Saturday, May 8, 2010

Brown? Cameron? Clegg?

My good buddy from college, Eric Ruthford, reminded me the other day of the good old days at Pacific Lutheran University when we sat around the Mooring Mast (student newspaper) office and discussed things like international politics and the virtues of different systems of representation. Yes, we were history and politics geeks. No, I am not at all repentant. And yes, the smell of melting wax for pasting up pages -- we were old school -- will always make me feel nostalgic.

Anyway... owing in part to the fact that PLU had a fabulous Welsh political science professor, British politics were a particular interest of mine. This makes the results of the UK's recent parliamentary election all the more interesting. The election has resulted in a "hung Parliament," when neither of the two big kahuna political parties, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, has won a majority. This result has placed a minority party, the Liberal Democratic Party, into a position where it could swing the rule of government to either party.

Such an outcome is especially important in a country like Britain, where control of Parliament means remarkably complete control over the nation's agenda. While the country does have an independent judiciary, there is no constitutional check-and-balance between an executive branch and the legislature. While theoretically speaking the Queen is in control of the executive, over the legislature, the likelihood of her actually vetoing Parliament's political program is about as likely as the bottom team in the Zamaretto Division One South & West making it into the Champions League (a little 'football' humor there to be regionally appropriate). This power that Parliament wields is one reason why we in the United States have a political system involving so many checks and balances.

One of the byproducts of this hung Parliament is that longtime calls for electoral reform are becoming more prominent. Minority parties, most notably the Liberal Democrats, want to see Britain alter its traditional "first past the post" system of representation to incorporate proportional representation. At present, each (not very large) constituency votes by selecting its MP (Member of Parliament) of preference. If you like Labour, you check the box of the Labour Party candidate. Votes are then tallied, and the winner from each constituency wins that seat. Those winners make up Parliament.

This system irritates parties like the Liberal Democrats, because it means that even if, say, 40 percent of each constituency votes for their candidates, they still might win very little in the way of representation. Forty percent of the country could vote Liberal Democrat, but if Liberal Democratic candidates were second choice in each constituency, none of them would actually be elected. Forty percent of the nation's opinion, then, would be disregarded.

The problem? Alternative solutions can get remarkably complicated. The BBC has put together a very concise series of explanations of the different systems possible, many of which are already in use in different regional governments or elsewhere in the Commonwealth. I won't attempt to explain here what will inevitably be done much better there.

The political system of the United States is an interesting hybrid of "first past the post" and more proportional forms of representation. In the House of Representatives, we follow a system fairly akin to that of Britain. For Senate seats, our voting is proportional on a state-by-state basis, although it still does not wind up truly proportional on a national level. And our votes for President? Proportional by elector--a very important distinction. We vote for electors, and in most cases these are all-or-nothing by state. As a result, the popular vote can differ substantially from the electoral vote. The resulting framework, however, does give us a series of checks and balances that differs from the British system.

It will be interesting to observe the system Britain's political leaders devise for turning this "hung Parliament" into a workable system. One possible result, of course, is a completely unworkable outcome that necessitates a new election. (One more fun fact: British elections happen when British politicians think they should, not on a systematic schedule as in the United States.) Here in the United States, we are much more used to a system where politicians from different parties need to come to some sort of agreement to move legislation forward. Our recent, polarized political climate could be considered an aberration from the past (more on that later, perhaps). The UK might find itself needing to move toward a system where single parties no longer hold sway over the legislative agenda of the country. The results of this could be mixed. Would a system of compromise make individual parties less likely to take ownership of a legislative agenda? Could it become easier to displace credit for actions and decisions? Or will the need to compromise lead to greater cooperation? Important questions to consider.

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