Brits show us how elections should be done

Posted at 12:09 PM, May 08, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-08 12:09:40-04

If you can’t beat a dead horse, who can you beat?

My preferred dead horse is the indefensible length of political campaigns in America. Nothing adds more toxicity to the political environment than two-year campaigns.

Now, once again, the Brits have shown us that six weeks is plenty of time to have an efficient, articulate, engaging and responsive election. No normal voter can generate interest in campaigns that drag on for two years. It saps the spirit.

This week’s vote in the U.K. was a dazzler. The morning–after headline: “UK Conservatives win in shock election.” The election had all the elements of political high drama: surprise, triumph, downfall and consequences.

The surprise was total because all the polling was wrong, even the exit polling. The poll-obsessed American politerati had better watch out. The polling in the Israeli election won by Benjamin Netanyahu a few weeks ago was off as well, but not this far off.

The magic number in the U.K. is 326 – the minimum majority in the House of Commons necessary for a party or coalition to gain control and put forth a prime minister.  The incumbent, Conservative David Cameron, depended on the support of the centrist Liberal Democrats and their 47 seats for his majority.

The final BBC News aggregation of all the reputable polls gave the Conservative party 34 percent, Labour 33 percent, the right-wing UKIP party 14 percent and the Lib Dems 8 percent. The actual popular vote is not distributed proportionally into seats in Parliament and the poll numbers translated into about 270-280 seats for the Tories, giving them no clear path to a majority coalition. The great expectation was that the election would be followed by nail-biting negotiations and tricky coalitions.

Then came the exit polls predicting the Conservatives would grab 316 seats, just ten shy of the magic number.  Getting to 326 would be hard even if the Lib Dems or some MPs from Northern Ireland would play ball. The first hours of coverage after the polls closed were devoted to arguing about whether the exit polls and pre-election polls were off.

Well, all the polls were off.

The Tories pulled off a stunner, getting an outright majority of 330 seats: No help needed, do not apply.  They grabbed 36.9 percent of popular vote to Labour’s 30.5 percent, not especially close.

The triumph was David Cameron’s and it was epic. In his first term he barely muddled through a severe recession and extraordinary unemployment, a batch of scandals involving Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and the rise of UKIP as a strong and strident opposition on the far-right flank. The polls and the handicappers put his chances of survival at 50-50.

The downfalls are many. Cameron’s coalition partner, Nick Clegg, presided over the loss of 48 out their 56 seats in the Commons.The obits are being written not just for Clegg but also for his party. Are the Lib Dems now center-right, center-left, center-mush or irrelevant? Clegg already has resigned his leadership.

The surging UKIP is surging no more and it’s adult-delinquent leader, Nigel Farrage, also has resigned.

The final casualty is Ed Miliband, the Labour leader. Scotland has long been the Labour stronghold but the party was essentially exterminated there this week by the SNP, the Scottish National Party. The SNP now controls 58 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the Commons.  That is a crippling blow to Labour and Ed Miliband immediately resigned his party leadership.

The SNP wants to break off from the United Kingdom and have an independent Scotland. A referendum in Scotland to do just that last year failed, but now the issue is right back on the table. And that is likely to be the most consequential aspect of the U.K.’s 2015 vote. “Is this the end of the union?” James Cook at the BBC asked.

There were great similarities in the political arcs of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and again with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. So it makes sense to read the tea leafs for clues about our fate.  I’m not at all sure there are any. But it is interesting to note that U.K. voters (outside of Scotland) had far less appetite for change than the polls and the political press thought.

Might that play out here in America? Well, we at least know we can’t rely on the polls to tell us. We don’t need a two-year campaign to figure it out either, but that’s what we’re stuck with.  If we could only have a referendum on that …

[Also by Dick Meyer: World happiness report redefines success]

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