Why not Parliament? British-style campaigns are short and sweet, but they come with a price

November 03, 1996|By Nelson W. Polsby

With the United States just days away from ending another presidential election marathon, intelligent Americans are complaining about the wasted time, the distraction, the spent energy and the costs of it all.

Once again, we hear the perennial questions, the most famous of which is: "Why can't we do things with less fuss, the way they do it in England?"

Let us see if we can give better answers this time.

Q: In England, when they have a national election, the whole thing takes only three weeks. Why can't we do it the way they do it in England?

A: We can!

Q: How? What would it take?

A: Easy. First, abolish the presidency.

Q: What do you mean?

A: There is no British president. They haven't got one. That's why they have no presidential election.

Q: But who runs the country?

A: Bureaucrats, mostly. They are very powerful, much more so than in the United States. And the prime minister and Cabinet, called "the Government."

Q: Who are they?

A: Elected members of Parliament, plus one or two lords, who are picked out of the House of Lords by the prime minister.

Q: Who is ... ?

A: The elected head of the party having the most members in Parliament.

Q: OK, what about these elections?

A: Here are the rules. Political parties put up candidates in each parliamentary constituency -- 651 of them -- where they think they have a chance. The candidate who gets the most votes wins and goes to Parliament. Each party in Parliament has different rules for picking its leader. The leader of the party with the most members is asked by the queen to form a government, that is, pick a Cabinet.

The Cabinet makes policy, and together with the governmental departments, governs the country.

Q: Parliament sounds like Congress.

A: It is, a little. Except elections to Congress take place every two years and at a fixed time. Parliamentary elections have to occur within a five-year period, but may be held whenever the prime minister decides.

Q: Therefore?

A: Therefore, the parties in each constituency must be ready to conduct the election at any time. Therefore, there is no consolidated nomination process like the American presidential nomination process that drives everybody crazy.

Therefore, in most constituencies, there are party nominees ready to go. These candidates campaign in small ways all the time, whether there is an election pending or not: It's called "nursing the constituency."

Q: How do people get to be party nominees?

A: The two major parties do it slightly differently. In the Labor Party, candidates are elected at a meeting of constituency party members from short lists drawn up by a local committee of party leaders. The nomination must then be approved by national party leaders.

Conservatives choose their candidate from a national list on which membership is controlled by national party headquarters. Candidates can be from anywhere. Members of Parliament are usually not from the places they represent in Parliament.

Q: So how can they represent local interests?

A: Some members move into their constituencies and do their best to listen to the locals. Of course, they can't do much for them. It is party leaders in Parliament and bureaucrats who run the government.

Ordinary members of Parliament are there to vote to support their party leaders. If ordinary members of the governing party don't go along with party policy when they vote, they may bring a new election down on their heads, which they might lose. Members have very little in the way of staff or access to information.

And, after all, they were screened by national party headquarters in the first place.

Q: But the campaigns are short, right?

A: Right. About three weeks. Each national party gets free national network TV time roughly in proportion to its success at the polls last time. Local campaigns consist mostly of speechmaking at meetings. Constituencies are small in population, about one-tenth the size of congressional districts.

Expenditures for advertising are restricted. But with small constituencies, already-picked nominees and strong party voting since individual members can't do much anyway, there isn't much need for campaign money at the level of the individual constituency. It's illegal, anyway.

Q: They don't need it?

A: No, they don't. The national parties saturate the airwaves for about a month with their national party promises, manifestoes and leaders.

Q: OK. So we abolish the presidency and we elect only members of Congress. Now, how do I get to pick the leaders of Congress?

A: You don't.

Q: You mean ...

A: You go to the polls and make one "X." That "X" helps elect a member of Congress from your district -- if you are on the winning side.

The members have picked their leader. The leader runs the country. You don't get involved in a complicated leadership-nominating process. Money is saved. Time is saved. Energy is saved. It is not confusing.

Q: But wouldn't that mean less representation for ordinary citizens? Less access to government? More centralized decision-making? Less legitimacy for public policy?

A: If you don't want it, don't ask for it.

Nelson W. Polsby is director of the Institute of Governmental Study at the University of California at Berkeley. This commentary was prepared for BRIDGE NEWS.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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