There are many obvious differences between the national/general elections held in both America and Britain but there are also some major similarities.
1) A British Prime Minister can call an election at any time in his 5-year term. In theory, he can use good economic news, for example, to boost his party’s representation in Parliament by calling a snap general election hoping that voters will be swept along by such good news. It is said that Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister in the 1960’s-1970’s used this feel good factor after England won the World Cup in 1966.
The US President has no such flexibility. The date of each US national election is set in stone and the President goes into it on the back of whatever news is around at the time – be it good or bad. He cannot call an election – as it has to take place in the first week on November. The next US national election is on the first Tuesday in November 2008 and there is nothing the Republicans or G W Bush can do about this.
2) The US has an election every 4 years – the UK every 5 years maximum.
3) The UK’s Prime Minister can serve any number of years. The US President is limited via the Constitution to two four-year terms – a maximum of 8 years. Though the Constitution can be amended, there has been no evidence in recent years that there will be any such change to this part of the Constitution.
4) Even if the two countries populations are made into a comparable proportion, the amount of money spent during an American national election dwarfs the money spent during a UK general election. For the UK 2001 general election, political pundits spoke in terms of tens of millions being spent in total by all parties. In the 2004 American election, pundits spoke in terms of hundreds of million of dollars being spent – possibly even a billion dollars.
5) One of the main reasons for the above is the difference in duration of the two campaigns. In the UK, Tony Blair announced the 2005 general election for May 5th on April 5th – leaving just one month for campaigning. In America, the election campaign starts in January in the year of the election with primaries and caucuses, leaving 10 months until the actual election.
6) In America, the national election is between two candidates – a Republican one and a Democrat one. (Other candidates do stand but they have no chance of being elected) Voters vote for a candidate. In the UK there is a totally different approach. There is a vote for all 646 constituencies (2005 figure) and voters will probably vote for a party rather than for a candidate.
7) In America, the opportunity for a protest vote barely exists – unless you deliberately abstain. The Reform Party and Green Party do exist but the Electoral College system means that they have no chance of getting any form of power. In the UK, there are plenty of opportunities to have a protest vote against the standing party/Prime Minister. The election of Michael Bell as an Independent anti-corruption MP in 1997 showed this. In 2001 an Independent candidate won Wyre Forest as the Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern MP – his manifesto was based solely on keeping open the local hospital whatever the cost. He received the support of the local populace and became that constituency’s MP. The system in America does not allow for this at presidential level – though it does happen at Congressional level, especially in the mid-term elections.
8) Turnout at both national/general elections is poor. In both 2001 (UK) and 2004 (US), 1/3rd of those who could have voted did not. The announcement of an election in the UK in April 05 was described in one British broadsheet as “the lull before the lull.”
9) The UK’s electoral system is based on the first-past-the-post system. All the winning party needs is a majority of MP’s elected to Westminster to win a general election. For 2005, all the winning party will need is 324 MP’s to have an overall majority in Parliament. In America, some say that there are 50 elections as opposed to just one. Whoever wins a state, gets all of that state’s Electoral College votes and the loser gets none. Once a presidential candidate gets a majority of Electoral College votes, he is declared the winner even if some states have yet to declare. In 2000, Bush won with fewer public votes but with a majority of Electoral College votes. The same oddity has happened in the UK. In 1951, the Conservatives won the general election with 11.62 million votes (including National Liberal and Conservative MP’s) while the Labour Party got 11.63 million votes. However, the Conservatives won 259 seats in Westminster to Labour’s 233.
10) In the UK an election manifesto is traditionally considered to be binding. It is not uncommon during Commons Question Time for Opposition MP’s to state: “In your manifesto you said………why hasn’t this happened?” In America, an election platform (the equivalent of a manifesto) is not considered to be binding. It is what would be done given the perfect opportunity to do so.