UK Justice Minister Jack Straw (left) with Prime Minister Gordon Brown (right) at a local campaign event in Oldham eight days before the election. All photos for this story are by Gerry Bill

My Political Education in the United Kingdom

Editor’s note: Gerry Bill spent two weeks in the United Kingdom just before the May 6 election campaigning on behalf of some Labour candidates. These are his observations on some of the differences between politics in the United States and politics in the United Kingdom.

By Gerry Bill

Failsworth, Greater Manchester, U.K., May 2010
It is a different world over here when it comes to politics. As I was campaigning door-to-door in Failsworth, I was struck by many of the differences. I found the general population to be a bit more politically engaged than I find at home. An even more striking difference is that the politicians here are a lot closer to the people they serve than are our politicians in the United States-at least the politicians of the Labour Party are.

Access to the Prime Minister
I went to Failsworth to campaign for my cousin Barbara Dawson, a Labour candidate for the Oldham Council representing this area. After I had been campaigning for a few days I got invited to an event in Oldham with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was campaigning for reelection. This was just eight days before the election. It was a pretty intimate setting, in a room sized for about 80 people. There were a few more people than that present, perhaps 100 in all, with quite a few people standing in the back. The PM came in and shook a lot of people’s hands, not five feet from us. As he spoke, he was about 10 feet away from us.

Brown was personable. He comes across better in person than he does on television. He was quite relaxed, probably because he knew he was among supporters. The event was by invitation only. My cousin was invited because she is a Labour candidate in the local elections. She was allowed to bring guests, so she brought her husband Dave and me. I was surprised at how easy it was to get in the room with the PM. I didn’t have to show any ID, and there were no metal detectors or anything of the sort.

After the event, my cousin said that I probably have never been that close to a U.S. president. I told her that the ordinary public normally is not allowed to get that close to a U.S. president. In the United Kingdom, things are handled more informally. For
example, during the question period, a woman in the audience challenged Brown to come across the street after the event to visit her hair salon and neighboring businesses. Of course, those sites had not been scrutinized by the PM’s security team, but Brown agreed to do it, and indeed did so after the event. I can’t imagine a U.S. president making a spontaneous visit like that; the Brits seem a lot less security conscious.

Of course, assassinations of prime ministers here are quite rare–the one and only case having occurred nearly 200 years ago. No one seemed surprised, therefore, that Gordon Brown, a sitting Prime Minister, sat in an ordinary coach on a train from London to Edinburgh just five days before the election. That is a distance of about 400 miles. We would have used Air Force One; the Prime Minister traveled standard class. The Observer reported in its Sunday edition that Brown was in Coach F sitting by a window as ordinary people walked up and down the aisle with their luggage. Some said hi, and some stopped to take his picture with a mobile phone. No one seemed surprised at the lack of security.

The Press Prefer a Scandal
At the event in Oldham, Brown spoke for about 10 minutes and then answered questions for about half an hour. He actually gave direct answers to the questions, unlike most politicians. Perhaps that’s because he was among supporters, but the national television was broadcasting it live and anything he said was immediately a part of the public record. The event was held in a community center with lots of youth activities. He talked about how crime has gone down by 30% since Labour came to power in 1997- violent crime down 40%. He attributed the decline, in part, to the youth activities in centers like the one we were in, which have seen a significant increase in funding since Labour took over.

The building we were in also housed a Sure Start Center, a program for very young children; it is somewhat comparable to our Head Start program. No such centers existed when Labour came to power in 1997; now there are about 3,500 of them nationwide. What Brown was doing, of course, was pointing to the accomplishments of his own party since it has been in office. There are many such accomplishments, but they are not covered much by the media.

The media prefer the sensational stuff-best of all, a scandal. Gordon Brown obliged by providing them with one. About an hour after he left the event in Oldham he went to one in nearby Rochdale. Leaving that event, he was confronted by a woman outside the venue about the immigration issue. The woman seemed to be complaining that too many Eastern Europeans were being allowed into Britain. He responded by saying that while it is true that about a million Europeans have immigrated into Britain in recent years, about a million Brits have emigrated to Europe in the same time period. After the exchange, he got into his car to leave. As he was being driven away, he mistakenly left his lapel microphone on. He commented to his aides about the woman, referring to her as a “bigot.”

Labour campaign workers distribute balloons that say “I’m voting Labour” to young school children and their parents as the children leave school on election day. The precinct where we did that, which was a strong Labour area, had the highest turnout of any in the area.

That gaffe was broadcast all over the television that evening and was also in every newspaper the next morning. Brown went and apologized to the woman in person on the day of the incident, spending about 45 minutes with her, but that probably was not enough to undo the damage that had been done. Labour had already been down quite a bit in the polls, and this undoubtedly put them further down.

Going Door-to-Door in the United Kingdom

My campaign activities included a lot of door-to-door leafleting, which involved leaving literature at people’s homes, as well as canvassing, when we actually talk to the voters. I learned quite a lot from that endeavor.

The evening after the Gordon Brown gaffe I went canvassing for Michael Meacher, the MP for that area, and for Jean Stretton, the council candidate for that district. It turned out that both Meacher and Stretton participated in the canvassing, so I found myself campaigning alongside an MP. At first, I thought it was just an extraordinary stroke of good luck on my part to meet up with an MP canvassing his district; later I learned that this was a rather common occurrence.

It being early evening we knocked on doors and found a lot of people at home. I got to speak to quite a few voters from across the political spectrum. It turned out that several of them knew Meacher, their MP, and quite a few of them knew Stretton as well. When I told people that Meacher and Stretton were on their street knocking on doors, several of them came out and waved or said hello. I was surprised at how many people in this rather ordinary neighborhood knew Meacher; perhaps it is because he has been their MP for 40 years, and he goes door-to-door often.

In the United States, I have never had my member of Congress come to my door; he won’t even respond to letters I send him. In the United Kingdom, the districts are much smaller than those in the United States, about one-eighth the size population wise; in fact, a U.K. parliamentary district is only slightly bigger than a Fresno City Council district. It seems that most people know who their MP is, quite a few know him in person and many would recognize him walking down the street. The level of political awareness is definitely higher in the United Kingdom than we find in a place like Fresno.

For example, in the United States, most people can’t even name their member of Congress, let alone recognize him or her on the street. It’s a very different world over here. It seems that MPs spend quite a lot of time in their home districts, meeting regularly with constituents. Going door-to-door at election time is just one piece of that. The fact that the districts are smaller than ours makes personal contact between MPs and their voters almost commonplace. During the two weeks I participated in the campaign, I walked door-to-door twice with Meacher and five times with David Heyes, the MP for an adjoining parliamentary district. The voters seemed pleased that their MP was in their neighborhood, but no one was in the least bit surprised by it.

Lessons I Have Learned from the Brits

We could learn a few things from the Brits. For one thing, my experience has sold me on the value of small districts. Size really does matter–and in this case, small is better. Smaller districts really do facilitate contact between the voters and their elected leaders.

I think we could apply that lesson directly to our current situation in Fresno. By requirement of the Charter, the Fresno City Council is set to expand from seven to nine members in 2012 or 2013 because of population growth. I support that expansion; it would keep our council districts from becoming too large. Unfortunately, some local politicians want to block that change as a so-called cost-saving measure. They have put Measure A on the June 8 ballot in an attempt to either postpone or permanently derail the expansion. To me, it sounds a lot more like a measure intended to keep power in the hands of a few people rather than a measure to save costs.

Jim McMahon, leader of the Labour Party in Oldham, goes door-to-door on election day getting out the vote.

Another thing the Brits do is to prohibit political advertising on television. I found that rather appealing. Television programming in the United Kingdom continues pretty much as normal all through the election season. There are ads for supermarkets and for cosmetics, but not for politicians. Maybe it is time that we in the United States stopped treating political candidates as though they were just another product to be squeezed in between an ad for a laundry detergent and an ad for Viagra. Somehow, keeping the political ads off television makes the whole election process seem a bit more dignified. Of course, politicians in the United Kingdom still take pot shots at one another, but they have to do it through other means.

The Brits also keep their election season mercifully short, around five weeks in all. Our presidential elections, by way of contrast, last about 18 months. It is a different experience entirely. I don’t know how we would institute something like that, but it certainly does seem much more civilized than our system.

A Lesson the Brits Have Not Learned from the United States
I have one final lesson to mention-though perhaps it is a negative lesson. This year, for the first time, there was a televised debate between the leaders of the three main parties (David Cameron of the Conservatives, Gordon Brown of Labour and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats). Imagine the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960, but imagine them happening in 2010. It has made a dramatic difference in voter attitudes, and not necessarily for the better. In the past, British elections have been more about substantive issues of policy than about personalities. All of that is changing. The debates have focused everyone’s attention on questions of appearance and style. It is about who looks best on camera, who has the best smile, who fidgets the least.

A few of us are old enough to remember the Nixon-Kennedy debates. Research done at the time demonstrated the powerful effect of the visual image. It was found that those who watched the debate on television thought Kennedy had won, whereas those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won. Nixon took a hit in the polls, and Kennedy won the election. Perhaps we were better off in that case, but unfortunately, it can work equally well in the other direction. Basing an electoral decision on personality and charisma, rather than on policy, makes a mockery of democracy.

Well, the Brits are now transitioning into personality politics in a big way, following our lead. Brown, the current prime minister, does not come across well on television. He is noticeably older than the other candidates, has a weak smile and looks ill at ease under the television lights. Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, makes a good appearance on television. He is young, energetic and has become a bit of an idol for the young people in the United Kingdom-a bit like the Obama phenomenon in the United States.

After the first televised debate, Clegg’s party’s poll numbers jumped from around 18% up to around 30%. Meanwhile, both the Conservatives and Labour dropped significantly, with Labour falling to third place in the polls. Nothing about the party platforms had changed. Their policies on the issues, which were fairly well known before the debates, stayed constant. The only thing that changed was that the public got to see how Clegg looked on camera during the debates. When that happened, people seemed to lose interest in examining his policies.

In a near replay of the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960, a news organization over here ran an experiment during the third and final debate. Sky News (owned by Rupert Murdoch) took 14 undecided voters and divided them into two groups of seven. One group watched the debate on television, and the other listened on the radio. After the debate, Sky interviewed the viewers and listeners separately.

The viewers commented a lot on the body language of the three candidates. Six of the seven viewers thought that Clegg had won the debate, with one of the seven giving it to Brown. When the radio listeners were interviewed about the debate, most of their comments had to do with the actual content of what each leader had said. That was just the opposite of what the viewers had done. In a near polar opposite of what the viewers had said, six of the seven listeners gave the debate to Brown, and one gave it to Cameron.

I am afraid that in this case, the Brits are copying us, and they are going to end up the worse off for it.

Having experienced the U.K. political system up close and personal, I am left envious of some of their practices, but also saddened by some of the changes taking place in their system. I really like the small districts, the frequent personal contact between politicians and voters, the short campaign period and the elimination of political ads from television. I wish there was a way to implement some of those things in the United States. Meanwhile, it is sad to see them becoming more like us in adopting personality politics to the detriment of serious consideration of the issues. I believe that change will not serve them well at all.

It truly has been an education for me.

Addendum
The above piece was written just before election day.  The results of the election are now known.  The three main parties split the vote in such a way that no party got a majority, resulting in a hung Parliament.  The Conservatives got 36% of the vote, Labour 29% and the Liberal Democrats 23%. To get above 50%, a coalition had to be formed. A natural coalition might have been the Lib Dems and Labour because they are both left-leaning parties. However, the Lib Dems chose to form a coalition with the Conservatives-strange bedfellows indeed. Although 52% of the electorate voted for one of the left parties, the government is now headed by Conservative David Cameron, who got only 36% of the vote. A lot of people are saying the coalition is unstable and will not last long.

Commentators in the United Kingdom called this an historic election, one like they had never seen before. It was the televised debates that changed everything and led to the hung Parliament.  Prior to the election, the conventional wisdom was that either Labour or the Conservatives would get a majority and form a more traditional government. The debates raised the profile of the Lib Dems just enough to make it more of a three-way race than it had been in recent years, resulting in no party getting the majority it needed.

Britain now has a left-right coalition government, with the emphasis being on the right end of the spectrum.  The Lib Dems are clearly being treated as junior partners by the Conservatives.  Most policies are likely to be conservative ones, and they will be only slightly moderated by the presence of the Lib Dems.  A lot of the people in the Liberal Democratic Party are upset with the coalition, and it is causing a split within that party. There are reports that many are leaving the Lib Dems and joining Labour.  The long-term consequences of all of this are hard to predict, but it could be a boon for Labour.  It will be fun to watch how it plays out.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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