Leave Me Alone Wins UK Election
They held an election last week in a part of the world that has more names than most others. Some call it the United Kingdom; some call it Great Britain; and others refer to it by its constituent parts England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. You once had to be careful because there were politically correct and, of course, incorrect overtones to each, but following this election, the whole lot might require renaming.
American political observers frequently find themselves baffled by the British electoral process. The baffled observers might even include David Axelrod and Jim Messina, Democratic Party campaign meisters, who decided to export their country-wrecking techniques on behalf of Labour and the Tories. For the record, Messina and his Tories were the winners while Axelrod was left to lick his wounds. Nobody told him about the customary resignations for losers.
Astonishingly, the entire election was completed in less than six weeks leaving little time for spending of billions of dollars, as is the custom in the United States. Axelrod and Messina will definitely have to change that if they plan future forays to this country as their incomes depend on it.
There are seven political parties that actually get named in most lists before you get to the “other” category. “Other” includes the Monster Raving Loony Party. The sharp rise in the number of parties is a relatively recent development and the electoral system, which worked just fine with only two, is not up to the task of dealing with more.
The party colors are cleverly changed (likely to confuse Americans) much like driving on the left. Fortunately, most of the candidates — though seemingly not the party leaders — wear vivid horse show ribbons on their lapels to show their affiliation. The Conservatives or Tories are more or less like our Republicans, but do they wear red? No, they wear blue. The Labour Party mimics our Democrats, but they wear red presumably to look more like communists, which the Tories think they are. The Scottish National Party, heirs to the Braveheart “freedom” theme, wears yellow, which does not exactly shout bravery. Unsurprisingly, the Green party wears green but this might only be to provide relief from the confusion.
Some things don’t change from country to country and inaccurate polling is one of them. Up to the day before the election, the pollsters predicted an even split between Labour and the Tories, with neither achieving an outright majority. This would have required the Queen to choose one party to invite to form a coalition with some of the other parties in an attempt to achieve a majority of the 650 seats in the House of Commons.
When the exit polls began to show a Conservative landslide, Liberal Democrat, Paddy Ashdown, promised to eat his hat if the new data proved accurate. Note to Paddy: polling after an election is actually much easier than polling before an election so the results are likely to be more accurate. Further note to Paddy: I hear Worcestershire Sauce goes well with a bit of nice bowler or homburg.
Though Mr. Ashdown has not shown the class to live up to his commitment, three of the losing party leaders had the good grace to resign following their defeats. Ed Miliband of the Labour Party, who knifed his older brother and back to get the job in the first place, could have resigned when he embarrassingly encountered a bacon sandwich on the campaign trail, but he awaited the final disastrous results. Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, which took its own political life in a five-year coalition with the Tories, resigned on election night. The third resignation was Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, who did not even win his own election. To the delight of those who like their politicians with a keen wit and a pint in hand, the Farage resignation lasted only a few days.
Before turning to what the election was all about, we have to think for a moment about a parliamentary system that combines the executive and legislative branches into one. Imagine if the President of the United States had first to win a seat in the House of Representatives and lead his party to a majority of that body before he was allowed to enter the White House. Welcome to the UK.
There are actually 650 separate elections in constituencies that resemble real towns and villages unlike the bug splats we call congressional districts. Presumably Axelrod and Messina will need to bring gerrymandering with them if they come again. The constituencies have names, which are far more memorable than our state abbreviations followed by numbers. Who would not want to be the Member of Parliament from Barking or Bootle or Chipping Barnet or Great Grimsby or Tooting or Vale of Clwyd to say nothing of Ynys Mon. Some constituencies sound like law firms: Sutton & Cheam; Thirsk & Malton; Morcambe & Lunsdale.
Prime Minister Cameron has set an immediate task of reviewing the borders of these constituencies, presumably to advantage the Conservatives. This is the sort of thing you learn when you import Messina and Axelrod. Should Cameron be in need of new names, he might wish to consider Soft Verges (actually muddy bits at the side of the road), Queues Likely (traffic backups), Marks & Spencer (a chain of fancy food shops), and Enter Roundabout. Though these names are already taken, the tourism people will love them because they sound perfect. Milton Keynes, which sounds like dueling economists, could well be replaced by one of the new suggestions.
I am writing this story on a sunny afternoon in Newmarket, the home of British horse racing. That makes it a good moment to explain the concept of “first past the post,” which describes the outcome of a horse race. Obviously, the first horse to pass the post at the finish line wins the race and so it is with the multiple candidates who contest elections in each of the 650 constituencies. All that matters is who wins each race not how many votes you get.
One out of eight British voters chose an anti-European Union UKIP candidate but this only translated into one seat in Parliament because UKIP had many second-place finishes. So it was for the Liberal Democrats whose 8% of the votes translated into only 1% of the seats. Finishing second or third counts for little in a British election.
The big winners under “first past the post” were the Tories (37% of the vote but 51% of the seats in Parliament), Labour (30% of the vote but 36% of the seats) and the Scottish National Party, which controlled 56 seats with less than 5% of the total vote.
Fear was a significant factor in determining the winner because the only logical place for the Labour Party to look for a coalition partner was the Scottish National Party, which does not want to be part of the United Kingdom at all. Parties that want to split your country in two are not confidence builders.
And that leads inevitably to the biggest issue in this election: who gets to boss you around.
The Scots don’t want to be bossed around by bureaucrats in distant Whitehall (the British equivalent of Washington) and UKIP (to say nothing of many others who feel the same way) does not want to be bossed around by bureaucrats in distant Brussels.
“I signed up for a common market not a common government” was as succinctly put as I heard any description of British frustration about its relationship to the E.U.
The SNP sweep of Scotland and the Conservative dominance of the rest of the country are saying the same thing to over reaching governments: leave me alone.
With any luck Messrs. Axelrod and Messina learned about devolution: the concept of pushing decision-making and power to the lowest possible level of government. It would solve countless problems throughout the world, but I will likely be having dinner with Paddy Ashdown before it happens.