Election 2010 (part 1)

The Clock Tower at the Houses of Parliament (no, it isn't Big Ben; Big Ben is a bell inside the tower)

Feedback, the programme on BBC Radio 4 that airs listeners’ views about anything broadcast on the many BBC radio stations, reported last week that they were getting complaints about the amount of coverage given to the upcoming national election. Listeners wrote in to say they were sick and tired of hearing about it, they’d been inundated with election news, they were fed up, it was displacing regularly scheduled programmes and shutting out coverage of other news.

At that point, the campaign had been going for four days.

These people wouldn’t last long in the US, which exists in a state of almost perpetual campaigning. Over here, all the overt electioneering surrounding a national election takes places in just one month. The election was announced April 6 and will take place May 6.

Many people expect that the Tories—that’s the Conservative Party—will win, and that their party leader, David Cameron, will be the next Prime Minister, replacing the incumbent, Gordon Brown of the Labour Party. But you can’t vote for David Cameron unless you live in Witney, a little constituency west of Oxford, and you can’t vote for Gordon Brown unless you’re registered to vote in the constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, on the east coast of Scotland.

That’s because the Prime Minister isn’t directly elected at all, not even by some equivalent of an electoral college. When we go to the polls on May 6, we’ll vote for the candidate we want to be our own Member of Parliament–in my case, from the constituency of Woking– and that’s it; we don’t vote for a Prime Minister. Then when the dust settles, the party with the most seats in Parliament forms a government. (Though perhaps dust settling is not the best metaphor, given that today’s eruption of the remarkably named Eyjafjallajokull volcano has grounded all air traffic in the UK and much of Europe, and incidentally stranded my husband in Sweden).

The party leader of the successful party generally becomes the Prime Minister, who appoints all the cabinet ministers from among the MPs from his or her party. The party with the next highest number of seats becomes the Opposition, or more correctly, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. (The opposition—note lower case—is made up of all of the MPs elected from other parties. If our friend King Arthur should be elected as an independent candidate, he would be part of the lower-case-O opposition. And you can’t vote for him unless you live in Salisbury.)

I don’t just say “the other party” becomes the Opposition, because the UK’s political landscape isn’t as near to being a two-party system as is the USA’s. The Labour Party has been in government the entire almost-eleven years I’ve lived in England and the Opposition has been the Conservatives. But there is a fairly strong third party: the Liberal Democrats who are also called, given the habit of shortening words and phrases here, the Lib Dems.

This makes voting a bit trickier here, compared to what I’m used to. Let’s say for the sake of argument that I’m in favour of a Labour government, but I don’t much like Gordon Brown. Tough luck. If there’s a Labour government, then the Labour party will decide by their own means—they don’t even have to have an election—who becomes Prime Minister. Also for the sake of argument, say that I don’t like the Tory party; then it’s a good thing my current MP is resigning, because he’s a Tory, and having him out of the running spares me from having to chose whether to vote for my MP, because I approve of most of his positions on the issues, or to vote for the candidate from the party I want to see in power.

The party in power can call an election anytime it likes. There isn’t a set term of office comparable to the 4-year term of a US president, though there is something of a cap: if they haven’t called an election in 5 years, then they must have an election whether they like it or not. If the party in government is sure of its ground it can, for example, call an election after 4 years, win handily, and extend its power from the original 5 guaranteed years to 9 years. And 4 years later, or 3-and-a-half, or any other time they like, they can do it again.

When I say that the party in power calls an election and the winning party forms a government, what I really mean is that the party in power asks the Queen to dissolve Parliament by Royal Proclamation, and after the election, the would-be Prime Minister goes to the Queen, who asks him or her to form a government. This is just a matter of courtesy, form, and tradition; the Queen isn’t really allowed to say “No, I’m not dissolving Parliament just because you want me to” or to say “I’d really rather not ask you to form a government; why don’t you run along?”

Parliament was in fact dissolved as of April 12, and campaigning has begun. The big excitement of the moment is that the party leaders will this evening, for the first time, take part in televised debates similar to those American presidential candidates have. The bookies’ favourite is Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems, but anything could happen.

And in any case, people who were sick of the election coverage 4 days after it started can take heart that now the election is only two weeks away.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Election 2010 (part 1)

  1. IRM-M

    Election? What election?

  2. Betsy

    Can’t wait to hear about the debates. I just know they will be head & shoulders (in interest) above the American ones.
    Let us on the other side of the pond know all about them.

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