The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Americans should be jealous of British elections

Windowpanes in a telephone booth frame a view of the Victoria Tower, part of the Houses of Parliament in London. (Hollie Adams/Bloomberg)

STAFFORDSHIRE, England — Imagine a world in which voters aren’t bombarded with television ads and robocalls for months, but are fully politically literate. It sounds like a dream world, but it’s not: It’s Britain.

British campaigning is about as different from the American model as you can get. That’s because it’s not a Wild West, free-market system like in the States, but by a combination of law and culture it revolves around three P’s: Parliament, parties and presenters.

The parliamentary system of government gives full power to whatever group of people can combine to elect a prime minister and his or her cabinet. Unlike in the States, there is no directly elected executive for any governmental region above the city, so ambitious politicians cannot obtain power on their own by building a personal following. You must cooperate with others to get elected and rise upward.

This means the focus is on the party, not the politician. Party members, not voters, select who runs (here they say “stands”) for office. There are no primaries or caucuses; a couple of hundred dues-paying local activists decide. They also don’t have a completely free hand. In both major parties, the national “central office” influences their decisions by requiring central approval of anyone who carries the party label. That’s why Prime Minister Boris Johnson can credibly say that every Conservative candidate backs his Brexit withdrawal agreement. They had to in order to get central office approval.

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The election laws enforce this system through rigid spending regulations. Candidates can spend only 8,700 pounds (about $11,500) for their campaign, plus between 6 and 9 pence per registered voter depending on whether the seat is urban or rural. That gives each person between roughly 12,000 and 15,000 pounds per seat to persuade voters. Since seats have an average of around 70,000 voters apiece, there’s just not enough money to pay for significant political advertising. Candidates, then, are largely dependent upon their national parties for the spending to reach voters, and that spending inevitably builds the party’s brand, not the individual’s.

Strict limits bring some advantages. Members don’t have to spend their time raising money like American members of Congress (who typically must spend millions for competitive districts), so they have time to get to know their constituents’ needs. It also pushes them to focus on something that has largely vanished from American politics: party-organized canvassing. The local parties still exist, and they can draw on large numbers of people who will walk door to door, drop off fliers and talk with people in their homes. There’s a people-focused politics here that helps keep members rooted and campaigns civil.

Party spending is also limited. Each party can spend a maximum of 30,000 pounds per seat in which they have a candidate standing. That creates an effective maximum spending limit of 19 million pounds per party. Democrats are on track to spend nearly as much to win the Iowa caucuses than the Labour Party will spend on the whole campaign.

There are also extensive regulations on how parties can spend their money. Political ads on television and radio are illegal. Yes, you read that right: no nasty negative ads; no ominous music; no distorted pictures interrupting your Sunday afternoon soccer. Instead, each party gets two or three regularly scheduled “party broadcasts,” depending upon its prior level of support, where it gets up to five minutes of free airtime to make its case. But that’s not enough in the modern age to make a serious dent in public opinion.

Instead, parties increasingly spend on digital and social media advertising. These ads can include long videos: Both Labour and the Tories have produced humorous parodies of a famous scene from the film “Love Actually,” while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s video has him reading mean tweets about himself imitating Jimmy Kimmel. The longer length gives British campaigns more time to make an argument rather than just make charges.

All these factors combine to make the media much more important than in the United States. The television personalities — called news readers or presenters here — can shape how a party is perceived. Regulations do try to limit overt bias, but it still creeps in through the selection of issues to discuss and people to fill panels. Channel 4, for example, placed an ice sculpture on stage to fill Johnson’s chair when he turned down a chance to debate climate change policy, drawing vociferous Tory protests.

The British media, however, are much more substantive and detailed in how they cover the races. Candidates are not treated deferentially in interviews as presenters relentlessly try to get real answers to their questions. Corbyn’s disastrous interview with Andrew Neil dominated the news here for two days after he refused to apologize for allegations his party is anti-Semitic. BBC One offers long programs focusing on specific voter groups and marginal seats, something American media never do.

The result is a well-informed populace, vigorous political debate, and a free and fair election. Our political system and the First Amendment probably preclude something similar from being implemented in the United States. But that doesn’t mean we can’t look with a bit of envy across the Atlantic.

Read more:

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Meera Selva, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Richard Fletcher: The real loser in Britain’s divisive elections? The media.

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