I’ve been internalising a really complicated situation in my head: the UK General Election. This election is confusing. It’s confusing if you’re a British voter, it’s confusing if you’re a political analyst, it’s even confusing if you’re a British politician. No one knows what’s going to happen, no one knows who will be running Britain (if anyone) after polling day on Thursday May 7th 2015. So I imagine it all seems even stranger from the other side of the world. So welcome to Sarah’s handy dandy New Zealander’s guide to the UK general election!
I will start by saying that this is not an academic paper. I’ve tried to be unbiased but I haven’t tried that hard. I hope you’ll forgive my various preferences. Basically I just want to have a bit of a laugh and give my take on this crazy election in a way that people like me, used only to the NZ political system, can identify with. Let’s begin with an irreverent look at the combatants and how they relate to their Aotearoa equivalents.
1. David Cameron
Position: Prime Minister and leader of the Conservatives (Tories)
New Zealand Equivalent: John Key/Teflon John/Ponytail PM
Non-political equivalent: Gilderoy Lockhart
David is a shiny-faced smooth operator who can get away with virtually anything and still seem to appeal to his core vote. So far he hasn’t hit creepy level 9: hair pulling, but last week he did accidentally say this election was “career-defining” when he was supposed to say “country-defining.” Watch out for those most charming smiles, they’ll pull a memory charm on you before you can say ‘I was born in a state house’.
2. Ed Milliband
Position: Leader of the Labour Party
New Zealand Equivalent: Don Brasch
Non-political equivalent: Sheldon
He’s nerdy beyond belief and his anti-social(ist) tendencies will make you as confused as his attempts to sound cool. You might find it strange I’ve chosen to link the Labour leader with a National Party defector to ACT, but all shall be revealed. He’s been a victim of plenty of mud-slinging, but his geeky ways just make you feel so bad for him that you can’t help but feel a little attached.
3. Nick Clegg
Position: Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats
New Zealand Equivalent: Phil Goff
Non-political Equivalent: Chris from Shortland Street
Nick Nick is a little confused. He’s had as many political allegiances as Chris from Shorty has had wives and he’s still not too sure how to pick. Fortunately, like Phil, he probably won’t be asked to make a choice this time. Sorry Nick, if only your appeal to students was as unshakable as Chris Warner’s beautiful hair.
4. Nicola Sturgeon
Position: Leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister (leader) of Scotland
New Zealand equivalent: Helen Clark
Non-political equivalent: Mulan
Nicola has been deputy in the SNP for a long time but now she’s in charge. Like Helen Clark she’s the first female elected leader of her country, and makes herself heard with her cutting comebacks. Also like both Helen and Mulan, she has her appearance talked about more than her beliefs and is going to have to be compared to a man a lot before people realise how much power might be hanging out there in Scotland.
5. Natalie Bennet
Position: Green Party Leader (England and Wales)
New Zealand equivalent: Sue Bradford
Non-political Equivalent: Steve Irwin
Natalie’s a nature-loving, environmentalist Aussie, in the tradition of the late, great Steve Irwin (sorry Aussies, couldn’t resist the comparison). Not only does she resemble our own former chief Green, Sue Bradford, but she talks the talk as well. This message was never main stream in New Zealand, but it’s even more unusual here. As leader of the Greens she’s not a fan of Trident (nuclear weapons), carbon emissions or austerity. Unfortunately for her she IS a fan of seats in Westminster and current polling suggests it won’t be easy being Green.
6. Nigel Farage
Position: Leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP)
New Zealand equivalent: Winston Peters
Non-political equivalent: Uncle Vernon
I’ll say right away that it’s not really fair to compare Winston to Nigel, but as the leader of New Zealand’s anti-immigration party it seemed like the most appropriate comparison. Like Winnie, Nigel has also destroyed the dominance of mainstream political parties and held together a wacky party on his own personality. In terms of his policy, Uncle Vernon and his distaste of foreigners, diversity, motorbikes and anyone who isn’t a bloke holding a beer sum it up pretty well. Now imagine Uncle Vernon in a position of power commanding up to 15% of the vote and you can imagine why the lefties (and many righties) of Britain are looking towards South Thanet with horror.
Hopefully that sums up the leaders of the main parties, now to the parties themselves. It’s impossible to really draw comparisons here. Some issues that dominate in New Zealand don’t get discussed here at all (the brain drain, national parks etc.), and others that are more background in a New Zealand election take pride of place here – immigration probably being the most obvious example. Any argument about nuclear weapons in New Zealand is likely to be fairly short, but here main parties have to convince us of their commitment to massive nuclear arsenals beside Glasgow. Funnily enough it’s the SNP who don’t seem as keen. Large sections of New Zealand don’t have separate parliaments and our population is fewer than 10% of the UK. Political parties might have similar origins and names as here, but have followed very different trajectories in recent years. But here’s a very rough guide (please forgive the comparisons, it’s meant as an indicator only).
Tories/Conservatives = National
Labour = the lovechild of National and Labour
Greens = Greens
Liberal Democrats = Labour again
And here I have to stop.
Even these are really inaccurate. It seems to me that even though some of the names are the same, politics and political parties here are much further away from New Zealand than I thought. We might seem similar on the surface but you won’t get far into an election debate without spotting some pretty huge differences.
The players done, here’s my run down of why this election is so important and whatever happens, will almost certainly alter the political landscape of Britain, and much more besides.
But before that, we’ve earned a break, and a funny video:
The Electoral System: An Unexpected Journey
In New Zealand, people of my generation are used to a proportional representation system. In our case, MMP. Everyone gets 2 votes – a party vote and an electorate vote. A party only need 5% of the total vote to get representation in Parliament, and if you get elected in your area you also get a comfy seat in the Beehive. Yay! Here in the UK, they still go by the old system, and to be fair, they do credit themselves with inventing it, so they’re a little reluctant to say goodbye to it. This means everyone only gets one vote. So if you like the Greens but they haven’t put anyone up for election in your area due to lack of candidates, or they have but it’s a 95 year old who thinks she’s Princess Anastasia, then tough luck, you can’t vote Green. It also means that in some seats where a political party has won since the 1930s (and there are way more of these than you’d imagine), major parties don’t need to be held to much account or put much effort into your representation or candidates. A former Labour candidate for Grimsby famously said you could put a “raving alcoholic sex paedophile” up for election there and as long as they had a red rosette they’d still win.
So far so undemocratic. This is a system that entrenches a two party system, which becomes a problem when the majority of people don’t feel like either of those parties represent the interests of their region, social group, economic group or other factors. And so in 2010, following the financial crisis and the 1990s rebranding of Labour away from how we in New Zealand would understand the Labour party, Parliament was hung. No, not hanged – hung. That means that low and behold the two party system wasn’t appealing enough to create an absolute majority, so we had Coalition Impossible Episode One: The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
But could this recent development and some excitement up in Scotland mean that Britain might finally just Let First Past the Post GO?
Last year as you probably know, Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom. Huzzah! Cried the main political party leaders who all teamed up to encourage that result. We’ve won! 55% voted to stay, we’re all sorted, now we can get on with the unrelated business of the General Election.
Well, to put it in NZ terms, Yeah…nah.
The Scottish National Party (SNP), who advocate for Scottish independence, may not have got their way in the referendum, but things changed as a result, and now things are getting even more confusing. Labour have dominated Scottish politics since aaages ago. At the moment they have 41 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Parliament. (There are 650 in total over the whole UK). But latest polls show the SNP claiming between 55 and 59 – that’s right – ALL – of Scotland’s seats. Yeeshk. In a 2-party system, how’s that going to work?
I don’t know either, Robbie. Just to throw a wee racist cat among the inflexible pigeons, there’s another player. Meet UKIP, your friendly local anti-immigration party. According to UKIP – and I so wish I was making this up – women who don’t clean behind fridges are “sluts”, most homosexuals are almost definitely pedophiles based on loads of evidence that totally exists somewhere maybe, women with children are “worth less” than men, immigrants give British people AIDS and their manifesto promised to “end support for multiculturalism and promote one, common British culture.” This party is polling on 12%. Yes, 12%. The whole party are based around the bloke-in-a-pub persona of Nigel Farage. To draw a New Zealand equivalent, he’s kind of like the really rich and privileged guy at uni who’s constantly drunk and complains about how unfair Maori scholarships are and blames the lecturers for his F-average.
Even though they’re on opposite sides of the left-right spectrum, both socially and economically, the SNP and UKIP are essentially products of the same phenomenon, that is mass disenfranchisement as a result of a pretty un-representative political system that refuses to really change. But as a result, we have Coalition Impossible 2: the Revenge of the Fringe, in which Labour say vote for them to keep out the SNP and UKIP, the Conservatives say vote for them to keep out the SNP and UKIP, everyone ignores the Greens and the Liberal Democrats (who totally ballsed up their time in coalition) and meanwhile the SNP and UKIP just keep growing like a rabbit population around native birds.
As a New Zealand lefty observer of this democolypse 2015, to borrow an American phrase, it’s disheartening how little traction the Greens get from all this. Although the other parties do discuss environmental issues, it’s waay down the priority list. It’s a bit like having a massive argument over who gets the last can of Coke while ignoring a zombie apocalypse headed your way. And all apart from the SNP and Greens have uranium on their breath, in the form of whole-hearted support for Britain’s nuclear programme, the optimistically named Trident.
And with that bit of nostalgic Disney punning, I shall leave you. In 48 hours from when I write this, we may or may not have a government here in my temporary home of the UK. Personally, as you can probably tell, I think that the UK could do well to emulate our own political system, and that they can probably avoid losing Scotland and Wales if they do so. But really, no one is even beginning to ask me, so I’m just having fun 🙂
For now, I’m going to grab some ghost chips and play an election drinking game.