Watching the election returns from the United Kingdom -- first on the live feed from the BBC on C-SPAN, then the streaming video on line at bbc.com -- I am struck by a few salient differences between how the British and Americans do things:
For instance, I like the way the candidates come together at the place where ballots are being counted, with an election official reading out the results, announcing the winner of the constituency, and then each candidate (successful or not) speaks to the public gathered there. The symbolism is ripe: Where American politicians celebrate (or commiserate) at separate election night parties, the British come together, demonstrating how they are all in this together, that the system is not diffuse, that differences on issues or partisan identities do not mean that politics is atomized. Unity in diversity is shown, not adversarial division.
Another example: The British press, at least the broadcast journalists, is far less deferential toward politicians than the American press is. One example was a post-election interview by Jeremy Paxman of the BBC with George Galloway, a former Labour MP who stood as an independent (under his own "Respect Unity" party label) in Bethnal Green & Bow (a London East End constituency), defeating Labour MP Oona King, one of the few "women of colour" in Parliament.
Paxman began his interview by asking whether Galloway was proud of himself for unseating a black woman. Galloway, naturally, was put off by the question, and tried to say that the color of a candidate's skin does not matter so much as the quality of the candidate's ideas.
Paxman pursued the matter, however, pointing out that Bethnal Green is one of the most ethnically divided constituencies (45,000 Muslim voters, the highest number in the country) and that Galloway had used ethnic tensions to his advantage in the campaign. Galloway walked off without completing the interview. (Brian Holmes has a concise report on Galloway's race-baiting victory.) A Labour spokesman on set with Paxman referred to Galloway as a "carpetbagger" -- an unusually apt term for a candidate who comes down from the North (in this case, Scotland) to displace a black candidate in the South (in this case, London) and using racial animosity to undergird his campaign.
No American TV interview would have been that bold. Jon Stewart tried to make a similar point earlier this week on The Daily Show, when he contrasted televised "town meetings" featuring Tony Blair -- in which voters were able to ask pointed, if not hostile, questions -- and those in the United States featuring President Bush, in which only pre-screened supporters of the Bush adminstration are permitted to participate.
No election system is perfect. As an election official, I probably would not want to deal with so many paper ballots as the British do. But the lower threshold for qualification to be on the ballot is commendable: The United States could use an Official Monster Raving Loony Party. (A full list of the parties contesting the election in at least one constituency can be found through here.) The BBC explains the process:
Candidates must be aged 21 or above and be British, Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland citizen. Those banned for standing in general elections are: bankrupts; civil servants; police officers; armed forces personnel; government-nominated directors of commercial companies; judges; members of parliament in non-Commonwealth nations; those convicted of electoral malpractice; members of the House of Lords.Voting rules are rather lax by American standards, too. I remember living in Islington South & Finsbury during the 1987 election and feeling disappointed that my Canadian, Australian, Kiwi, and even Irish friends were eligible to vote, but I was not. Americans lost out on reciprocity by declaring independence too early, it seems.
To be a candidate, you need to have a nomination form signed by 10 voters from that constituency. The papers must be returned by 19 April, along with a £500 deposit. Candidates do not need to be a member of a political party. The main parties have their own selection methods, usually involving central lists of candidates and votes of local members.