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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

National Elections: What the UK Does Right and We Americans Do So Wrong

Reporter Ari Shapiro, on NPR did a fantastic piece this week on the United Kingdom's elections. It so clearly points out what, as the title says, they do so wisely, so intelligently and what we do so backwards, so wrong and so needlessly expensively:

money changing hands

More than anything, they don't do big, they don't do them for long and they don't do expensive:

America experiences a long, drawn-out election fever, while the U.K. hardly shows any symptoms at all. That is to say, almost none of the events most strongly associated with an American presidential campaign are part of a typical British national election.

Take political rallies, where the bleachers fill with thousands of flag-waving, screaming supporters.

"I remember being in Denver in 2008," says London-based political consultant Steve Morgan. "The stadium was full, and thousands and thousands of people were outside, and millions more watching on television."

Morgan, who has worked in political campaigns in both countries, recalls the landmark moment when Barack Obama formally accepted his party's nomination to be president of the United States.

"We don't have that," he says.

The last time a British political leader tried to do something similar, says Morgan, "Was Sheffield in 1992, and it was Neil Kinnock."

The speech, three days before the election, was a disaster.

"The British media crucified him for trying to run an American-style campaign," says Morgan.

Kinnock's party lost that year, and no British politician has held a big rally like that since.

They--the Brits--very wisely put in a time limit for elections. They only last 4 months long, total. Can you imagine? How wonderful would that be?


Debates are another staple of American campaigns. There were four Presidential debates in 2012, including the Vice Presidential debate. Not so in the UK.

"Last election we had a leaders' debate for the first time," says political scientist Margaret Scammell of the London School of Economics. "We may or may not have another one this time."

There is no primary system so "there are no polarizing, surprising, wild-card candidates, and everything becomes far more predictable."

This sounds better all the time, doesn't it? Wait. It gets better:

" the U.K., 'We have very strict rules where you're not really allowed to advertise via television or radio as a political party,' says Katie Ghose. She's chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, a nonpartisan group that focuses on improving the way campaigns operate."

"We just think that there is really a grotesque amount of money spent in the U.S. on politics," says Ghose. That's a pretty widely-held view in Britain, which highlights a big cultural difference between the U.S. and the U.K.: In America, campaign laws value free speech above all else. The Supreme Court has ruled that limits on campaign spending may amount to limits on speech. In the U.K., people talk less about free speech and more about what Ghose calls "a level playing field."

"If you have one party that's just able to amass a load of money and shout louder than the others, that's not healthy for democracy," Ghose says. "And we wouldn't interpret freedom of speech to mean an unlimited ability to spend, spend, spend."

The hell of all this is that we could do this. There's no reason we couldn't. We could pass a law making elections only--what? One month? Two?  Then create a law making all those "campaign contributions" illegal. It would be a one-two punch, so to speak. And because elections would be so brief, it would make the possibility and feasibility of the campaign contributions ban work. Since there's no campaign, in essence, there would be no need for the campaign money.

It could work. Heck, it would work.

But the fact is, it has to come from us. It has to come from the people. We have to demand it. Who but the people buying elections think it shouldn't or wouldn't work?

Let's get this party started.

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