British Elections, a Subdued Affair

London mayor Boris Johnson and Lord Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympics. Attributed to Surrey County Council.

By Paul Keithley, Global Paradigm Fellow in England

In London on May 3rd—between the activist festivities of May 1st and the widely respected Star Wars Day on May 4th (there are more Jedis than Jews in England, after all)—voters went to the polls to determine who would head the government of Britain’s largest city. The main contenders were Boris Johnson, the Conservative incumbent mayor and Labour’s Ken Livingstone (with appearances by the lesser Liberal Democrats and the Green Party). More than a quarter of London’s nearly 8,000,000 people participated in the democratic process, which resulted in the reelection of Mayor Johnson by a slim 3% margin.

The event certainly did not have the flare of an American election; save for the signs indicating polling places, one might not have realized that a vote was being held (I too was unaware). Potential venues for political advertisements (such as London’s public transportation, a system which the vast majority of Londoners use) were devoid of campaigning material. No Union flags marked the event, nor was it widely discussed among the group of British students I know. There were no water-cooler political discussions of candidates, views, and positions. The day simply came and went.

Though local elections are generally low-key events, as an American who is used to seeing campaign yard signs, buttons, and bumper stickers, I was baffled. The British election served to underscore the difference of American campaigns and the prevalence of American politics compared to the rest of the world. Compared to this British election, a local contest, American politics are a circus. A woman with whom I was speaking described how her mother stayed up-to-date on American politics for entertainment, as the system seems to play out like a soap opera.

The familiarity the British have with American political figures is also startling. In discussing British voting patterns with a friend, the topic of the Republican primaries surfaced; she then proceeded to ask about the three remaining Republican candidates. It is testament to the prevalence of American politics in the world conscience that a college student from Manchester would know that a governor and two former members of the House of Representatives were vying for the nomination of their political party an ocean away. If an American was asked who ran against David Cameron in the 2010 general election, I would hold in exception the person who said Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg.

It is often easy for us Americans to become so engrossed in our own politics, consumed in counting the ways to 270 electoral votes, that we lose sight that others from outside are watching as well. This should instill in us both pride and caution; pride for the attention, and caution for the image we portray. After all, foreign actors are watching more closely than you think.