Think the British Electoral System Is Better? Think Again

Since Prime Minister John Major announced that the British general election will be held May 1, scores of commentaries have appeared in the American press suggesting the British way is better.

Election campaigns there are mercifully short - usually well under six weeks. And forget about big campaign finance scandals since individuals running for Parliament are limited to spending a maximum of $14,000 each.

Moreover, all television time is free, so there is little need for lots of cash anyway. And since the British vote the party label rather than the candidate, the emphasis is on issues rather than personalities. It all seems rather dignified. Dignified perhaps, but not very democratic.

Campaigns in Britain are short because the incumbent prime minister can call an election whenever he likes - within the maximum of five years between Parliaments. Usually, he goes to the country when prospects are most opportune for his party. Would Americans regard this as fair?

As far as campaign financing is concerned, individual candidate spending in British elections may be strictly limited, but political party spending, which benefits the candidates, is not. There is no limit on who can give such "soft money," or on how much. Nor is there any requirement for disclosure. Foreign, as well as domestic, money is taken, and it all may be kept secret.

Currently, Britons are in an uproar over secret cash payments to lawmakers who lobbied, and even asked questions in Parliament, on behalf of their financial backers - the so-called cash-for-questions scandal.

True, TV time is free, so the amount of money needed to wage a campaign is far less than in the United States. But the method for allocating the time is flawed at best. Since it is based mostly on vote counts in prior elections, the two major parties - the Conservatives and Labour - get far more air time than smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats. It is illegal to purchase political time.

Under this system, it would be next to impossible for a new political party or candidate to emerge as a serious contender. Would Americans favor that? Would they support curtailing First Amendment liberties by preventing political organizations from buying access to the airwaves?

Critics of American elections contend the system breeds cynicism among voters, as indicated by the abysmal turnout. But there are national elections at fixed dates for the House of Representatives (the equivalent of the House of Commons) every two years, not every four or five years as in Britain. One-third of the Senate also is elected every two years, and the president is elected every four years.

Britons, by contrast, must confer all national political power by voting for one member of Parliament to represent their district. They cannot vote for prime minister directly, nor do they have any say in who sits in the second chamber, the unelected House of Lords. No wonder turnout is high in Britain. Voting for a member of Parliament every four or five years is the only chance the electorate gets to meaningfully affect the system.

American columnists who wax glowingly about electoral politics British-style should consider that once the election is over, British citizens are practically powerless until they next go to the polls as many as five years hence. A government assured of a majority in Parliament - with compliant lawmakers required to toe the party line on all major votes - is essentially, in the words of Lord Hailsham, a former Conservative Cabinet member, "an elected dictatorship."

That may overstate the case. The British approach to elections and government has its merits. But it is nowhere near as democratic as the US system. The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing when they told King George there is a better way.

* David Pitts is an ex-Brit who writes about politics in his native land from Washington.

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