Democratic Underground

A Very Proper Election
May 23, 2001
by Stacey Moberly

There's an election afoot in the United Kingdom. Tony Blair and William Hague are duking it out every day (rhetorically) on their respective swings through crucial constituencies and on the front pages of every newspaper. A general election in a country of 60 million people is a real attention-getter, right? Wrong. Compared to the circus of an American election, this registers a tiny blip on the radar.

I'm American. I moved to the United Kingdom precisely five weeks ago. I was in my homeland to witness the 2000 election, start to finish, in its absurd entirety. From the day that then-Governor Bush formed his exploratory committee in my home state to that sad day in December when our President was selected for us, I was glued to the television, being inundated with political commentary, political advertisements, reminders to vote. Wherever I went, I was exposed to small signs attached to a wooden stake, planted anywhere there was more than one square foot of grass. The office was brimming with heated political debate, with the Republicans using the tactics they learned from their leaders Lott, DeLay, and Armey (the personal attack) and the Democrats using the tactics they learned from theirs (crouch down, bend over, and deny everything).

During our elections, it's business as usual. Legislative bodies, both at state and federal levels, continue to function. Congressmen and women do their jobs while running re-election campaigns; an incumbent President running for re-election performs all of his Presidential duties while stumping; and political appointees nervously finger their buttons and suck on cigarettes, waiting to see if they will keep their jobs. It's nerve-wracking.

When Tony Blair decided to call an election, he dissolved Parliament. That's right... dissolved Parliament. The MPs will have to all run for re-election if they plan to keep their jobs, and they don't have to worry about doing two jobs at once. Political appointees aren't breaking a sweat, since most of the employees of the British government are civil servants. They're not all sacked the second the opposition wins, like they are in America. I guess that's why election fraud isn't as widespread in Britain; the people that count the votes are also civil servants, not bogus political appointees or "volunteers."

During our elections (and every day in-between) money is given to the two major parties by big business and wealthy individual donors. This money goes to pay for campaign coordinators, lawyers, public relations staff, private pilots, caterers, psychotherapists, and anyone else the candidate will need during the often year-long national campaigns. It also goes to pay for transportation, the costs of which are staggering; most people don't make enough in a year to run a Boeing 757 for more than a day or two. A good portion of this money is directed to running advertisements, which are completely devoid of substance and are run ad nauseum on television for days, weeks, months at a time. Even local elections have ads; in Austin, we saw ads by county judges for God's sake!

In Britain, by contrast, the campaigns are so short that there wouldn't be time to pull together ads like that, even if it were legal to do so. That's right; on TV in Britain, you will see NO adverts by any political party. The only election-related ads we've seen have been from the Home Office, letting people know that they can vote by post so they don't have to knock off work on June 7th (Election Day). The only advertising you're exposed to is the occasional Tory or Labour (or even Lib Dem or Socialist) pamphlet shoved through your mail slot, and they won't even bother you with those if you put a poster in your window, showing your support for your chosen party. There are no campaign planes; in Britain, they have the Battle Bus. Each party has a gaily decorated bus for stumping around the country; Britain is so small and so many constituencies lack airports that it would be pointless to attempt to fly from place to place; it's actually quicker to drive.

As for public relations staff; I have not seen any. When John Prescott (Deputy Prime Minster, Labour) punched a protester in Wales for throwing an egg at him, there were no sterile statements issued by spokespeople or "campaign coordinators." Tony Blair and other Labour leaders themselves fielded the tough questions from reporters about the incident. The buck stopped with Tony Blair.

During our elections, we're subjected to all four major networks plus CNN, CSPAN, PBS, Telemundo, et al carrying three pointless political "debates." You remember the debates - the ones Bush won because he didn't throw a hissy fit or forget that he was a Republican? Well, they don't have those here either. No debates! There is a reason for that... every day in Parliament, there is a debate, and Blair and Hague often argue head to head. The highlights (and delicious zingers) are shown on the evening news; there's no need for a debate. Britons already know that both are talented debators; they wouldn't be party leaders if they weren't. Therefore, the country is not subjected to the debate charade. It's gorgeous.

During our elections, you hear empty promise after empty promise, stretching into days, weeks, months, and yes, sometimes years of boring campaign rhetoric that you know you can't trust. It's B.S., you KNOW it's B.S., you hope everyone ELSE knows it's B.S., and you know that the candidate won't make good on any of the promises, or at best, will only make a half-assed attempt at fulfilling promises crucial to moderate voters while showering his wealthy supporters with defense contracts, tax cuts and other financial incentives.

In Britain, each party writes and publishes a manifesto, practically a dirty word in the U.S. Everything you want to know is in the manifesto; if you want to read blathering promise after blathering promise, you can do so at your leisure. The parties pick several key points from their manifesto (usually four or five) and make those their pledges. It helps to keep the campaign focused, I think, when you are focusing on five issues that you feel are the most important. The general public can inform themselves about the party if they are curious, and the party can stay on message throughout the campaign.

If you ignored newspapers and avoided watching the news, you wouldn't know there was an election going on in this country. Even if you do read the papers and watch the news, it's easily avoided, as it is not even the top story every day, as campaigns are in the United States. The British election is short, comparatively cheap, and very unintrusive compared to American elections. British elections are also brutally frank about mudslinging. It happens, both sides are guilty, and neither one of them seems to hold back.

From billboards comparing a hypothetical Tory win to a fiery science fiction doomsday epic called "Economic Disaster II" to Conservative billboards showing a pregnant Tony Blair, saying he hasn't yet "delivered" (cute), it seems like the gloves are off from the second the bell is rung. Those billboards are the only ads that the British are subjected to, aside from the occasional pamphlet through the door, and they're so well-done that they're more amusing than irritating; a far cry from the stately ads you see in the U.S., showing a politician with a pinched face with an American flag rippling majestically somewhere on the ad (this is probably a requirement), proclaming the same glib, boring slogans in 8 foot-high lettering.

"Compassionate Conservatism?" I'd rather see "Economic Disaster II," it's much more entertaining. Even though politicians here are every bit as corrupt, every bit as vapid, and as full of hot air as any American politican, elections here are much easier on the voters. American elections are entirely too long, too expensive, and are practically a theatrical production compared to the spartan British elections, which, due to their brevity and the inability to predict precisely when they will occur, are much less muddled by spokespeople, coordinators, spin-doctoring, and trashy, boring talk show punditry.

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