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Paint It Black

November 16th, 2008 · Posted by Skuds in Politics · No Comments · Politics

I figure that enough time has passed since the US elections to be able to reflect on it a little more objectively, rather than in the over-cooked excitement of the immediate aftermath – and perhaps that is something Trevor Phillips should have done.

Actually I kind of agree with what Trevor Phillips said.  In fact I said something similar shortly before the US election when I still expected Republican dirty tricks to derail the Obama campaign at the last minute: our entire system of government and the way political parties operate does make it unlikely that we would get a black prime minister -not that that our systems were set up with that intention: it is just the way it works.

There are many differences between our system and the US system. Our system is better in some ways, and theirs is better in other ways.  One big difference is that we, the public, do not choose our PM: we just choose a party and whoever is in charge of that party becomes PM.  In order to become PM you have to first be an MP, an idea that may be getting out-of-date.  Given the under-representation of ethnic minorities and some other groups in parliament it is no surprise that there is little chance of us getting a black prime minister,

Anyway, I was thinking about the differences between the two countries’ systems of government and elections, and had a few thoughts about them.  In many cases I found the US model to be a lot more appealing.

The biggest difference is so obvious that it is easy to overlook: they are voting for the head of state and we do not.  It makes our own elections that much less significant.  Unfortunately I can’t see that changing any time soon and we will be stuck with an unelected head of state, we still haven’t got to the point where we elect a second chamber so electing a head of state, let alone an executive head of state is a long way off.

Another difference is the electoral college system.  It is similar to our own constituency-based first past the post system in some ways, different in others, but one major unfairness of first pst the post is removed.  In our case a party could win 51% in every seat, another party could win 49% and the result would be totally disproportionate 100% of seats, leading to years of complaining about the unfairness of it all.  In America you could get the same thing, but it wouldn’t matter: those electoral college votes are only used for one thing – they do not hang around as a disproportionate number of MPs until the next election.

The next time anybody starts going on about how the number of states won my Obama was a greater proportion than the popular vote would suggest you can stop listening: they are worrying about nothing. And if they carp on about Obama getting a landslide victory on only just over 50% of the vote they are talking out of their backsides.  Over here such a victory would give a landslide, with a massive majority in parliament, but over there the elctions to the Senate are totally separate.  Winning by one electoral college vote or by 200 does not give the president any more power.

And that is another big difference between the countries: their (sort of) equivalent of parliament is voted for independently of the president.  The electorate there are free to choose whoever they want as senators without it impacting on the top job.  It is hard for those of us who are welded to one party to imagine wanting to do that, but there could have been people here in 1997 who wanted Tony Blair as PM but had a local Tory, Lib Dem, Green or Independent MP candidate they fancied but dared not vote for.  The Americans have the ability to select a president overwhelmingly but then vote in some checks and balances in the Senate.

Voting itself is the most visible difference between the countries. When did you last see queues at polling stations here?  There are a couple of main reasons for this: we tend to be only voting for one thing at a time while they could be casting dozens of votes, and we have more polling stations.  We have fewer votes to cast because we have far fewer elected positions, in fact most of our public jobs are not directly elected: not even the top job if you think about it. We are used to that, and it would be a shock to the system if we had to vote for so many jobs – but it does mean that we are inherently less democratic despite all the hyperbole about being mother of parliaments and so on.

The Americans seem to be a lot less stuffy about elections than we are, allowing for states to have early voting and so on – not that enough voters take advantage, judging by the queues.  They also allow candidates to declare, like in a cricket match.  The outcome of that is that you get a winner in a US presidential election in not much more time than it takes to count the votes in our borough council elections.

I don’t think that if you were to design the ideal system from scratch in a Plato’s Republic-style exercise you would end up with one that was exactly like ours of the US system, but I reckon you would end up with more bits from theirs than from ours.

Election day itself, and the immediate aftermath was interesting.  In his concession speech John McCain did himself proud.  You felt that he would not have made a bad president – except for his disastrous choice of running mate.  I’m sure that her bizarre opinions and extreme stances put a lot of floating voters off.  Obviously I am glad Obama won, and despite protocol dictating that our PM can’t state a preference I’m sure Gordon Brown is pleased too.  Remember that a lot of Labour MPs went over to the US to help the democrats even if Gordon hiself couldn’t say anything.

Coming back to Trevor Phillips’ statement though…  I think we all recognise that it is not a person’s skin colour that should matter but what they think and what they stand for.  It is impressive in a way that America has elected a black president but I will be really impressed the day they elect an atheist president.  In that respect I think we are ahead of America – we are likely to get an atheist PM long before the US even gets an atheist candidate for either main party.

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