Friday, May 7, 2010

Some Observations on the UK Election, from a Canadian Green

I’m an election junkie, there’s no doubt about it. I’ve watched a lot of election coverage in my time, mainly Canadian, but also a fair bit of U.S. coverage as well. I recall staying up until 3 AM to see which way the votes in Florida would finally go back in November, 2000, only to go to bed disappointed, not knowing. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. It reminded me of a playoff game between the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders back in the 80s, which I watched at my grandparent’s place in Newfoundland (already an hour and a half ahead of the Eastern Time Zone) which went into, well, I don’t know, quadruple overtime or something silly. I had no vested interest in the outcome (being a Leaf fan, I’m sure that I wanted both teams to lose, an impossibility to be sure, but nevertheless), but I watched it all unfold...or not, until a winner was declared.

Watching last night’s UK election was similar, only it became apparent quite early on that there would be no final resolution. And, as the polls predicted, there wasn’t. So it wasn’t like I was hanging on to the edge of my seat, waiting for Al Gore to score that game winning goal in the Florida Islander’s net.

Which, in a way, was kind of a relief, because it meant that I could sit back and enjoy the election coverage for what it was. Now, this was the first time that I’ve ever tuned into the BBC to watch their election coverage. You’ve got to understand that everything I knew about elections in the UK up until last night, I had learned from Monty Python’s "Election Night Special" sketch, where the Sensible Party goes head to head with the Silly Party. Me and a friend of mine in highschool actually parodied that sketch during a school field trip, but it was really only last night that I finally "got" the jokes about the swing and the swong - the swong being kept alive in cardboard box with airholes. But I digress.

So, let me offer to you, dear reader, a few of my observations on the UK election. At least those parts that I saw covered on BBC.

The Results are In, Part 1

First of all, I raced home from work last night to watch the results pour in. The polls closed at 10pm local time – 5pm here in the Eastern Time Zone. I arrived home at 5:30, ran straight to the TV, passing my wife in the hall with barely an acknowledgment and without our usual welcome home kiss, turned the TV on to the BBC and....watched them discuss their Exit Poll and interview B-list British celebs I’d never heard of for the next hour.

Apparently, they do things a little differently on the other side of the pond. In Canada and in the U.S., the media appears to be plugged into receiving the results from each individual polling location, and then eventually declares a winner in a riding where the received results can be extrapolated as representative of all of the results (essentially, declaring a winner before all votes are counted). Only in close races do they wait, and even then, winners are often declared by the media before all polling locations report. "Official" results, of course, will be reported on the next day, like last night’s lottery numbers. We’re very big into receiving instantaneous information in our election coverage over here. Of course, sometimes media outlets look a little foolish, having declared someone a winner based on an extrapolated result, only to have to retract the declaration, as most US media did in 2000, giving Florida to Gore, and then to Bush, and then to neither. But even that makes for good TV!

Well, as I found out, it doesn’t work that way in Britain. Instead, it seems that all of the ballots might be brought to a central location (I saw one shot of people sitting at rows of tables, counting ballots...looked to be hundreds of people, so there’s no way that could have been a single polling station), counted, and the results are reported to the Chief Returning Officer. Finally, the CRO goes onto a stage, where all of the candidates are lined up in alphabetical order (or a close approximation of) behind the CRO, wearing their huge, gaudy, party-coloured badges. And then the results are read out, and the winner is declared. And that’s what the media reports: actual results.

What it means, though, is that the view has to wait a little while for all of the votes to be counted before knowing the actual outcome. That seems so strange...and then it seems so not strange at all! I mean, think about it...we here in North America don’t really seem to care so much about counting all of the votes. Examples: moments after polls close, the media "awards" certain ridings to a Party which has polled consistently well there. Take Alberta. Polls close at X o’clock. Well, within the next minute, the CTV (who always likes to be first) awards the whole province to the Conservatives, this before any votes are counted. And usually they get it right.

Stage Managed

Anyway, back to the UK. I really like that all of the candidates are brought out together, and they each receive a moment’s worth of recognition, in the public’s eye. While there are over 600 ridings to report, the speed at which results trickle in, given this system, means that most of the time, BBC was able to go live when a result was being reported. And the BBC announcers did not often talk over the CRO, even when the results were being reported for a guy dressed up like Jesus on the Cross representing the Monster Raving Loony Party (I'm not making that up), who most would have to figure really wouldn’t have much of a hope of winning. It was respectful. And much better than reporting from a candidate's "victory celebration" in some rented party room like we do here.

Bantering Brits

I also noted that BBC commentators don’t seem to shy away from calling some of the politicians out when foolish remarks are made. Once, they were interviewing a Conservative Party MP live, when the camera cut away to other coverage of a car driving down a dark street. The voice-over interview continued, but the announcer tried to get the MP to stop talking. "We now have pictures of Gordon Brown on his way to" wherever he was being driven in that car. The Conservative MP, not missing a beat, "Oh by all means cut away from me to follow a car driving down the road." or something like that, which was kind of funny and kind of true at the same time. Whatever it was, though, in Canada, no media would have touched that remark; it would have been left hanging. This announcer, though, went on to scold the MP to the effect of saying that his remark was completely uncalled for! The thing about it was, though, that this kind of fearless, unscripted banter, made for really good TV!

The Results are In, Part 2

Well, it looks like sometime in the middle of my night, the results came in for Brighton Pavilion, the one and only riding I was actually watching for all night long, but eventually gave up on before going to bed. In Brighton Pavilion, located somewhere in Sussex, apparently, Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas was running against a new Labour candidate in a Labour-held riding where the incumbent had stepped down (and what was with about 150 MP’s stepping down for this election? Many because of scandal, apparently, involving their expenses being made public! Something that the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP are all in agreement on that MP’s in Ottawa should not be obligated to do!). The media and the bookies were both predicting the Green Party’s first seat in a UK election (yes, apparently you can bet on election outcomes in Britain, although I don’t think they have a state-sponsored lottery that lets you do so).

Anyway, congratulations are in order to Caroline Lucas, who took Brighton Pavilion for the Greens with 31.3% of the vote, to Labour’s 28.9% and the Conservatives’ 23.7%. This apparently represented a constituency swing of 8.3% from Labour to the Greens, whatever that means. Well, whatever it means, it means that Lucas will now sit as a Green MP in Westminster.

Green With Envy

The Green Party, overall, gathered only about 1% of the popular vote, yet still managed to elect an MP. Contrast that with Canada’s Green Party, which received 6.7% of the national vote in the 2008 election, and elected nobody. Apparently, in the UK election, the Green Party was following a strategy of putting most of their resources into 3 "winnable" ridings (including Brighton Pavilion), and running candidates on shoestring budgets in only half of the other UK ridings. What I found interesting about this strategy (aside from the fact that it worked) is that it worked with Green candidates in only a fraction of UK ridings.

Now, it’s true that there were other Green Parties involved in this election which might have taken some of the popular vote. There was a Scottish Green Party and a Green Party (Northern Ireland) which ran candidates in their local regions or "nations" as they refer to Scotland and Wales (do they call Northern Ireland a nation? I didn’t catch that reference if they do). So, perforce the Greens under Lucas were not going to run candidates everywhere.

Interestingly (to me, at least) is the fact that none of the Parties actually run candidates in all of the ridings. In Northern Ireland in particular, there were no Conservative or Labour candidates, and maybe not even Liberal-Democrats. Seems like "national" ("regional") parties, some small "c" conservative, some small "l" liberal/labour, are the norm in that part of UK, likely based on many of the complicating factors Irish political history has been famous for. Point is, though, none of the parties run everywhere, and maybe that’s why the Greens thought that they could still be serious if they ran candidates only in some places, and not others.

Personally, I’m not a fan of this approach. If I were a Green voter in a riding where no Green was running, I would be forced to cast my ballot for a second choice. That’s hardly representing my interests. Yes, I understand, there might just not be the money available for the Party to run people everywhere (and I understand that there are many in the UK who are calling for party financing reforms right now), but I think that I would still feel cheated a little bit. So don’t anyone take this observation of mine as my thinking that we Canadian Greens would be better off to not run candidates in all ridings, because I do not feel that way (and not just because of the per-vote subsidy).

The Minor Parties

What struck me about the minor parties in the election, beyond the Northern Ireland / Scotland / Wales - specific "national" parties like the Ulster Conservative and Unionists - New Force, Plaid Cymru, and the Scottish National Party, was that there are a couple of other minor parties which seem to have some big ambitions, running candidates in many ridings in England (more than the Greens). Here I’m talking about the U.K. Independence Party (which I had never heard of prior to last night) and the British National Party (of which I was more familiar). UKIP garnered 3.1% of the national vote (more than 3x that of the Green Party) and elected nobody. The racist BNP received a (shocking) 1.9% of the vote, also electing nobody.

Since I don’t know much about UKIP, beyond their desire to take the UK out of the European Union, let me say a few things about the BNP. Apparently, this party had a "whites only" policy for Members until 2001, when they opened their membership rolls up to anyone non-whites foolish enough to join them. Their policies used to include the forced "repatriation" of non-whites to their countries of origin (or, if they were born in the UK, presumably ancestral country of origin), but that also fell victim to their "softening" in 2001. Now they just want to end all immigration, and promote the voluntary relocation of immigrants out of Britain. No doubt through creating a culture of hatred from which immigrants and upright British citizens alike might feel compelled to escape from.

And 1.9% of the electorate voted for these guys (and I do mean guys...all of the candidates seemed to be guys, at least the ones that I saw). That's. Just. Great.

The Lib-Dem Dilemma

Let me tell you about the Liberal-Democrats, Britain’s ne’er do-well third party. They’re kind of like Canada’s NDP (they even go in for the orange colour) in that they don’t form government, but they can play spoiler once every few decades (as they are doing right now). Unlike the NDP, this party sits between the right-wing Conservatives and the left-wing Labour Party, firmly occupying the middle of the political spectrum, if you believe the pundits. Having found out more about this Party, I’m not sure that I would agree outright with that statement, especially since Labour’s move to the right over the past decade, but for now, take it for granted that the Lib-Dems are centrists who not many really like.

For me, this situation is kind of like the situation federally in British Columbia, where voters seem to alternate between the Conservatives and the NDP, and the rest of the country can’t really understand why someone who voted blue in the last election would now want to vote for Jack’s boys and girls. Well, likely it’s because the Liberals in B.C., federally, have the same level of cred as the Lib-Dems do historically. And federal Liberal results seem to suggest just that. But I digress (again).

So, the Lib-Dems received 24% of the national vote last night, but only took 57 seats out of a parliament containing 650 seats (although, as an aside, apparently only 649 seats were up for grabs last night, as the election in Thirsk & Malton has been postponed, due to the death of a candidate. What a humane decision by someone. Not sure that a death of a candidate would put a stop to an election here). With 24% of the vote, one should have thought that Lib-Dems might have taken about a quarter of the seats available, which would have been 156, but instead they received almost 100 fewer seats than their proportion of the popular vote would have ascribed.

Needless to say, one of the big planks on which the Lib-Dems campaigned is changing the British electoral system from the increasingly archaic first-past-the-post system, to a more balanced form of proportional representation (which is apparently how legislators in Scotland and Wales are elected to National assemblies right now). After results like the Lib-Dems received last night, you can understand why they might be a little miffed with the system.

There Can Be Only One

Of course, now that all of the votes have been counted, there can be only one Prime Minister to emerge from the election. The way that the British system works (despite what Conservative Leader David Cameron, a Stephen Harper-wannabe, would have the British public think), Labour Leader Gordon Brown remains the Prime Minister until he: a) resigns, or b) loses a confidence motion in the House, when parliament resumes sitting on May 25. So, right now, Brown remains the PM. And it seems he’s not ready to resign.

Nick Clegg, Leader of the Lib-Dems, has a chance of playing King-maker. If he forms a partnership/coalition with the Conservatives, David Cameron will be able to govern as if he enjoyed a majority, and there’s nothing Labour can do to stop him. Most pundits, though, believe that Labour and the Lib-Dems are actually closer to one another politically, though, so it’s anything but a foregone conclusion that Cameron and Clegg will be able to work things out to the Conservative’s advantage.

And that’s probably why David Cameron and his Party have been going out of their way to convince the British people that Labour has no mandate now to govern, after having "lost" the election. We here in Canada have seen this all before, during the Coalition Crisis of 2008, when Harper and his cronies trotted out the same sorts of arguments, which many Canadians fell for, not understanding the way in which the system works. I was cringing last night when I heard Cameron say that Brown had been defeated. He hasn’t been; in fact, he was re-elected by his constituency. Yes, his Party lost seats in the House, but he’s still the Prime Minister. Brown might now have an opportunity to work with the Liberal-Democrats to build a partnership or coalition, and most importantly, to govern.

Clegg’s price for partnership, though, many have reported, is proportional representation, which is a no-go for the Conservatives. Labour hasn’t exactly been thrilled with it, but Brown apparently has been saying today that it’s time, especially given the lop-sided results experienced by the Lib-Dems last night. Even the Prime Minister can’t claim that first-past-the-post is at all fair, when it so obviously is not.

My prediction: we’ll see a coalition between Labour and the Lib-Dems, with Lib-Dems in cabinet. And maybe with another Party represented in cabinet as well.

Because, the fact is, a coalition between Labour and Lib-Dems still won’t be enough in terms of numbers for the coalition to govern as if it were a majority. Together, Labour and the Lib-Dems would have 315 seats to the Conservatives’ 308. But there are 28 other MP’s from "other" parties out there (and 1 seat which has yet to elect anyone) which, if they worked with the Conservatives, could topple the coalition.

So nothing is a foregone conclusion, unless some of the other minor parties are brought into a coalition. Likely one of the Labour-friendly parties from Northern Ireland could do it (the Democratic Unionist Party, with 8 seats, I think is a good candidate and has supported Labour traditionally). Plaid Cymru with 3 seats might another. Not sure about the Scottish National Party with 6 seats. Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland is a Conservative surrogate? I don’t have a clue.

Anyway, there is much which remains to be decided, but I’m sticking with my prediction. And I don’t think that there’s going to be anything like a "coalition crisis" in the UK as a result. I base that on, what to me seems to be, a knowledgeable media which isn’t afraid of stating facts clearly (something which I found to be lacking back in December 2008). Cameron can make a case, but ultimately the rules favour Brown (if he partners with Clegg). And "moral argument" or not, the British are probably more plugged in to how their system works than we in Canada are for the most part.

One Last Observation: Where Were The Women?

Yes, this is my last observation. With all of these parties running around trying to get elected, where the heck were all of the women leaders? Cameron, Clegg and Brown, all men. The only woman Leader I knew about last night was Caroline Lucas of the Green Party. I had to go online when I woke up this morning to discover that there were, in fact, very few women leaders for any of the other parties. Apparently, the Social Democratic & Labour Party, which took 3 seats in Northern Ireland (with only 0.4% of the national vote, mind you), is led by a woman. The only other woman leader I could find heads the anti-war Respect - Unity Coalition, which didn’t fare all that well, with less than 0.1% of the vote. What’s up with that? Frankly, I’m very surprised that there aren’t more women leading political parties in the UK.


Anonymous said...

Good blog. I quite enjoyed it and the BBC coverage that you ably described. I managed to hang in for the Brighton Pavilion announcement and then some more. It was quite extraordinary. You forgot about explaining what a "marginal" riding is and you forgot about the CRO that was "fastidious" according to the BBC announcer as she described the exact reason why certain paper ballots were not counted. Also the BBC guy walking on the walk leading to the door of #10, paved with stones named for the ridings "there's Essex, and that one is Compton". As the BBC announcers said hundreds of times, "thank you very much".

Rob Brooks

Erich the Green said...

"Not sure that a death of a candidate would put a stop to an election here"

Actually it does, as per section 77 of the Elections Act:

Gotta learn your Act, man, there's some interesting and useful stuff in there.

Chris KN said...

I watched some of the coverage as well and really enjoyed it. I definitely agree with the idea of only announcing the winner after all the ballots have been counted.

The way we do it here puts way too much power in the hands of the media (as was evident in the U.S. in 2000).

For what it's worth, I agree with parties not running in every riding if they don't have an established EDA. I'm not a big fan of parachuting candidates in and I'm not sure what it accomplishes.

Erich the Green said...

Parachuting a candidate means sending someone from another riding, which the GPC only does sometimes. In other ridings without EDAs, it runs a local candidate who doesn't have a pre-existing support network (EDA). Sometimes this will be a "paper candidate", someone who registers but does no campaigning. Upon request, the central party provides minimal support (deposit loan, some generic materials free or at cost).

This has several benefits:

First, it gets per-vote funding for the hundreds of votes that will go Green in any riding, even without an active campaign

Second, it allows people who want to vote Green to do so, rather than forcing them to try for some "strategic" second choice. Voting Green is habit-forming, and the sooner it starts, the better.

Finally, the candidate or campaign may serve as the nucleus for formation of an EDA or local group in the aftermath of the election. I believe that's happened in several ridings. Even in the wake of a parachute candidate, the process of the campaign may attract and identify future potential local organizers or candidates.

Declining to run in a riding without an EDA would lose the party money, rob some people of the chance for a positive Green vote, and miss the opportunity to jump-start a local organization.

If it's a "write-off" riding then the party can run a candidate but not put in any resources - nothing lost. Unlike the UK, in Canada all candidates receive a full refund of their deposit regardless of votes, so long as they file their election spending report. In the UK, each hopeless candidate costs the party real money in lost deposits.