative winner, Prime Minister David Cameron, sounds like a moderate Democrat. In fact, one of the Obama campaign’s data-driven geniuses helped mastermind the Conservative strategy (and he called the results better than any of the polls). The policies of the Labour Party would find friends on the far left wing of our Democrats; Bernie Sanders would be comfortable with them. The Scottish National Party (SNP) is a duplicate of a Scandinavian socialist party. And their version of a far-right party, the very small anti-Europe UKIP, is similar to mainstream Republicans.
That just begins the list. In the election, there were in fact five opposition parties; we need to add in the environmentalist Green Party and the regional Welsh party (whose name I can neither say nor spell). All five held an entertaining debate. By chance or design, the two guys were on the far left and far right: Labour’s Miliband and UKIP’s Farage. In the middle were the three women, from the SNP, the Greens, and the unpronounceable Welsh.
The three women were much more impressive than the guys. They spoke clearly and succinctly, and they forthrightly laid out their policies. They did not sound like typical politicians spooning out tiresome pablum — which Miliband and Farage did.
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Regardless of policies, personality always plays a key role in elections. The slick Conservative Cameron may be “posh”, or a “toff”, but he didn’t annoy people the way Labour’s Miliband did. The Labourite’s political story is Shakespearian: in the struggle for the Labour leadership he ran against and defeated his much-admired older brother. That was not nice. And, to be unfairly blunt, he looks strange and sounds worse. One old Conservative warhorse had predicted that the Brits would never elect someone who looked so “weird.”
One more party played a role — the rational, centrist Liberal Democrats who were the Conservative’s junior partner in their governing coalition. Their leader had the best slogan in the campaign. He said that in a possible new coalition, the Lib Dems would add a “heart” to the Conservatives or a “brain” to Labour.
But, in the results, they got crushed. Centrist politicians may make sense, but they can be starved for votes. The same in the U.S., as we appear to have the Democrats being pushed to the left and the Republicans further to the right in their respective nomination battles.
Over here, politicians frequently state they are taking “responsibility” for a policy failure. But that’s just rhetoric. It means absolutely zilch in terms of anything real. In British politics, however, actions have consequences.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, the leaders of three parties — Labour, Lib Dems, UKIP — all promptly resigned. They had failed, they knew it, they faced up to their failures. Our own self-absorbed platitude-ridden politicians don’t do that. Too bad for us.
The Brits have a national election every five years; we, every four. That means they have 20 percent (or 25 percent) fewer elections. Once again, too bad for us.
Epstein lives in St. Helena and is a columnist for the St. Helena Star.