Culturally Discombobulated

Tag: Monster Raving Loony Party

UK General Election 2010: a primer for Americans

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Curious about the UK’s general election but not entirely sure what’s going on? Want to watch the coverage on C-SPAN but worried you’ll get bamboozled as they cut straight to the BBC’s feed without supplying any context? Well, worry no more. Here’s a noncomprehensive and hastily written guide to Thursday’s election that will allow you to impress  friends and colleagues –  provided they only have very limited knowledge of British politics.    

WHAT’S THE BASIC GIST?   

The UK will be voting for who gets to sit in the House of Commons which is the lower chamber of the Houses of Parliament. If it makes it easier, think of it as being like the House of Representatives though that’s by no means a perfect analogy. The UK’s electoral map is divided into 650 constituencies and each constituency returns one Member of Parliament (MP). So that’s 650 MPs of various different parties being elected to parliament. The magic number for the parties is 326* as whoever has that amount of MPs or above will be able to form a majority government. If no one manages to get 326 MPs then things might get rather interesting.   

The Times has a very handy gizmo-y map showing the odds in each constituency.   

The last four weeks (yeah, you heard me right America. Four weeks, not two sodding years) all the parties have been electioneering around the country. Usually, this involves hiring a big bus that you paint in your party’s colours, christen it the “battle bus” and then pack it full with politicians and journalists before travelling up and down the motorway to places like Ipswich and Dagenham. However, this year we decided to mix it up and have televised leaders debates in the same way you have Presidential debates to help us figure out who should be PM; previously we used to decide this by letting the leaders of the main parties try to ram each others battle buses off the road, last battle bus and leader standing being the winner of the election.     

WHO ARE THE MAIN PLAYERS?   

Labour   

Current governing party who have been in power for the last 13 years with first Tony Blair as Prime Minister (PM) and more lately Gordon Brown.   

A self-described “democratic socialist party” though social democrat better describes the reality. They’re on the centre-left of British politics, which means in US terms they’d be seen by Fox News as worse than Hugo Chavez and denounced by some zealots as a sure sign that the rapture is on its way. Not that this stopped the owner of Fox News from endorsing the Labour party in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections. Murdoch cynically only concerned with his own interests? You don’t say.     

With the financial crisis, two unpopular wars and the electorate just a little bored by them after being in government so long they’re widely expected to lose power.   

Not helped by the public image of their leader Gordon Brown. Seen by many as being a serious, dour Scotsman with an anger management problem, attempts at making him more media friendly have been pretty disastrous. Only recently have they struck upon the notion that being serious rather than telegenic might not be an altogether bad thing in a politician in these serious times. Unfortunately they only decided this after two years of making him smile awkwardly whenever he was put in front of a camera as shown in the video below. I mean, look at that…there’s clearly someone off camera prodding Brown with a stick every 20 seconds when he stops smiling and goes back to his normal bulldog chewing on a wasp appearance.     

Brown is also responsible  for one of the most memorable or cringe-worthy moments of this campaign – bigot-gate.   

Though in fairness, Labour has previous form in having something of a heavy handed approach with the public while campaigning.   

Their candidates will be the one with nifty red rosettes.      

Labour: Odds on winning most seats 7/1. Odds on winning majority 25/1   

Conservatives    

The main opposition party and as the party responsible for 11 years of Thatcher it’ll come as no surprise that they’re on the right of UK politics. Unlike in the US where politicians on the right seem to be constantly invoking Regan’s name in an effort to get themselves elected, in the UK any mention of Thatcher is a sure way of damping any enthusiasm undecided voters may have for you.   

After going through a number of ineffective party leaders during Blair’s premiership, they decided to fight fire with fire and go with their own Blair-esque clone – David Cameron. Cameron was specially bred in a lab for the task of running the Conservative party. Seen as out of touch with the ordinary person on account of his privileged Eton (the UK’s top private school) education and his blue-blood connections  (he’s  a direct descendant of William IV) this makes him an easy figure for class-obssessed Britain to mock. Despite all this, the odds are in his favour that following the election it he’ll be he who is invited by the Queen, his distant relative, to form a new government.   

Some see Cameron as a social conservative who is making strides to bring his party towards the political centre while others see this his claim of compassionate conservatism as being disingenuous in the extreme.   

My absolute favourite description of Cameron is from the satirist Charlie Brooker in this article:   

“Cameron is 100% something. He isn’t even a man; more a texture-mapped character model. There’s a different kind of software at work here, some advanced alien technology projecting a passable simulation of affability; a straight-to-DVD retread of the Blair ascendancy re-enacted by androids.”   

David Cameron

However, British tabloid The Sun makes a compelling case on why people should vote Conservative. It’s not concerning the economy or our troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, rather it’s only by voting for Cameron that we can ensure that that great British institution, the page 3 girl, continues its proud tradition. The Sun warns us that both Harriet Harman of Labour and Lynne Featherstone of the Lib-Dems want to change the law and ban page 3 girls. Only the Tories will be able to protect us from a Nanny state intent on taking away all those boobie pictures. Poppy, a page 3 “stunna” argues that such a ban would be against the Lockean principles that underpin our constitutional settlement…erm, at least, I think that’s the point she’s trying to get across.   

The basis of Lockean thought is his theory of the Contract of Government, under which all political power is a trust for the benefit of the people. His thinking underpins our ideas of national identity and society. Please don’t let those who seek to ban our beauty win. Vote to save Page 3!”  Poppy, 19, 32D

Where a Conservative victory would leave a far greater British institution, the BBC, is another question altogether. They are fears that they’ll be extensive cuts to the corporation should the Conservatives win.    

The Conservatives will be the ones in blue rosettes. Often referred to as the Tories.   

Conservatives: Odds on winning most seats 1/16. Odds on winning majority 5/4   

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS   

For so long the after-thought of UK politics, the sudden upswing of popularity in its leader Nick Clegg following his strong showings in the televised leadership debates should lead to the Liberal Democrats (Lib-Dems) making their best showing in a general election. For a while, everything went a little silly with Cleggmania with some making comparisons to Obama. That seems to have thankfully calmed down when the lunacy of such a comparison was pointed out.   

Nick Clegg

You may be interested to know, as way of comparison to US politics, that Nick Clegg is an atheist and that this is absolutely and unequivocally a non-issue for the vast majority of the UK electorate. I’m sorry to say, a US Presidential candidate, regardless of competence, would be pilloried for such non-belief.     

What’s most exciting about the Liberal Democrats this time around is that they are well placed to show up our current first-past-the-post electoral system as no longer being fit for purpose. The Lib-Dems are on course for receiving around 30% of the popular vote. Don’t, however, expect that will result in them taking 30% of the seats in the Commons; in fact, they’d be lucky to get 12% of the MPs with such a result. Indeed, it could well be the case that they receive more votes than Labour on Thursday, but Labour could and should easily up with well over a 100 more MPs than the Lib-Dems. What the Lib-Dems will be hoping for is neither Conservatives or Labour being in a position to form a majority government (remember that that magic number is 326 MPs) so they’ll have to form a coalition government with them. As a condition for forming a coalition, Clegg would be in a position to argue that the current system needs to be changed with electoral reform, perhaps some form of  proportional representation, which given the circumstances the Lib-Dems have always been keen on. Hitchens (Christopher) has described our current parliamentary system as a corseted duopoly, that could well be about to change.   

Politics-wise, the Lib Dems are  a social liberal party that flits between both sides of the political centre depending on individuals and policies. They were formed in 1988 when the Liberal party (the party of Gladstone and Lloyd George but rendered third-party status with the emergence of the Labour party in the 1920s) merged with the Social Democratic Party (a party formed in the early 80s by moderate Labour politicians who felt Labour of that time had become too left-wing).  The Lib-Dems were the only one of the three main parties to oppose the Iraq war, they are pro-European and strong on civil liberties.   

They’ll be the ones wearing yellow rosettes.     

Liberal Democrats: Odds on winning most seats 40/1. Odds on winning majority 66/1   

 OTHER PARTIES   

A very quick run-down on the other parties you might hear about during the night.   

Green party: Focused on the environment and all that jazz.   

United Kingdom Independence Party: Right-wing party that wants to see the UK withdraw from the European Union.   

Scottish National Party (SNP): Exactly what you’d think from their name, the SNP wants Scottish independence. But they’re not just a single issue party, they have a minority administration in the Scottish parliament and for many in Scotland a viable alternative to voting Labour. Their politics is centre-left.   

Plaid Cymru: Centre-left party that wants Welsh independence.   

British National Party (BNP): Very much the knuckle-dragging David Duke-esque morons of British politics. A far-right party that would seek to repatriate immigrants. Best either scorned or ignored.   

Monster Raving Loony Party: A sort of British version of the Libertarian party in that you’re not meant to take them seriously – it’s just all about the shits and giggles with these guys.   

Mebyon Kernow : Cornwall-based political party that wants greater autonomy for the Cornish.   

English Democrats: Political party that wants a devolved English parliament similar to the Scottish parliament.   

ERM, YOU’VE MADE NO MENTION OF NORTHERN IRELAND   

Yeah, you noticed. The main parties in Northern Ireland are different to those in Great Britain. Please, bear in mind that I’m no expert when it comes to Northern Irish politics, but it would be absolutely erroneous of me not to mention them – even though when following the BBC’s election night coverage, which seems to treat Northern Ireland’s elections as a side-show to the main event, you could be forgiven for forgetting that elections are also taking place there too:   

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP): Founded in the 70s by controversial Protestant firebrand Ian Paisley, this is currently the fourth largest party in the Commons. The DUP is, as their name suggests, a Unionist party, which means they’re strongly in favour of the political union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.   

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP): Seen as the more moderate of the two Unionist parties. The UUP have close ties with the Conservative party and indeed have an electoral alliance with them for this election.   

Sinn Féin: An Irish Nationalist party led by Gerry Adams. Historically it has close links with the IRA but recent years have seen it make electoral breakthroughs to become the largest Nationalist party.   

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP): Northern Ireland’s other Nationalist party. While the UUP have an alliance with the Conservatives, the SDLP have in the Commons an unspoken alliance with the British Labour party.   

WHAT’S THIS HUNG PARLIAMENT I KEEP HEARING ABOUT?   

We’ve sort of already gone over it in passing. Remember that you need 326 MPs to have a majority in Parliament. 326 or above and you’ll have more MPs than all the other parties combined. If no party reaches that magic number of 326*, we’ve got ourselves a hung parliament, something that hasn’t happened in the UK since 1974. In the event of a hung parliament there’s three likely outcomes. 1) The formation of a coalition government. So theoretically, the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems team up. 2) A minority government is formed. Some argue that this leads to an unstable government as it’s more difficult for the government to press on with the legislation it wants and it’s more vulnerable to a vote of no confidence. Others would argue that it forces the government to compromise with other parties on issues and this can only be a good thing. 3) Dissoloution of parliament. If the election results in no party able to realistically form a workable government the request could be made to the Monarch to dissolve the parliament, which isn’t as bad it sounds, it’s just a very fancy way of saying we’re going to do it all over again and have another election.   

Also, don’t get a hung parliament mixed up with the rump parliament. And you don’t want to get either of them mixed up with the Duke of Portland’s rumpy pumpy parliament of 1807-1809 or Gladstone’s well hung parliament of 1880-1885.    

The Well Hung Parliament

The Well Hung Parliament

Odds of a hung parliament: 4/6 

Odds of a well hung parliament: 350/1 

*Actually, an important point, while I keep bleating on about 326 because that is the mathematical number needed for a majority, in real terms the Conservatives could govern with a little under that and have almost a de facto majority as explained here.

IS THAT IT? 

Yep, although now I’ve got your attention perhaps I could finally explain the laws of cricket to you. Been meaning to do that for a while now. 

ERM, YOU’RE OKAY…THANKS. TO BE HONEST, I’M MORE CONFUSED THAN WHEN I STARTED READING. 

  Then my job here is done.

 

It’s easy, you just check the right box.

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With Eyjafjallajökull having temporarily brought flights between the UK and US to a complete stop, I assumed this must have created a backlog of undelivered airmail so great I would have little chance of receiving my postal vote for the general election. Even without the added complication of Eyjafjallajökull, in order to vote I needed both the Royal Mail and the United States Postal Service to be uncharacteristically efficient; something you tend think them incapable of when you keep taking delivery of Christmas cards well into Easter. So I was relieved this week to find an officious looking envelope, complete with Islington postmark, in my mail.

This’ll be easy, I think.

With a cup of coffee, I settle myself down by the kitchen table and open the envelope

Great. Just check the ballot, lick the envelope and send it back by return post.

Yeah, just need to find my pen and then put an X against…

…Hang on, who am I going to vote for?

Looking down at my ballot, a bookmark-esque slither of paper on which seven candidates’ names and addresses are carefully printed and set beside their party’s logo, I find myself wavering over what to do. This has never happened before. I’d always known precisely what I was going to do when I had my vote in front of me. But this time…I’ve dried up.

It’s not that I haven’t given thought to the matter. If anything, the opposite is true. I’d already been through the existential crisis of who I was casting my vote for, but this election there are two new factors coming into play that I’ve never had to deal with before when voting in a general election, and I’ve failed to anticipate how much they affect my thinking: 1) the fact that I am voting by post; 2) the fact that I am now an overseas voter.

That my postal vote is something of an issue has taken me by surprise.  Being in the US, the election already feels weird. I miss the sense of excitement that comes with a general election. That feeling of everyone sharing in a collective moment, one big soap opera that we’re all following. Something you discuss and complain about ad nauseum with colleagues and friends. Here it’s just a niche interest, something for the hard-core political junkies, and this has just made it all feel less real, not so tangible, a feeling heightened by having a postal vote and not having to go to my local polling station. I never before realised how important the more ritualistic elements of voting were to me.

I miss not walking to the polling station, talking to the volunteers working there, receiving my ballot and taking it to the slightly ramshackle booths or tables that have been set up for people to vote, putting an ‘X’ next to my chosen candidate, and then, best of all – that moment when you cast your vote, when you let go of that little slip of paper and let it fall into the ballot box. There’s something quasi-religious to the whole procedure: the booth is your confessional; dropping your ballot into the box your petition. 

Instead, I am sat with a coffee in my hand and internet access readily available. All those nagging, last second queries that you have in the voting booth, well here, I can take the time to think them through and recheck candidates’ policies and the sitting MP’s expense claims. There’s far too much time to ruminate. Maybe a blessing for some, not for me, I’m a terrible one for ruminating. Ask anyone. Heck, I could end up twittering the whole process (indeed, I did*).

And then we get to the greater responsibilities I feel obligated to consider as an overseas voter. What are the candidates’ positions on local issues, etc? This is something that I had never given much weight to in previous general elections. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate MPs who were attentive to the needs of their constituents and the problems that come up via MPs surgeries, but my thinking in general elections has – rightly or wrongly – always been dominated with voting in the government I wanted, or voting out a government I despised. Voting for the PM I wanted rather than the MP I needed. But now, with the guilt of  living 6,000 miles away from the constituency I am voting in, I want to get this right. I won’t be the one living with the negative consequences of an MP only using the constituency as a stepping stone for their own political career.

What should have been an easy case of just ticking a box is becoming a lot more complex.  

Personal disclosure:** my quandary is whether to go with Labour or the Lib Dems. My instinct and political leaning is always to go with Labour, but after 13 years in power, two wars and a financial crisis, it’s understandably hard to maintain enthusiasm. Equally, the Lib Dems have a more than good chance of taking Islington South and a strong showing by them could result in much-needed electoral reform – something I’d like to see. For once, and I can’t be the only Labour supporter feeling this in 2010, the Lib Dems are looking like a pretty attractive proposition.  

So there I still am, at the kitchen table, rereading articles and rechecking policies. Already an hour has gone past since I’d opened the envelope. The coffee now cold.

And my heart keeps saying Labour, but my head keeps reminding me about Ed Balls, Damian McBride and Derek Draper and what a shower of shits they’d been. I also know people who have had good experiences with Islington South’s incumbent MP, Emily Thornberry. Do I want to get rid of a good MP? No. But then what about  Bridget Fox, the Lib Dem candidate, would she proactive on local matters? I like her too. I think she’d be just as well-intentioned as Thornberry has been.

Still undecided, I take stock again, this time going through the full ballot. There’s all those odd parties you always find on your ballot, and who you’ve never before heard of. The English Democrats and Animals Count are the two this year. No Monster Raving Loony Party unfortunately (though there is the choice of the UKIP) and no Natural Law party. Whatever happened to those guys and their yoga-inspired lunacy?  Being not in the least bit bothered about a devolved English parliament, I dismiss the English Democrats from my thoughts. As for Animals Count…well, I like animals, I really do, but not enough to vote for a party that wants an NHS-style health care system in place for all animals – not a big priority for me, sorry. Besides, I’ve noticed on Bridget Fox’s blog that she’s very much a cat person so if I feel compassion for animals is a big plus (not a deciding factor by any means, but definitely makes me warm to a candidate) then she’s already got that covered. Attempts to find out whether Emily Thornberry is a cat/dog/horse/newt/ferret (delete as applicable) person prove inconclusive.

A google search of the Conservative candidate aptly brings up her entry in Debrett’s and not much more.

Getting ever more undecided the longer I research, I decide Ishould fill out a survey on www.whoshouldyouvotefor.com. Despite being in favour, for entirely selfish reasons, of a third runway at Heathrow, the survey tells me my views are most aligned with the Green party, followed by the Lib Dems and then Labour; everyone else, the site tells me, is anathema to me.

Hmm, I think about the career niche I could carve out for myself as the UK’s non-environmentally friendly Green politician. But any thought of voting for the Greens are eradicated when I learn that their candidate James Humphreys has written a number of psychological thrillers. Another thriller-writing MP to join the illustrious ranks of Jeffrey Archer, Edwina Currie, Douglas Hurd  and Iain Duncan-Smith?*** Must be the English literature graduate in me, but I’m not having that one on my conscience.

And so, despite all that rumination – all the policies and the personalities I’ve looked into and all the ridiculously mundane, unserious thoughts that always prey on me – it still comes down to that same choice: Labour or Lib Dem. The hours really have passed and I need to get a move on if I’m to make the afternoon post.

Labour or Lib Dem…Lib Dem or Labour… I think about it for a moment and then with great deliberation make an “X” next to my chosen name….

Posting my ballot

—————————————————————————————————————————————

*In fact, I twitter so much on the subject of Islington South that Bridget Fox, the Lib Dem candidate, retweets one of my tweets and starts following me. Her timing is just a few minutes off as she does this while I’m off walking to the post office with my vote in hand. I’m vain enough and shallow enough that if this had been before I voted there would have been no more deliberation between whether  to go with Labour or Lib Dems, it would have been Lib Dems all the way. I give her a lot of kudos for how she is using social media. Thornberry really isn’t on top of social media in comparison. With just under 500 votes seperating them from the last election the more savvy aproach Fox is taking to things such as twitter or blogging (the blog I found for Thornberry hasn’t  been updated since 2007) could make all the difference

**Erm, this is a blog – the whole bloody thing is a personal disclosure.

***What is with British politicians and the need to write thrillers? Seriously? There’s a fascinating thesis to be had from this.

Note: A friend of mine has written this piece, Fear and Loathing in South Islington, that’s well worth checking out if you want to know more about this marginal. Unlike this blog post, it’s neither navel-gazing nor waffly.