Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Think the British Electoral System Is Better? Think Again

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Think the British Electoral System Is Better? Think Again

Article excerpt

Since Prime Minister John Major announced that the British general election will be held May 1, scores of commentaries have appeared in the American press suggesting the British way is better.

Election campaigns there are mercifully short - usually well under six weeks. And forget about big campaign finance scandals since individuals running for Parliament are limited to spending a maximum of $14,000 each.

Moreover, all television time is free, so there is little need for lots of cash anyway. And since the British vote the party label rather than the candidate, the emphasis is on issues rather than personalities. It all seems rather dignified. Dignified perhaps, but not very democratic. Campaigns in Britain are short because the incumbent prime minister can call an election whenever he likes - within the maximum of five years between Parliaments. Usually, he goes to the country when prospects are most opportune for his party. Would Americans regard this as fair? As far as campaign financing is concerned, individual candidate spending in British elections may be strictly limited, but political party spending, which benefits the candidates, is not. There is no limit on who can give such "soft money," or on how much. Nor is there any requirement for disclosure. Foreign, as well as domestic, money is taken, and it all may be kept secret. Currently, Britons are in an uproar over secret cash payments to lawmakers who lobbied, and even asked questions in Parliament, on behalf of their financial backers - the so-called cash-for-questions scandal. True, TV time is free, so the amount of money needed to wage a campaign is far less than in the United States. But the method for allocating the time is flawed at best. Since it is based mostly on vote counts in prior elections, the two major parties - the Conservatives and Labour - get far more air time than smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats. It is illegal to purchase political time. …

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