The rules of Britannia

Geoffrey Lawler, a former Conservative member of the British Parliament, runs a government-relations company. He also co-founded Democracy International Ltd., through which he has trained politicians in new democracies.

Britain is likely to have a new prime minister after Thursday’s election. But if you haven’t followed the ins and outs of Britain’s most interesting political contest in years, here is a crash course.

First, the parties. Labour (don’t forget the “u”) is socialist, but you will not hear that word uttered at all during the campaign. Conservatives cast themselves as modern, progressive and even compassionate -- anything but conservative. And the Liberal Democrats? If they are in Conservative rural areas, they are right wing; if they are in urban, Labour areas, they are left wing. Just ask them.

Labour has been in power for 13 years but is campaigning on a theme of “forget the past, it’s all about the future.” The Conservatives want voters to “remember the past, and vote for change.” The Liberal Democrats also hope voters remember the past, specifically 1916, when they were last in power on their own.

Labour is largely (70%) funded by the trade unions; the Conservatives have some wealthy backers but also rely on small donations, while the Liberal Democrats have a piggy bank. During the first week of the campaign, the Conservatives attracted A£1.5 million ($2.3 million) in declarable donations, while the Liberal Democrats collected just A£20,000 ($30,000) -- barely enough to pay for a U.S. presidential candidate’s haircuts.


Labour is led by Gordon Brown, a serious man who says it’s all about substance and not style, which is just as well, as he has about as much style as Dick Cheney.

The Conservative leader, David Cameron, is very stylish (a byproduct of having attended the country’s most expensive private school) but is accused of lacking substance.

The Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg is a stylish leader as well (having also benefited from an expensive private education). As to substance, his primary claim there is that he has previously backed legalizing some of them.

Just as Democrats and Republicans are blue and red, respectively, the British parties have colors too. Labour is red (though its leader is Brown). The Conservatives are blue, but this year their enthusiasm for environmental issues has them sounding awfully green. The Liberal Democrats are yellow, but in some parts of the country their supporters are blue, and in others, red.

You may wonder how the British parties compare with their U.S. equivalents. Labour is split between “New Labour” centrists who still revere Tony Blair and would be quite at home within the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and old Labour statists who would be quite at home in the mainstream of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Conservative Party also covers a wide spectrum, from those on the liberal wing (currently in the ascendancy under Cameron), many of whom would have backed Barack Obama for president over John McCain, to a core of unreformed right-wingers collected in a party grouping called Cornerstone (known as Tombstone to others), who would feel right at home with the “tea party.”

The Liberal Democrats traditionally have had a beard-and-sandals image and are seen as a collection of muesli eaters sympathetic to green issues and generally on the left. Think Democrats from Northern California or Vermont. But the party also has a more sharp-suited bloc, represented by the current leader, who at university belonged to the Conservative Party.

Although party leaders are fond of saying that “all parties are broad churches,” one major difference between the United States and the United Kingdom is that religion isn’t a feature of British politics, thank God. Generally, voters are more concerned with which soccer team a candidate supports than they are with his or her position on abortion.


For the public, the greatest thing about British politics is that they only have to be endured for four weeks every four or five years. British election campaigns are short and to the point, and political parties are banned from airing television commercials. And while the parties can spend up to about A£18 million ($27 million) on their national campaigns, local campaigns are run on a shoestring. The average maximum expenditure a candidate is legally allowed to spend during the campaign is about A£11,000 ($17,000) probably less than the amount spent on coffee and donuts for the average U.S. congressional campaign.

So, how many Brits will vote Thursday? Historically we British, having exported our model of democracy across large parts of the world, have taken our civic duty seriously and gone to the polls in large numbers -- often having a 70% to 80% turnout. More recently, we have become more casual about it all, and turnout has fallen in the last two elections to an average of about 60%.

This election is hard to call. There’s interest in it because it’s likely to produce change. But there’s also huge antipathy toward politicians in the wake of scandalous revelations about many members of Parliament cheating on or exploiting their expenses. There is a good chance that no party will have a majority of the seats in Parliament, which means that we will end up with a “hung Parliament.” But most voters consider hanging too good a punishment for them.