An American Primer to the UK General Election – Part 1

First of all, I have to give a huge thank you to the Boffin for making these next three posts possible. There was a lot that I forgot, didn’t understand, and didn’t explain well until he jumped in and saved the day.  And if you don’t like it, you can blame him too.

For those who are not keeping up with European politics, the citizens of the UK will be voting for new Members of Parliament (MPs) in Westminster come Thursday, May 7th. For those who are living in the UK, you are well aware of this, sick to death of it, and want the election to be over.

Now, I have to explain something important to the Americans. We are used to the constant campaigning of politicians in one form or another. We have the presidential elections, the mid-term elections, the primaries, local run-offs, student council elections, American Idol voting, selecting pizza toppings when you are hanging out with your friends etc. Constant streams of Grade-A American Bullshit on the Campaign Trail is the norm. We usually handle it with aplomb by labeling each other as “conservative” and “liberal” with mutual contempt and complaining about commercials “Paid for by the Committee to Elect Sen. Beaufort Pratt” interrupting the Bears game.

I developed an immunity to politics by eating Tea Party leaflets.
I developed an immunity to politics by gradually eating Tea Party leaflets

However, most of the time, a General Election is called six weeks ahead of time when the Parliament is officially dissolved. This election was an exception because the Coalition government elected in 2010 made it clear that they were going to serve their maximum term of 5 years. Ergo, everyone knew when the blessed election was going to take place, so everyone had time to strut around with their goolies hanging out for months beforehand. Meanwhile, the British people are cracking like Lois Griffin after Stewie is done with her.

Another very important thing to mention is that the British people are just as disillusioned with their national system of politics as we are with ours.  However, the MPs have a closer relationship with the people they represent than the U.S. representatives have with theirs.  Many constituents know their MP personally, especially since many were local councillors before moving on to London.  So while many Britons may be dissatified with Parliament as a whole, they may be quite satisfied with the way their individual MP is representing their local interests.

So in that context, let me give the Reader’s Digest version of how this all works.

First of all, elections are run on a party-based system, not a candidate-based system. In other words, no one elected David Cameron of the Conservative Party as Prime Minister. No one elected Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats Deputy Prime Minister. Let’s be honest. No one would voluntary want to. The members of the parties elect their leaders.  How they do that?  I don’t know.  Probably a Morris dance-off.  Regardless, the parliamentary election process doesn’t work that way.

Basically, the country is divided up into voting districts called “constituencies”. Each constituency elects its Minister of Parliament to represent it in Westminster. In a straightforward election, whichever party holds the majority number of seats in Parliament wins the election. So, right now, there are 650 seats in the House of Commons. A powerful party like the Conservatives or Labour would need 326 seats to win the election. But since Sinn Féin cooperates with everything connected to the British government the same way a toddler cooperates during bedtime, they don’t fail in this regard. Their five parliamentarians refuse to take the oath of allegiance to the Queen and won’t take their seats, so the official majority number is 323.

Bear in mind, not every constituency runs a candidate from every party. There could only be one candidate from one party in a particular constituency, even though the last time that happened was 1951. For example, some constituencies could only run a Conservative and a Liberal Democrat candidate. Since the main platform of the Scottish National Party is Scottish independence, they have little reason to run candidates in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is not like the States where there is a 99.9% chance that the main candidates are Republican and Democrat no matter where you live.

On top of that, there are also no options for write-in votes, nor do they hold things like local elections on the same ballot.  You can’t just abstain from voting from the general election and vote for the judges or other offices. Either you vote for someone, don’t bother to vote, or “spoil your ballot.”  Spoiling your ballot could just be putting more than one “x” down, writing “none of the above,” or drawing a huge penis on it.  It’s a very different system.

A sample UK ballot paper.  Courtesy of Anthony Burgess from Wikimedia Commons
A sample UK ballot paper. Hard to find a place to fit the penis.  Courtesy of Anthony Burgess from Wikimedia Commons

As far as this election goes, the likelihood of a clear majority happening is the same as the Kardashian women joining a Carmelite order. Chances are, it will be a repeat of what happened in 2010 when two parties got together and formed a coalition to create the majority needed to reform Parliament. But the race is too close to call right now.

Tomorrow’s post will be all about the parties and the major cast of characters.

10 thoughts on “An American Primer to the UK General Election – Part 1

  1. ‘You can’t just abstain from voting from the general election and vote for the judges or other offices.’ Actually, translated into what happens here… you can. For example, this time round I COULD vote for my favourite city council nominee, but not for a General Election candidate… since I will be given TWO ballot papers. Other than that, your post is beautifully done. 🙂

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    1. Thank you for the correction and clarification. Things have obviously changed regarding how elections are timed in Hampshire, since the Boffin left. (He was born and raised in Southampton.) And thank you again for the compliment and the reblog. Much appreciated on all sides.

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  2. We-e-ell, the election results surprised us all. But when our MP came knocking on doors, it was interesting to hear him try to disassociate himself from his party. He’s a Lib Dem, and they’ve been so discredited by going into coalition with the Conservatives that his pitch was, You can’t vote for the prime minister, all you can vote for is your MP, and I’m a better constituency MP than the Conservative would be. Which I don’t doubt, but I couldn’t vote for him anyway. And, apparently, neither could a lot of other people, because the Conservative won. (In our area, it’s pretty much a two-way race.)

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    1. Yeah, the Lib Dems took the fall for the Coalition. The Boffin called it back in 2010 when the Coalition first formed. He thought the Lib Dems were making a huge mistake by joining with the Tories, but no one had the forethought to consult an ex-pat chemical engineer living in Boston at the time. He was a Lib Dem voter when he lived in Old Blighty, so he was really disheartened by this outcome.

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      1. A couple of friends here are longtime Lib Dem activists. One resigned when they went into the coalition. The other’s hanging on but deeply discouraged and disgusted. (when the talk turns to politics, we find ourselves turning to her and saying, “We don’t mean you,” or something of that sort, trying to keep it from being a personal attack.) When we first moved here, which was long before any of this happened, we asked several people what the Lib Dems stood for and never got a coherent answer, except for one friend–a Labour voter from Exeter–who said, “Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? Nobody knows.” She’s taken on the status of a prophet.

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