Monday, September 20, 2004

Differences between UK and US campaigns - Part II: A Question of Timing

In my first post, immediately below, I opened with the difference that first highlighted to me the differences between UK and US campaigns. While I doubt that this will ever be systematic, for the next few posts I intend to look at some of the fundamental - or perhaps environmental? - factors that contribute to the differences in the campaigns.

One of the most fundamental of them is timing. To be blunt, in the US you know when your elections are. They happen at regular intervals, the election date is pre-set. It all ticks along like clockwork. We in the UK have much less certainty in our electoral cycles. In fact, there is precious little certainty.

A General Election is caused when the Queen dissolves Parliament. That the technical constitutional working. Practically, the Prime Minister goes along to Buckingham Palace, tells the Queen that it is election time, and the Queen then dissolves the Parliament. The possible dates for the election are chosen by some arcane rules that I don't understand, and the Prime Minister selects the one that s/he likes the most.

But how long from one election to the next? At the moment a Parliament has a maximum sitting time of five years - the 1992 Parliament was one. However, Parliament can be dissolved at any time within those five years also. So for example, the 1997 Parliament only existed for 4 years, being dissolved in 2001.

Who sets these rules? The Houses of Parliament. A Parliament can basically prorogue itself (by-elections would continue to replenish new members), and did so in the war years, for example.

All this has two consequences. The first is that British campaigns tend to be more well-defined at the start than American. In many respects it feels like the election campaign in the US has been going on, at varying degrees of intensity, since at least March. In the UK there is a definite start-line and starter's pistol. They also are shorter, never lasting more than two months and quite frequently less. Compare this with the traditional start date of Labour Day in the US - which means a two month campaign of never varying length.

The second is the uncertainty I referred to earlier. It is expected that Tony Blair will call for elections sometime next year. Unlikely though it might be however, Tony Blair could call for a snap election late this year. I don't think that is going to happen, but this uncertainty. The effects the whole of British politics, and is the source of the next difference I will be rambling about.

NB: Local, Regional, and European elections are held to set timetables.

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