My first exposure to the UK Parliamentary General Election was in 2010. That year, I showed one of the leaders debates to my classes to have them compare it with our presidential debates. This year, I showed the first leaders debate (April 2) to one of my classes, again for the same purpose. While I followed the 2010 election out of my interest in European politics, I have followed the 2015 election a bit more closely, as I will be teaching about the UK in a new class next year. As I strive to get a better understanding of the electoral process, I wanted to share some thoughts I’ve had since that first debate.
First, I am surprised at the brevity of the campaign. Thanks to Giles Goodall, a candidate for the LibDems, I learned that there is a short campaign (which starts when Parliament is dissolved) and a long campaign (which began back in December). This handout from the UK Electoral Commission explained it nicely. Compared with the U.S., this is a short time for campaigning; even our campaigns for the House of Representatives last longer. I wonder what Britons make of the length of our presidential campaigns.
Second, campaign finance is much different there than here in the U.S. To see how much they are limited to, I’ll refer you to the aforementioned handout form the Electoral Commission. During the long campaign, a candidate is limited to a fixed amount of £30,700 plus a variable amount of 6p/9p (100p in a British pound) per elector in a borough/county constituency. In U.S. dollars, that’s a fixed amount of $46,565.76. The variable amount is based on the number of electors in the constituency. According to the Electoral Statistics for UK, 2014, “The typical size of constituencies differs between the constituent countries of the UK with a median total parliamentary electorate across constituencies of about 71,000 in England, 68,900 in Scotland, 67,500 in Northern Ireland and 55,100 in Wales.” So, if I am a candidate in England, using the median, my variable amount for a borough would be just over $6700 (British readers, please correct me if I am incorrect, my knowledge of the British Pound is minimal, thanks). That means that I would be able to spend just over $53,000 from December 19, 2014, through March 30, 2015 (the earliest start of a short campaign). The amount for the short campaign, which lasts until the election on may 7, 2015, is much less than that amount. Now, let’s keep in mind that elections occur every five years, not two for the U.S. House. Can you imagine trying to run a campaign for the U.S. House, for which the term of office is shorter, on that little amount of money?
Stephen Castle wrote a fascinating piece about campaign finance for UK elections and made some comparisons to here in the U.S. At one point he quotes a professor who “said the American system was seen in Britain ‘as the worst of all worlds,’ focused on ‘raising money and not about getting ideas across’.” While I certainly agree that campaign finance is a massive problem for American politics, it was the point about ideas that stuck with me. Once the long campaign begins, candidates have just under five months to get their ideas across. Is that enough time for a serious discussion of the issues? On the other hand, does the length of the American extremely-long campaign dilute the discussion of ideas?
Finally, I appreciate the fact that the televised debates included more than two leaders. Yes, the primary debates here may included multiple candidates, but I would like to see a presidential debate that included more than just the two GOP and Democratic candidates. Along these lines I learned about a program titled, “BBC Question Time,” (thanks to John McManus). The program is described as “a popular current affairs discussion programme which aims to give people an opportunity to scrutinise directly senior politicians and others who exercise power and influence at a UK level.” Every week, a studio audience gets to actually pose questions, in person, to MPs; what a wonderful concept! We need something like that here in the U.S. to publicly hold our elected officials accountable.
In short, I think there are some great ideas concerning campaign finance and publicly questioning politicians that perhaps we should look at further here in the U.S. If you live in the UK, I would be especially keen on hearing your thoughts on this, even if it is just to correct an error in my analysis.
Thanks for reading.