Hang the Parliament

or “I’ve never voted Conservative before…” and I’m not about to start now.

In 1987 I made a conscious decision to leave Britain, in large part because Margaret Thatcher had just been elected, for the third time, as Primer Minister. I’d seen what she’d done to the country since 1979. I didn’t want to stick around and witness another four years of it. I was, in one sense, greatly disappointed with my fellow Brits for re-electing her, and yet I understood that they hadn’t actually done so. The Tories got only 42% of the vote in 1987, but thanks to Britain’s “first-past-the-post” system in each constituency, they ended up with 376 of the country’s 650 Parliamentary seats – an overwhelming majority that essentially allowed Thatcher absolute power, regardless of the fact that 58% of the public had actively voted against her and her Tory manifesto.

There’s nothing new to this, of course. No British party since 1945 has ever received over 50% of the popular vote at a General Election. That’s the inevitable result of having a multi-party system. What would make sense, then, would be to have some sort of proportional representation in Parliament to reflect this. As Brits go to the polls today, with the Liberal Democrats having wedged their way into the dialogue so successfully that they may well beat Gordon Brown‘s ruling Labour Party to second place in the public vote, the argument for proportional representation is being heard louder than ever. I hope the Conservatives don’t get elected today, especially not with a Parliamentary majority. But if the result is a hung parliament, necessitating a coalition – which hopefully the Lib Dems would agree to only on condition of moving forward with Proportional Representation – then so be it. Great Britain, viewed by many foreign countries as the birthplace of democracy, will never be fully democratic until that day.

The USA can do with a third party as well. (And a fourth, and a fifth.) Now more than ever. The inherent problem with the American two-party system is that it turns politics into sport, a battle between two teams, in which there always has to be a winner, and yet, paradoxically, the full time whistle is never blown. The teams are constantly fighting against each other, resorting to whatever dirty tactics are necessary in order to score a point, to get the upper hand, to be perceived as “winning” and therefore in charge, despite the fact that the public have actually elected them – both parties – to work together and represent the people. The American media is highly culpable in this unfortunate situation: to maintain viewers, readers, eyeball, it enforces the sporting scenario, increasingly taking sides, encouraging members of the public to engage in ever-more hostile – to maintain the sporting analogy, let’s call it “hooligan” – from the touchlines. We’re not only meant to root for “our” team, wave our scarves and our banners, but more and more, we’re expected to launch the equivalent of a pitch invasion (hello Tea Party), or even some good-old fashioned fighting on the terraces. Coalition does not make for a good headline. Dialogue does not work in sound-bites. Calling each other names, however, – Hitler is always a good one – succeeds on both counts. Unfortunately, this constant battle between the two sides does the vast majority of the American public – that which is actually quite centrist, and wants its elected officials to get on with the job for which they were voted into office – an enormous dis-service.

Still, there are at least a couple of ways in which the British could learn from the American system. In the States, a vote for your Congressman/woman is not a vote for the President; you get to vote for each, separately. You also get to vote for your representative in the Senate, the equivalent of the British House of Lords; now, isn’t that a quaint idea? Better yet, you get primaries in many of these elections, allowing you to choose the candidate for your party rather than letting the party choose it for you. Wouldn’t it be an interesting concept in Britain if you could vote for your local MP based on his or her track record and personality, knowing that this was not an endorsement of the Party’s actual leader, but rather, that you had a separate vote for Prime Minister? What would happen? Would Britain be in a situation, tomorrow morning, where Nick Clegg might find himself elected as Prime Minister and yet his party (the Lib Dems) would have but a minority of Parliamentary seats? Quite possibly, and wouldn’t that make for an interesting dilemma, some enforced dialogue and sharing of power?

And there are certainly ways in which the American system can learn from the British. Allowing MPs five years in office works so much better than giving Congressman just two years – which forces them to spend more time campaigning for re-election than getting on with their jobs. Limiting the election campaign to just six weeks – rather than treating it as an ongoing battle – is equally effective. Limits on campaign finance and advertising have their benefits, too: we all know that big business buys influence, but it should not be so blatant.

And then there are ways in which both countries can learn from elsewhere. A multitude of parties reflects a multitude of opinion, the idea that the population is not simply black or white, right or wrong, but that it comes in many colors and shades thereof. Proportional representation has its downside – it gives credence and voice to the distasteful fascists out on the fringes – but that’s the price you pay for living in a true democracy. Great Britain needs it. And if David Cameron’s Conservative Party end up with a majority of parliamentary power after today’s election despite getting a mere plurality, then only the most selfish of Tories (and yes, I know, there are plenty of them around) would insist on maintaining the system as it stands.

Note for American readers: The words “Tories” and “Conservatives” are interchangeable. And shortly after writing this, I heard a discussion about the BRitish electoral system on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. Listen from here. (Scroll down to UK’s election.)

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October 2021