The British Election and Its Lessons for Us

Britain goes to the polls on Thursday to elect a new government. Did you know this? It is hardly getting any media notice here in the U.S., perhaps because our lazy media can’t take its eyes off the long coronation of Queen Hillary.  Anyway, the polls are a scramble, and everyone paying attention (which means only Michael Barone and Henry Olsen) is saying it is the most unpredictable election in modern British history.

Earlier this evening I took in a remarkable spectacle on C-SPAN 2 of the three main party leaders, David Cameron (Tory, and current PM), Ed Miliband (Labour), and Nick Clegg (Liberal Party, and currently deputy PM in coalition with the Tories) in a town hall format in Yorkshire that is very different from our pathetic town hall presidential debates with “undecided” voters (translation: low-information voters).  The Economist has a good account of it here. Instead of having all three candidates together on stage, the three faced the crowd seriatim, and went back and forth with plainly well informed questioners in what resembled an only slightly more polite version of Question Time in the House of Commons. It was riveting politics and great television; these are men who can talk on their feet. We ought to borrow this format for our own presidential “debates.”

I do wish the program had included Nigel Farage of the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and someone from the Scottish National Party.  (For one thing, Farage is so damn much fun to watch in action.) Polls show UKIP capturing perhaps as much as 12 percent of the national vote, most of it from the Conservative Party, though probably some from Labour and Liberals too, though the English elites will not want to admit that.  Whether that vote will give them 12 percent of the House seats is more doubtful. More likely is that it will tip some safe or marginal Conservative seats to the Labour Party. The Tories and UKIP may well garner the most votes, but Labour may end up forming the new government. On the other hand, the Scottish National Party, running chiefly on a separatist platform, may cost the Labour Party a large number of seats, leaving the Conservative Party once again in the pole position to form a coalition government with the Liberals.  This is more likely than a coalition with UKIP, but who knows.  Labour’s Miliband is emphatic that he won’t form a coalition with the SNP. Good for him; he’s demanding that Scottish voters choose responsibly.

UKIP can be regarded as the Tea Party of Britain, and its rise is a great example of comparative politics and institutions.  In the U.S. the Tea Party and its allies have been able to knock off some incumbent senators and House members and elect newcomers over the establishment candidates (Mike Lee taking out Bob Bennett in Utah; Ron Johnson winning in Wisconsin; Ted Cruz over David Dewhurst in Texas; Dave Brat ousting Eric Cantor in Virginia, etc.), and the Tea Party can line up behind a presidential candidate in the Republican primaries.  This kind of intra-party influence is not possible in Britain’s system: the party establishment picks candidates for House constituencies, and the party essentially selects the PM candidate.  When David Cameron says, as he did a couple years ago, that UKIP is a “bunch of fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists,” he’s only channeling what a lot of the GOP Washington establishment thinks of the Tea Party. But now Cameron is begging for UKIP votes.  Heh.  The only option for the British Tea Party is to start a separate party and run its own slate of candidates. This difference explains why the Tea Party in the U.S. hasn’t become it’s own separate political party.

If I lived in Britain, I’d vote UKIP.