This is election day in Britain, which boasts the “mother of parliaments” but now seems poised to produce the mother of all political imbroglios.
Americans, weary of electioneering that never seems to stop, will sometimes sing the praises of the British system, with a campaign season lasting only a few weeks and strict limits on candidate expenditures. While nobody would suggest that British elections are an edifying spectacle, time and money constraints ensure they cannot match ours for either for vitriol or tedium.
But at least when we go to the polls, we expect to know by the end of the day who will be president for the next four years. Nobody is likely to be firmly ensconced as British prime minister anytime soon, however.
Regardless of the two systems’ relative merits, it appears that American operatives are acknowledged to possess greater expertise. Both major parties, Labour and Conservative, have hired American advisers for their campaigns. Labour has David Axelrod, who, as a former aide to President Barack Obama, might be regarded as a logical choice for the party of the British labor unions.
But the Conservatives’ hired yank, Jim Messina, worked for Obama, too. In the party of the fat cats, technical skill evidently outweighs ideology. In a further concession to globalization, the Conservative campaign is being managed by an Australian consultant, Lynton Crosby.
The Americans are certainly working to elect politicians to a system totally unlike their own. This may not matter much, because the same tricks and pledges will be wheeled out regardless of how the country is to be run, but Americans, being used to voting for a president, might find it odd that British voters do not have a direct say in who will head up the government.
Voters in 650 constituencies get to vote for a member of parliament. Whichever candidate gets the most votes, regardless of percentage, goes to Westminster. The prime minister has always been head of the party controlling the largest number of parliamentary seats. That is not certain to happen this time, however, such is the proliferations of fringe parties.
A prime minister is not to be confused with a president and is not head of state. That’s the queen. The prime minister has one advantage of a president, however, in that he is not subject to any irritating separation of powers, being head of both the executive and legislative branches. Until a few years ago, a prime ministerial appointee, the lord chancellor, picked all the judges, too.
British elections were always swiftly settled when almost everyone voted either Labour and Conservative. But that doesn’t happen anymore. With the rise of all manner of smaller parties, Britain is left with a fragmented system incapable of producing an outright winner.
Its current government is a coalition with Conservative leader David Cameron as prime minister in cahoots with a minor party, the Liberal Democrats. The polls suggest that it is impossible for Cameron to win enough seats to form a government alone and that, even if the Liberal Democrats remain in his corner, a working majority might still be unattainable.
Confusion seems certain to reign once the polls close, with Cameron remaining in power and taking the first short at cobbling together a working majority. British parliamentary terms are for five years and may be ended early only if the House of Commons votes to dissolve itself. That possibility clearly looms.
They need to come up with a different system over these. Someone needs to show them the error of their ways.
James Gill’s email address is jgilltheadvocate.com.