As a first time UK General Election voter the whole election experience from the electoral politics to the election itself has been an intriguing one, particularly when I compare it to US politics. In short, the process of registering and voting is easier (the US should learn), the politics are similar (plebs should learn), and the outcomes are just as uncertain.
Voting in the UK
Voting in the UK is something that I don’t think any American can truly relate to. First of all, quite a few more people can vote in the UK. I think this is great because it gives the people who live in a place the chance to be represented. If someone lives in a place, pays taxes, and is subject to the laws, it makes perfect sense to me to give them a voice, at least in regards to their local politics. Members of the Commonwealth countries, even the ones that have been booted from the Commonwealth, are allowed to vote and even to stand as a Member of Parliament (and theoretically prime minister) provided they are in the UK with permanent leave to remain. EU citizens can vote in local elections, though not national ones. It is a progressive view of citizenship which I fully support because it gives people who live in a place the opportunity to take a stake in their communities and the ability to seek accountability when policies stink.
Registering to vote was easy. I did it online. Yes – you read that right – I did it online. I did have to get a national insurance number, a right pain-in-the-ass in that I had to drive half way across Wales to apply for (so much for Cardiff being the capital), but with that number I was able to register to vote (I qualify as a Canadian citizen) from my living room. A few clicks of the mouse and – BAM – I was a registered UK voter. Maybe a week or ten days after I filled out my online registration, I got my voting card in the mail.
Voting day came. I took my voting card along with me because it has my polling station’s address on it. The card said it wasn’t necessary to have it with me to be able to vote. I found the polling station a few blocks away from my house. I walked in and a young woman asked me for my voting ID number if I had it. I showed her my voting card and she directed me to the room where I would go vote. I handed over my voting card to the election official who is checking my information. She asked me what my name is and found me on the election roll. No ID required. There I was, a brown, American-accented guy getting a ballot and the election official, the guardian of democracy didn’t ask me for ID. I know what you are thinking if you are an American: CRAZY. Evidently there was no concern for voter fraud, that pernicious act that plagues elections. Oh, wait, it doesn’t.
The ballot was a green slip of paper that reminded me of the ballots we used to vote for class president back in high school. I walked over to the booth and took a pencil and drew a big X in the box next to the person I wanted to vote for. There was no threat of a hanging chad. I folded my ballot up and put it in the ballot box. Done.
I was in and out of the polling station in maybe five minutes. From my front door back to my front door I was gone for maybe fifteen minutes. I spent more time looking for my keys in the morning. There was no line, no wait, and no obstacles to voting. There was a lot of respect at the poll and nobody made me feel like I didn’t have the right to be there. Plus I could have gone pretty much whenever it was convenient for me with the polls opening at 7 A.M. and closing at 10 P.M. I wish it were that easy back in the US. It needs to be.
The Election Politics
To use the famous Thai phrase, the election politics in the two countries were same same, but different. UK election politics reminded me of a less caustic version of US politics, though the difference might be similar to the difference between battery acid and hydrochloric acid. In other words, UK election political rhetoric is depressing, but perhaps not as depressing as US political rhetoric. There is also the noticeable absence of religion as a driving political undercurrent in any of the major parties, though national morals and values particularly as they are applied to immigrants and the poor is still quite in focus within conservative and right-wing rhetoric.
The narrative of “vote for us, because the other guys are going to destroy the economy, our values, the country, my dog” pushed by both the Tories and Labour was sickening and was the spitting image of the GOP and Democrats in the US. Perhaps the British narratives are marginally less vicious, due to British sensibilities, but they are undoubtedly just as brutal. Maybe I felt that way because I find it hard to take tabloids seriously, though I should know better to underestimate the power of appealing to base idiocy.
In both the US and the UK political rhetoric is similar to the partisan behavior we expect from sports fans with about as much analytic integrity. The way the two main political parties in each country rally support is just like bitter divisional rivals throwing barbs at each other. It’s like the Cubs versus the Cardinals or Michigan versus Ohio State or Canadiens versus the Maple Leafs or Man U vs. Man City. These fans hate each other to an irrational point. But when someone wins a game, lives of the masses don’t change. When someone wins an election, the lives of the masses may (though not necessarily).
The parallel rhetorical political presentations in the US and the UK do not surprise me. The role of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire on crafting narratives for both elections is clear even to a casual observer. Murdoch is very skilled at bigging up politicians who will support his (and like-minded non-dom billionaires’) interests. Murdoch’s reach is one that attempt to influence politics not only at a domestic level but at a world level. I’d venture to guess Murdoch only cares about domestic politics inasmuch as they get his preferred politicians elected. He is a tactician who isn’t afraid to play in multiple arenas and isn’t afraid what kind of consequences the little people face. After all, he can just move if the going gets tough.
Murdoch’s influence is a clear signal of the amount of power just a few people have on the world political stage. Any illusions that either the US or UK politics – taken as whole – isn’t run by gobs money and powerbrokers like Murdoch should be put to sleep, even as smaller parties make significant gains in the UK.
Smaller parties are good, because they force discussions and provide outlets for a much wider array of political views. Though these parties don’t have a shot to influence big policy decisions (yet -- hello SNP!), at least they are represented in the government, even if that representation is modest. If smaller parties can chip away at the big parties (Labour and the Conservatives), there might be a chance to chip away at oligarchical governance that currently exists, a lesson that the US could stand to learn from, but won’t because we have too much fun rooting for our "home" teams.
The Electoral Aftermath
The election results in the UK were quite surprising with the Conservative government actually making gains whereas many pollsters predicted losses for them. Let’s be honest, the Tories pasted Labour. A lot of the Labour voters are in despair. I don’t what next Tory government will do. Will they see this election result as a mandate for their policies? Maybe? Probably? Katie Hopkins, the poor-man's British version of Ann Coulter will invariably see the election result as a mandate to shoot off her ill informed, hateful mouth. (That's okay, Katie. If you have hate in your heart, let it out. Clayton Bigsby would be proud.)
What will be the role of the little guy? The rise of the little guy couldn’t have been more true or more meteoric than with the Scottish National Party (SNP) who wiped the floor with Labour in Scotland. Going into the election, it was clear that Labour was going to get beat in Scotland like they stole some haggis. After the election, it was clear that Labour got beat everywhere like they were a Rhonda Rousey opponent. These are some interesting times ahead.
Given the amount of anti-Labour rhetoric spun before the election, my guess is that it is just as likely that the vote for the Conservatives were a vote against Labour. But, no winners ever read their victories as such. Undoubtedly, no matter how Mr. Cameron reads the victory, governance is not going to be easy for him.
As an EU citizen, I hope that this election doesn’t ultimately result in the UK withdrawing from the EU. As an academic, I hope that funding for education isn’t cut and university tuition prices jacked up beyond any affordable level (which has had detrimental effects for US students). But what seems certain is that austerity, anti-immigrant, anti-EU rhetoric will continue or be ratcheted up, and the war on drugs will continue. Hopefully my fears don’t come true and the rhetoric becomes long-term policy and I’m wrong.
For right now, all I can truly be happy about is that at least there are going to be fewer fliers coming through my mail slot.