From the pages of
It's been an entire seven months since America's notorious election night - and nearly six months since the election was finally settled. A lapse of time that has given us election junkies a bad dose of cold turkey.
Last night, C-Span broadcast five hours of the BBC's live coverage of the British election night. As an interim fix while we wait for the 2002 mid-terms it was perhaps closer to methadone than the real thing. But at least it was an election program. Having been reared on British elections I was familiar with the process - but Americans tuning in may well have been baffled by the proceedings.
First of all the party and leader with the most votes won the election. This strange aberration on the recent American model would have proven confusing to even the highest thinkers in the land - say Supreme Court Justices. Admittedly Britain's Tony Blair and his Labour Party polled a thumping 18 percentage points higher than the nearest rival - but the UK has always clung to the old-fashioned, first past the post system.
Secondly - the leader of the Republican-like Conservative Party was standing on a program which included a pledge to maintain Britain's free-of-charge, cradle-to-grave National Health Service. And he was considered far too right wing by the public. What is sneeringly derided as "socialized medicine" by American conservatives is actually regarded as such a tenet of a civilized society that even the right wing Conservative Party dare not talk of undoing it without the certainty of electoral annihilation.
Thirdly - the British public for some reason wholeheartedly rejected the Conservative Party's entreaty to vote for tax cuts. It was as though they had the temerity to determine that receiving a tax cut was actually being bribed with your own money - and that the true cost of tax cuts to society might result in the opposite of compassion. An electorate that put its country's well-being before its personal greed? Quick! Qaurantine that nation! Such a concept would be deadlier than Mad Cow or foot-and-mouth disease if it ever crossed the Atlantic!
Fourthly - and perhaps most importantly - the real election results were actually announced by professional election officials in each geographic area rather than by coiffed TV anchors reading a TelePrompter projection based on exit polls.
It's as though some local official, properly trained in the procedure of reading the certified vote tally, might have a better handle on the task than a Tom Brokaw or a Brit Hume.
Now one could make an excuse for this system in that there are absolutely no mistakes made - but it would seem to make for infinitely less interesting television. I mean how can amateurs who become TV personalities once every four or five years rival the anchors and pundits with their Q ratings and jawline contour powder?
Actually very well. The key element of British elections is that all the votes for the 659 contested parliamentary constituencies are counted in central locations within each area. All the votes are brought to the chosen hall and counted by supervised volunteers. Both the voting and the count is done manually. Now this may seem antiquated and near Luddite to us here in America with our fancy "Vote-a-matic" machines - but the results are known in 3 or 4 hours. And they are rarely challenged. Close elections result in a recount or two. And - without the benefit of high-powered lawyers or politically-appointed judges - these take a further couple of hours.
Now you might scoff and say that Britain is a much smaller nation. This is true - but not that much smaller in electorate. The UK population is approximately one fifth the size of the US - and counted 90 percent of its votes in just six hours.
To translate that into American terms - the election results were clear in the UK at a point in the night BEFORE Dan Rather starts fashioning 19th century American folk expressions into Confucius-style haiku.
The most entertaining part of the procedure is that in each constituency - the election results are announced from the stage of a local municipal building. At the rostrum is the "returning officer" - usually a mayor or prominent councillor. While they sometimes wear the chain of office - none are as bejeweled or pancaked in makeup as Katherine Harris - Florida's Queen of Votes.
While the local official drones out the announcement "As the duly-appointed returning officer for the constituency of....... it is my duty to inform you that the votes cast in the general election are as follows" - all the candidates for that election are gathered on the stage behind the rostrum. They wear enormous rosettes of different hues to proclaim their allegiance. The Conservative Party emblem is as true-blue as a little old lady hair rinse; the straddle-the-middle Liberal Democrats are a defiant daffodil yellow - and the Labour party is red. But since this is Tony Blair's self-styled "New Labour" - the red connotes the rouge of an English rose rather than the scarlet of the party's socialist roots - which have been covered over as effectively as an application of Grecian 2000 on the head of your average Ronald Reagan.
TV cameras are positioned at all the key constituencies and the election studio anchor switches from location to location as his earpiece producer informs him of an imminent announcement.
What makes the election so refreshing is the presence of so many fringe candidates. They have no hope of winning - but those who crave their 15 seconds of fame know that to run against a prominent politician will at least result in their name being called out during the official announcement. And they will be seen on TV during that formal result process. It doesn't cost much to mount a losing campaign. Just deposit a thousand British pounds to the election authorities.
Most of the fringe candidates are serious political wonks - promulgating a lost cause. Independent Socialist Worker... Britain First Party... UK Independence Party. But the races involving the two most prominent politicians in the country - Prime Minister Tony Blair and Conservative leader William Hague both attract candidates from Britain's most colorful party.
Though this sounds like a Monty Python skit (and indeed ultimately inspired one) there really is the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. The party was founded and named by a gloriously deranged 60's pop singer who named himself "Screaming Lord Sutch" and who acted out a wild stage persona many years before Alice Cooper applied his first mascara. Sutch launched the party to satirize the gray boredom of British politicians. Though Such took his own life last year - the party and spirit he created carries on the tradition.
A key election pledge this year was the mandatory insertion of food dye into dog food - so that dog poop would be fluorescent - and visible to unsuspecting pedestrians.
At William Hague's announcement - the mayor called out the name of Melodie "Boney Marony" Steniforth who giggled as the cameras caught her in a gigantic black and yellow check floppy hat and rock & roll duds. Hague got over 25,000 votes - she secured 561. But she looked so much cooler.
The Prime Minister had the dignity of his resounding reelection tempered by the presence on stage of Christopher "Screwy" Driver - who wore more face make-up than Kiss - and was announced as the candidate of the Rock 'n' Roll Loon Party - presumably a splinter group from the official Loony party. Blair got in excess of 26,000 votes - "Screwy" Driver only managed 375. But "Screwy" will probably have a record contract by this time next week.
All of the winning candidates are expected to make acceptance speeches on live TV - and these too yield some unexpected moments. First of all - every successful candidate starts off by thanking his "agent." Now while this may sound like an Oscar acceptance speech - a perfect blending of the line between politics and showbiz - this is actually just a reference to the candidates' campaign chairman - a role traditionally called "agent" in British political parlance.
Secondly - political leaders use their local moment to send a national message. Last night Blair tempered his inner jubilation at leading his party to an historic consecutive landslide by some calm words about how his government would continue the job it had started four years ago... It was all worthy - but disingenuous stuff. You KNOW he wanted to crow about trouncing the detested Tories - and about his skill in transforming a party which had spent 18 years in the political wilderness.
William Hague's speech balanced his personal pleasure in winning by a handsome margin in his constituency with the certain knowledge that his glib persona had failed spectacularly with the electorate. While there was never a doubt that Labour would win again - it was Hague's duty to reduce the size of Blair's parliamentary majority - to give his Conservative Party a start towards its eventual regain of power. Hague did the only honorable thing a British conservative can do. He indicated that he would fall on his sword. As indeed he did a few hours later. If he hadn't - the Conservative Party has a habit of bring the sword directly to the unwanted leader - as Margaret Thatcher found to her cost in 1990.
The old Iron Lady of British politics became a celebrated presence during the final days of this campaign. The woman who so vigorously pursued massive parliamentary majorities for her party during her 80's tenure - popped up all over British TV screens with predictions of dire circumstances ahead if the British public would be so foolish as to ignore her entreaties and give Tony Blair another landslide victory.
Alas for Mrs. Thatcher - like the impotent "man behind the curtain" revealed in the Wizard Of Oz - the British public seems to pay no attention to her. Once her particular spell had worn off - she has found herself cast off by the British like a long-denounced ex-lover. It's as though the Brits say of their 11 year dalliance with her "what WAS I thinking? I must have been mad at the time!"
Adding insult to injury - the Labour Party concocted what was the sauciest and most effective advert of the entire campaign. To warn voters to stay away from the enticements of the Conservatives - they created a visual showing William Hague's oddly juvenile face - but instead of his familiar bald pate - his head was crowned with the instantly recognizable, formidable coiffeur of Mrs. Thatcher - a modified 80's version of a blonde beehive that became synonymous with Thatcher's image as a granite politician. With positions as vulcanized and lacquered as her hair.
Underneath the caption read: "Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid." Much to the distress of William Hague - and doubtlessly (the former Mrs.- now Baroness) Thatcher, the British public clearly were.
In the BBC studio - the anchors managed to make Labour's repeat landslide entertaining using two time-worn devices - the eccentric statistician - and the bullying, smug interviewer.
Long a tradition of British election coverage - the BBC presented an impressive array of computer animation to display what the Labour landslide would mean in the House Of Commons. Showing a mock-up of the familiar chamber as though it were the Red Sea before Moses' crossing - suddenly there were huge washes of red flooding over the seats to indicate the Labour party strength - and little shards of blue and yellow for the two other main parties. Clearly there was a need for a radical change to the seating arrangements in the historic chamber.
Peter Snow then waved his hands and showed us how the Labour Party had hauled itself slowly out of its political abyss in the 80's and 90's like Sisyphus pushing an electoral stone up the mountain. And he also showed off the "swingometer" - a quaintly named pendulum contraption that has charted the political mood swings of the British electorate since the 60's. He was like Dr. Magnus Pyke - the quirky real-life scientist memorably featured in Thomas Dolby's 80's music-video "She Blinded Me With Science." The 2001 remix - "He Blinded Me With Psephology."
Finally there was Jeremy Paxman - the enfant terrible of British political TV. While we certainly have rude interviewers on American TV - think of Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly or the blustery godfather of political shouting - John McLaughlin - Paxman is in another league. While O'Reilly and McLaughlin are brusque in advance of their political beliefs - Paxman is gloriously uncontaminated by a political agenda. He just hates them all. And on the grounds that they are all lying bastards - he weighs into politicians of all stripes with unvarnished disdain. "You're really just a failure aren't you?" he asked one losing candidate. "Oh that's just a load of rubbish" he told another senior politician. Paxman was clearly pushing for a one-man landslide against everyone except himself.
As the results became final and Tony Blair was being hurtled in his black Prime Ministerial limousine from Northern England back to 10 Downing Street to begin his momentous second term - my mind flashed back 18 years to the identical night for Margaret Thatcher in 1983 - when she secured her second General Election victory as a party leader.
As her result was being announced in her North London constituency - she had had to share the stage with someone wearing a Batman costume, calling himself Bruce Wayne and standing for the "Law And Order In Gotham City Party." At the pinnacle of her glory - she was still a sideshow to the magnificent spectacle of British politics.
On second thoughts - last night was not a methadone fix for election junkies - it was a hit of something quite potent. A reminder that if we only could get rid of the professional politicians - election nights can be wonderfully entertaining.