Thursday, May 05, 2005

Election Night in Swinging London
I watched a bit of the British election returns from the BBC on C-SPAN tonight, and I was surprised how much Election Night over there really is like the old Monty Python "Election Night Special" sketch. The candidates really do stand up together on stage, colored party banners pinned to their lapels, while an election official reads the final results. Back at the studio, the commentators jump swiftly from race to race. And, of course, there's the swing.

In British elections, the swing is clearly the thing--in a multi-party system where winner-take-all is not the rule, the variance in percentage of the vote from one election to another is a key indicator of political support. Tonight, at least in the early returns I watched, Labour was winning lots of races, but the swing favored the Liberal Democrats. In other words, the Lib Dems gained votes from 2001, and those votes generally came at the expense of Labour--almost certainly punishment for the Blair government's support of the vastly unpopular Iraq war.

Another bit of British election lingo that baffled me at first was the phrase, "Such-and-such a party lost their deposit in such-and-such a constituency." It turns out that in British parliamentary elections, each candidate has to put up a 500-pound bond, which is returned to them if they gain five percent of the vote. So if you run for office and lose your deposit, it means you got your ass kicked.

We like to think that nobody does flashy better than we do in America, but when it comes to election-night graphics, we lose our deposit to the BBC. Peter Snow, apparently an election-night fixture over there, does his entire night's work superimposed on astoundingly colorful and interesting graphical depictions that are intended to help viewers visualize what's happening. One segment had him walking (electronically) out the front door of 10 Downing Street and using animatronic figures of Tony Blair, Conservative leader Michael Howard, and Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy to represent various electoral thresholds that would represent success or history for each party. Snow's "swingometer" is a part of British television lore (and has been since the Monty Python days, at least).

British journalists are much more confrontational than their American counterparts, but at the same time, British politicians seem to be more forthcoming. I saw some very pointed exchanges involving a reporter and a Conservative MP, and the same reporter with a party official (Labour or Lib Dem, I forget which) who accused the BBC of faulty exit-polling. On another segment, a Labour MP candidly told BBC anchor David Dimbleby that he expected to lose his race, and that as a thorn in Blair's side these past several years, he expected his loss would be one of the rare bright notes on an otherwise bad night for Labour. Imagine an American politician saying something similar before the votes were officially counted.

One of the first things I had to get used to was that over there, Labour is red and Conservative is blue, which turns America's red/blue dichotomy on its head. (The Liberal Democrats are gold; the Greens are, well, green.) And I also had to get used to the idea that there's a lot more drama to this election than we're capable of seeing from our side of the puddle. (More than I saw this morning when I blithely stated Blair would have five more years in office, that's for sure.) Stories on American websites tout the exit polls showing Blair elected to a third term, and we equate that with success. It is amazing--even Margaret Thatcher didn't do as well. But the fact is, Labour's margin in the Commons is going to be almost halved, the Liberal Democrats are exceeding their own expectations in terms of the swing, if not actually winning seats--and many people are predicting that the Labour Party will replace Blair with Gordon Brown, currently Chancellor of the Exchequer and Blair's onetime political mentor, within a few months.

Oh, and Conservatives hate taxes. Not everything is different over there.

Recommended Reading: Mariah Blake of Alternet on the vast Christian news and talk media empire. There are literally dozens of "faith-based" news and talk outlets piping right-wing ideology to millions of viewers and listeners every day. And out here on the left, we've got no idea--and no counterparts.

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