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American and British politicians

November 8th, 2006 · Posted by Skuds in Politics · 4 Comments · Politics

With all the focus on US elections at the moment I was having a look at the political structures of the US on Wikipedia earlier and although I don’t understand their set-up over there any more than I did I now know a lot more about it, if that makes any sense, and it made me think a bit about our own political set-up.

The most striking thing about the federal government is the number of politicians involved: 100 seats in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives. Thats a total of 535 for a population of about 300 million. It sort of makes me wonder why we need 646 MPs and about 753 Lords (a total of 1399) for a population of 60 million. The US have one federal politician per 561,000 citizens approximately, while we have one per 43,000 of population.

OK, I know its not as simple as that because a lot of the powers our Parliament has are devolved to state government in the US, but add up all the members of US state governments and combine that with the federal government and you get 7926 politicians, or 1 for approximately every 37,850 citizens. Add up our MPs, Lords, MEPs, MSPs and members of Welsh and NI regional assemblies and there is one politician for every 17,000 of us. And that is not including the London Assembly, although it probably should.

What a scary thought.

I have thought for a while that our own Parliament has too many members to enable proper debate and decision-making. The US numbers seem a bit more sensible. I think I would like to see an equivalent of the Commons with closer to 100 members, perhaps elected proportionately, with the second chamber being elected by constituency. The 100 members of the government might even be able to do a better job if they could just get on with governing and leave all the constituency matters to the second chamber.

The other element of the US political scene I really like is the idea of fixed terms. I am reasonably interested in politics but I get bored by the tedious business which starts three years into a parliament (sometimes even sooner) of speculation as to when the next election will be. How much better to fix it at four years, and hold the elections for the second chamber at the mid-point. All that time spent by the government on guessing when would be the most advantageous time to hold an election, and all that time spent by the opposition trying to second-guess the government could be spent actually running the country instead.

Looking a bit deeper into the US state governments is interesting though. The size of a state’s population seems to have no relation to the size of its legislature. The most populous state, California, which has a higher population than the UK, has 120 elected members while Wyoming with a population just over half a million has 90 elected members.

When I saw the size of the New Hampshire state government I thought there was a typo! Despite having a population of only about 1.3 million – thats way fewer people than London: about a fifth of London’s population – it has 400 members in its House of Representatives and 24 members in its Senate. I work that out to be that one in every 3000 residents in New Hampshire is in the state government!

I had to drag myself away from it all before I got totally lost in numbers, which is so easy to do, but not before I learned that out of all the states, one of them (Nebraska) not only has a unicameral legislature, but all of its 49 members are supposedly non-partisan.

One slightly-connected fact I could not lay my hands on is the total number of local politicians in the UK[*]. I don’t think I could even make a sensible guess at that number. In this year’s elections there were about 4000 seats contested, but some councils only voted a third or a half, and some which have all-out elections did not have an election. Add up all the borough, district, unitary, london borough and county council seats – lets ignore the fact that some people sit on two councils – and what would the total be? 10,000? 12,000? I hope my maths is wrong, because if you add in all the MPs, MEPs, MSPs, etc. we have a politician for every 2000 of the population.

Take account of town councils, parish councils, and assume that every seat is contested by at least two people, and maybe an average of 3 and you have to wonder if it is possible to throw a stone anywhere in the country and hit someone who has not stood for office somewhere.

[*] Although I am sure someone out there knows the answer.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Andrew Brown

    Good work.

    I wonder if anyone’s done any work on the optimum number of politicians to voters to balance the strategic effectiveness of the politician and the need to be ‘known’.

    I saw something by Stephen Coleman a while back which suggested that people felt just as connected to their local councillor as their MP, so maybe it isn’t an easy call.

  • Skuds

    I think many people do not feel connected to either.

    There does not seem to be any concensus about how many voters a politician should represent. Different countries have different numbers. Over here the Electoral Commission try to set boundaries so it is more or less the same number everywhere, but in the US there is a huge range, as well as significant differences in the ratio of the two houses in government.

    On the other hand, many US citizens have a lot more involvement and contact with their town councils and more input by voting for lots of individual posts.

    It would be interesting to imagine what structures would work best if you could start absolutely from scratch. Mind you, when Socrates did that in Plato’s Republic he came up with the answer of having ‘philosopher kings’ as the model didn’t he?

  • E Bungle

    But there are many levels of US politition under state level, they have a great deal more levels than we have. including town councils, independently elected mayor and votes for school commishiner, sheriff and just bout every other official. (not saying if that is good or bad, just that it increases the level of politicians n the system.)

    what do you think of the 2 term rule?

    (as a side note, I found out yesterday that New Hampshire does not charge Income or Sales tax – it’s the only state that doesn’t)

  • Skuds

    Isn’t that what I said, or implied? I know that the Americans get to vote for head of waste disposal and just about every other public post.

    I quite like the two-term rule. Not as much as I like fixed terms though.