How British and American electoral systems differ

One of the strange things about the British parliamentary system—at least to this American, raised as I was on the fixed-term congressional system—is that the prime minister can call an election whenever the mood takes her, as Theresa May recently did. She and her husband were out walking in the wilds of I forget where and—never mind that she promised that she wouldn’t do this—she decided to call a snap election. Quick, while her party was well ahead in the polls.

This election was so snap that none of the parties—including hers—had a manifesto ready, which voters here think of as a necessity.

Now manifestos are new to me. Sort of. The only one I ever heard of before I moved here was the Communist Manifesto, so I just assumed the word had a heavily leftwing slant. But no, they’re mainstream as hell here. Every party—right, left, and center—puts one together to let voters know what they’ll do if they’re elected. This actually matters because the leader of the party that has a majority in Parliament gets to be prime minister and therefore, at least in theory, has the power to deliver on the party’s promises.

If, of course, any one party has a majority, which is by no means guaranteed.

Is this couple (not quite) holding hands and walking into the sea to avoid election news? Nah. They have a dog with them. They wouldn’t do that. It’s just a quiet day at the beach in Cornwall, with people wearing street clothes and jackets. The photo is, as usual, completely irrelevant.

In 2010, the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto promised free university tuition, which they argued would be fairer to students. Then after the elections, they went into coalition with the Conservatives and ended up not only dumping the promise but tripling tuition—which they now argue was fairer to students. They’re still trying to live that one down.

Neither the Lib Dem or the Conservative manifesto from that election said they’d reorganize the NHS—in fact, the Conservatives promised no more top-down reorganizations. Then they reorganized the NHS.



So you can see, these manifestos carry a lot of weight.

Still, people read them and consider them some sort of guide to what a party intends.

Under the American electoral system, no one knows what the parties stand for, and no one really expects to. The idea that either of the two major parties would be united behind a set of views or proposals is pretty much foreign to us. I think it was Will Rogers who said, “I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

We do know what the candidates say. And we know it’s likely to be forgotten as soon as they’re in office. (“I’ll build a wall. And it will be a beautiful wall. And Mexico will pay for it.”)

But getting elected in the U.S. doesn’t guarantee the power to do anything, so they have a perfect excuse.

All of this may be why American elections are so focused on personality. Or it may not. I’m guessing.

But let’s go back to the British campaign:

Once the election was announced, the pollsters scrambled and consulted the chicken entrails and reported that the Conservatives were on track to win a huge victory. The parties scrambled and eventually, after a leak or two, got their manifestos out. The Conservatives got a faceful of opposition to one of their proposals and announced that they didn’t really mean that one. The pollsters checked the entrails of a different chicken and reported that Labour, which went into the campaign so divided that it looked like a Civil War re-enactment club, was closing the gap.

More chickens were sacrificed. The results all contradicted each other and still do, but the Conservatives’ comfortable lead no longer looks comfortable.

Here in the Southwest, the chickens all moved north and east, and very wise they were, too. As a result, the June 1 Western Morning News, making a heroic effort to report on the local campaigns, was reduced to quoting the betting odds, which had the Lib Dems are favored  to retake two seats they lost to the Conservatives in the last election by 7 to 2 in one district and 4 to 1 in another.

It’s been an interesting campaign. We vote on June 8, after which the chickens can all come home to roost.

74 thoughts on “How British and American electoral systems differ

  1. Small typo, June 8th not May. Possibly you want to explain to Americans that we also operate a system where the party with the least votes generally form the Government, although we don’t understand that one so good luck with it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for that. One of the clearest comparisons of the 2 systems I’ve read, and, in my view, extremely accurate.I quite like the fact that we are somewhat removed from the hype, living in Cornwall.😎

    P.S. Do people not go to the beach in ‘street clothes and jackets’ in the US? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. That’s a relief to hear it’s accurate. I do check, but I hold my breath anyway.

      The beach in street clothes: In my experience, not really, but then I didn’t grow up around beaches–they were places we went to in the summer, when it was hot enough to melt street clothes, and anyone wearing anything but a bathing suit or trunks would have gotten many a stare. Not hostiles stares, just what’s-wrong-with-that-person? stares. I expect people who live by beaches year round do go there in street clothes but it’s outside my experience of American beaches.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know what you mean. I haven’t always lived by the coast and I remember holidays when we would see people massively over dressed for the beach. Now I go to the beach almost daily for one reason or another (or none), so I don’t consider ‘dressing’ for it.
        I enjoy your observations. It reminds me of my grans best friend, who married a G.I and lived around Connecticut for 50 or so years before returning to the UK. She was always pointing out the different terminology, shopping ‘carts’, ‘drapes’ etc.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve acclimatized just enough that every so often I hear myself and think, Boy, did that sound American. Not the accent–that always does–but the word choice. The differences are endless and I’m grateful that people manage to understand me.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Out here on the Oregon (and Washington) coast, it’s generally far too cold, especially in summer when the wind shifts to coming out of the north, to be out there in bathing suits. I think there may have been a handful of days when strolling the beach in a t-shirt was comfortable, offset by the days when the cold wind and blowing sand were severe enough to send me scampering back to the car while being bundled up in a hoodie, with a wool hat with earflaps and a down jacket. Summer tourists are generally quite disappointed.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for my Monday morning chuckle Ellen. Public holiday here today so not skiving at work as I usually am. When I was a wee girl in Scotland we went to the beach wearing woolly hats, big jumpers (pullovers) and welly boots. And that was in August!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is certainly one of the oddest election campaigns for a long time. Manifestos can always be taken with a pinch of salt and, as you rightly point out, disregarded completely in the event of a coalition. Goodness only knows what the result of this Thursday will be, it really could go any way at all. What excitement.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. First off, since I feel it’s my duty to point out the inherent relevance of your photos: The couple in the photo could be discussing the manifesto(s). It’s probably why the dog is wandering off.

    If we had this system over here, we probably would have had three elections since January with the result being the unexpected ability to find even dumber people to occupy Congress.

    As for the chickens, I like mine extra crispy.

    Speaking of chickens, are you guys responsible for Cornish Hens? If you’re thinking that I should have searched to see if you’ve written about it before, I did, but the miracle machine that is WordPress or Firefox, decide to show me occurrences of ‘hen’ including words like ‘kitchen’ and ‘when’ – ironically, the first post it highlighted was one in which you were responding to a question i asked about an irrelevant photo (Alexanders). I think that proves that the Internet is nothing more than a snake eating its own tail.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it proves the internet is circular. The further you walk, the more you come back to where you started. And no, I haven’t heard the faintest whisper of Cornish hens since I moved here.

      I’d completely forgotten about mentioning chickens when I wrote about Alexanders, although I do remember writing about a search that brought some lost soul here which went something like, “Until you’ve chased chickens, you don’t understand village life.”

      And you’re surely right about the photo.

      Liked by 1 person

        • No idea. Maybe they left here with one of the waves of out-migration–Cornish miners are everywhere–and there aren’t any left.

          The number of searches that WordPress reports is, sadly, decreasing, taking away one of my favorite amusements.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. What is interesting about American elections is that if you are for instance a Republican and not so happy with the presidential candidate for instance, you could vote democrat in the presidential election but still hold your head up as a Republican by voting Republican in the senatorial and congressional elections. In the U.K. If you are a conservative and are not happy with Theresa May, you have no choice but to vote conservative as there is no separate contest for MPs and the national leadership. The party with the most MPs will take office. The House of Lords remains an unelected house which only goes to show how much more democratic is the USA compared to the UK.
    Your picture brings to mind the time Neil Kinnock took an election walk by the sea- and fell in! I did enjoy that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never heard the story about Neil Kinnock. God, that must’ve been embarrassing.

      In the last election, when the Lib Dems had been in coalition with the Conservatives, our local MP, a Lib Dem, was trying to divorce himself from his party, which enough voters were furious with that he lost his seat, by arguing that you couldn’t vote for prime minister, all you could vote for was your MP, and he was a better MP than his primary opponent, a Conservative. He was right–the Conservative got in and I’m damned if I know what if anything he’s done but the constituents I know who’ve asked to meet with him have all been given the runaround–but the argument still had a hollow ring to it. People weren’t just voting for an MP, they were voting for a party, and after the coalition, the regular Lib Dem voters I knew didn’t feel they knew what the hell the party stood for anymore.


  7. Between politics here in the US and the General Election back home in the UK, my brain is utterly frazzled trying to keep on top of things. My husband and I are very politically engaged and are news hounds so right now it feels like we may need some sort of 12 step programme eventually so we can reclaim our lives. I am glad the General Election will at least be over soon (not the repercussions, of course) because trying to stay on top of developments on both shores of the Atlantic is mentally exhausting.

    Thanks for mentioning the whole “manifesto” thing. I had used it in several conversations during 2016 before I figured out that Americans don’t just not use that word but don’t have that concept of a party setting out its stall for the electorate. I am not sure what merit manifestos have since promises of fulfillment of manifesto pledges have been so frequently broken that I doubt anyone places much stock in any of the commitments outlined in them but I rather like the way the word “manifesto” sounds so I hope they stick around for a bit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like the idea of manifestos as well–it lends at least the illusion of coherence to the various parties and to the election.

      We’ve found it hard to really follow politics in the U.S. from over here. I mean, we follow them, of course, but since we’re not there and talking with people we don’t really have a feel for it all anymore. It’s a very, very strange feeling.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I find that I can only manage to follow the broad strokes of what is happening in the U.K. I don’t have time to get into the minutiae of it because I’d have to seek out the information. I would imagine the same is true for you in reverse – you get the big headline stuff from US politics but would have to take time to really dig into the detail. For me it’s also an act of self-care. I’m so immersed in US politics and having to keep on top of the details and things that don’t even get much column space here that I really don’t have the mental scope to keep a handle on everything in the U.K. too.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. We do indeed live in weird times. Here in the province of British Columbia, we have the same parliamentary system as Britain (it would be a surprise if we didn’t, given our name). We had an election on May 9, 4 years after the previous one (we switched to fixed terms a while ago). BUT, nearly a month later, we still don’t know which party will form the government. I won’t bother explaining why; anyone who wants to can look it up. This situation has very few precedents, and the politicians are making things up by the seats of their (often flaming) pants. It’s a pundits’ paradise here — every poli sci professor has been asked to opine and predict. Some sort of minority government may be cobbled together. Or maybe not. One way or another, we may have another election really soon — just like Italy!

    I’ve never heard the term “manifesto” in the context of a Canadian election. I think we use “platform” here.

    And we don’t use chickens as predictive tools. Although in recent years, our pollsters have been about as reliable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In what now seems like another century ago but was in 2011, the UK held a referendum on proportional representation, which would have strengthened minority parties considerably. I found myself both for it and against it. On the one hand, it does seem to allow citizens a saner way to vote their consciences. On the other hand, it makes it easy to wind up with such a scattering of parties that small, extreme ones can end up with a huge amount of power, as they have in Israel.

      Quick, hide the chickens before someone slaughters another one trying to predict how it would have worked out if the proposal had passed.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Whatever happens on Thursday, we’ll just keep our heads down and carry on.

    Does anyone still trust the pollsters? They were spectacularly wrong last time and the time before. We’ll probably wake up on Friday with whoever’s turn it is to run UKIP as prime minister.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The polls seem to disagree, so even if you want to trust them, which one do you trust? As far as I understand it, the difference has to do with how many young people are likely to vote, as opposed to just have opinions.


  10. My favourite post Lib Dem-coalition story was from my sister, who told me her friend rang the Lib Dems and asked for a copy of their manifesto.
    “We’ve sold out” came the reply.
    “Oh I know” says he, “but what about your manifesto?”
    Boom! Boom! (Which is probably another age related reference that only the English will get but is fairly on topic as it’s fox related)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love it! It’s so good, I won’t even ask if it really happened, I’ll just choose to believe it did.

      Years ago–long before the coalition–Wild Thing asked a friend what the Lib Dems stood for.

      “That’s the thing,” she said. “No one knows.”

      Was she a prophet or what?


    • Believe me, you won’t find me arguing that the U.S. has anything like a sane system.

      Stay tuned, because I have a post coming up that grew out of your suggestion that I write about British regionalisms. If nothing changes, it should be on the 9th.


  11. So… That’s where all the chickens have come from !!! we are inundated with chickens up North, running scared clutching their bellies or wearing tight Cummerbunds to protect their entrails !!!. Another very well written and entertaining piece Ms Hawley … of course you fell into the trap of mentioning politicians and promises in the same sentence … they never keep them do they ? … My choice? …more left wing than most .. lol Hope you are well, you certainly write as though you are in fine fettle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m holding up, thanks, and–well, I shouldn’t say looking forward to seeing what Friday morning’s news brings but I do have a few shreds of hope. We’ll see. In the meantime, take care of those chickens, would you? They’ve had a rough few weeks.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I could go for the irrelevant photos–I think Fast Eddie would look great on a campaign poster. On other hand, I draw a line at campaigning and I’ll only agree to run if you can promise me I won’t win.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I believe we have moved on from personality to cult of personality.I don’t think that’s a problem in Britain since most of your candidates seem comfortable boring. And the ones who aren’t don’t have enough votes to win.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A couple of weeks ago I’d have agreed with you, but I’m less sure now, after a couple of people talked about the impact of personality on the way they planned to vote. Although, having said that, the personalities in question left me wondering what those personalities were, exactly. So I’ll give you a definite maybe on that.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Thanks for the interesting read.

    One point I would make is that generally it is unreasonable to hold the Liberal Democrats too much to account for the tuition fees: they were a small party within a coalition so of course compromises are going to have to be made. The Lib Dems did handle it awfully though

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rant warning. They handled many things awfully, especially the reorganization of the NHS, which I think was a bigger sell-out than tuition fees, and in the long run has done even more damage. They didn’t have to go into coalition at all, and they could have walked out at any time–or threatened to–if they’d decided that something violated their core principals. Instead, they appeared not to have any. Many people in the Southwest–where I live–voted for them to keep the Tories out, then found they’d brought the Tories in. The excuse our MP gave was that the Tories would have formed a minority government that would’ve been much further to the right, then called an election and won a majority. No one can know what would’ve happened, but what did happen was that the Lib Dems destroyed any sense that the party had core principals.

      I’m still furious. And not remotely funny on the subject. Apologies.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. That’s fine, we all have our different views –

    I agree that the NHS was handled poorly during the coalition era. I think it really depends on how much we expect the government to follow on their ideals. I agree the Lib Dems could’ve been a bit more ‘ballsy’ on certain things, however pragmatism is not always a bad thing in politics. If it wasn’t for the Lib Dems; tuition fees might not even have the 9k cap (the Tories wanted a completely free market system). They also blocked the snooper charter from getting through; blocked a bill to stop subsidies on green energy; got free school dinners for all infants (which May now wants taken away) among many others.

    The key question I ask is ‘would the county be better now if the Lib Dems hadn’t gone into a coalition?’. That I suppose no one knows, but my prediction would be that we would have had a Conservative majority sooner.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do agree that we’ll never know, but assuming we would have had a Conservative majority sooner, the question is, would it have done any more damage? The Lib Dems, if they’d stayed out of coalition, would have been free to vote against things they opposed–and to block them.

      I understand that politics is a pragmatic art, but it’s all too easy for politicians to forget what the pragmatism is in service of–other than keeping themselves in power.

      Liked by 1 person

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