Understanding the UK Election that just happened

My friend Nick posted a brief primer on the UK elections since so many of us in the US don’t really know how stuff works over there. I thought it was quite helpful, so I’m sharing it here. Image courtesy of Google:

Nick: A quick primer on UK elections because it’s always neat to hear how other people do things, and because I spent a lot of money on a degree that I don’t use so I’m going to at least do something with it.

Anyway, the most obvious difference between how we do it and how they do it is that there’s only a month of campaigning compared to our 18+ months. This is a result of having no presidential election. Each party has a head, and the head of the party that has 51+% of seats in Parliament becomes Prime Minister. The party head has to have a seat in Parliament, though, so it would be like all the Republicans in our House and Senate choosing a president from amongst themselves. Since the party determines who leads the country, there’s no need for a super long election–all you’re voting on is who represents you in Parliament and letting the Members of Parliament choose who leads the country. Elections are automatically held every 5 years, but the Prime Minister can call an early election if they have 2/3 approval–Early elections, like the one going on today, are a tactical affair. You run them if you think your party is popular enough to gain seats, otherwise you let the clock run out and hope for the best after 5 years.

The more subtle, but far bigger and more important, difference is that in the US you have to live where you’re representing. I live in California’s 19th district, so if I wanted to run for the House I’d have to run here. This leads to a lot of gerrymandering where parties draw borders that are advantageous to them. Each UK party has its own selection process for candidates, but the important part is that theoretically anyone can run anywhere. So if I was a hot shot up and coming Democratic politician living in San Jose, I could run here for the CA19 seat, or I could run for CA50, or I could go nuts and run for AK1. At first blush you might think that this means no gerrymandering, but in reality it means the ENTIRE COUNTRY is gerrymandered. The parties know where their voters are concentrated, so they know which districts are safe and will stand their most important candidates there to guarantee they win. They put hot shot up and comers like me in bad districts to teach me how to run a campaign and to see if I can move the needle at all–steal an extra couple percentage points off the safe candidate. If I perform well, next time there’s a General Election they’ll put me in a better situation.

All of this emphasizes party loyalty among voters. You’re expected to vote for your party no matter what, and, in turn, when elected they will vote the party line in Parliament no matter what. Crossing the aisle to vote against your party is a good way to get shuffled off into a bad district come the next General Election. Historically this has been the opposite of the American political system–we vote for individuals we think will best represent us, and when they get to Congress they’re supposed to represent the interests of their home district. This leads to compromises and bipartisan co-operation. HISTORICALLY. We’ve changed culturally over the last 30 years and party has started to take precidence over the individual. Congress is broken right now because it’s halfway between its old setup of bipartisan government of majority rule with minority rights, and a new system of dictatorial party orthodoxy. Either one works just fine, but needs an appropriate electoral system to support it. So either we need to change how we elect our folks to match the British system, or we need to change how our officials govern to match the old American system.

 

Evan: Thank you Professor Nick! Now can you tell us what the political/ideological stances are of the parties in England? I don’t know what this election means.

Nick: I don’t know enough about it! But I think it’s something like:
Conservatives: Basically our Republicans/Libertarians. They want to go back to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Labour: Basically our Democrats, but more economically socialist. They want to go back to Bill Clinton, and bring back some discarded/underfunded social welfare programs.

Scottish Nationalists: Minor player (they have, like, 1/10th the seats that the Conservatives have), all I know is that ScotsNats are very pro-EU and pro-Scottish autonomy. They’re the third-largest party with something like 35 seats.

Democratic Unionist Party: Don’t know anything about them except that they’re in northeast Northern Ireland, and according to Helen Zaltsman they’re ideologically aligned with the Conservatives. So presumably they want out of the EU. They have, like, 5 seats.

Plaid Cymru: Welsh Independence Party that I looked up because their name is Plaid Cymru. Don’t know much about them beyond that their goal is independence from the UK, but to remain within the EU. They have, like, 5 seats (GUESS WHERE? DID YOU SAY WALES?)

UK Independence Party: These are the ultra-reactionaries like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage that are borderline fascists. They had 2 seats going in, they have 0 seats now. Their party seems to be dead.

Liberal Democrats: I know nothing about them. But I know “Liberal” in the UK refers to capital-L Liberalism, so free trade and working more closely with the EU.

Sin Feinn: Wants Northern Ireland to unite with Ireland. When I was in college they would win seats, but wouldn’t send their MPs to Parliament.

The coalition that forms is going to have such a slim majority that I’m legitimately curious to see what, if anything, Sin Feinn does. Like, maybe they cut a deal with the Conservatives to form a coalition through Brexit, then in return they get to join with Ireland? Probably not! As I said, I don’t know anywhere near enough about them

Abortion Doesn’t Have to Divide Us

I think there is a foreseeable future in which the issue of abortion does not divide people and determine elections. That doesn’t mean I think that people are going to stop arguing about whether or not abortion should be legal. At least not in the US, not in my lifetime. But it does not need to continue to be the political football that it is.

What got me thinking about this was this piece on what it was like before abortion was legal in all 50 states. It was pretty harrowing to read what women who felt that they needed abortions had to go through before abortion was legal. Then, a friend of mine commented on it:

Friend: “I take responsibility for all I do. I break it I buy it. I don’t see a difference in having sex without condoms or other controls. Don’t play the game unless you can live with the outcome. Its still killing a child no matter how they want to paint it. When my wife said she was pregnant and asked what we should do I said..have a baby..I was out of work..she had a low paying job and we struggled..I sold things to make ends meet. We used WIC for a short time..but we didn’t kill our baby because it cramped our life style or it was the wrong time..bullshit excuses..grow up. Take responsibility for your actions and their outcomes.”

I responded: “I get wanting people to take responsibility for their actions, but I also think illegalizing abortion will take us back to the world described above…” (above being in the article)

A lot of people, like my friend, like to couch their view of abortion in the language of personal responsibility. But a child is more responsibility than one person can bear. As a father, I can tell you that having a child really is more responsibility than two people can bear without a lot of support. Every woman who is pregnant has to make a judgement call about whether or not the community around her will support her in raising her child. This isn’t something that the pregnant woman will necessarily have thought of before. I would hazard a guess that most people don’t think about it. At least in our culture, that seems to prize independence, I wonder how many people think about their wider community when they are considering having a baby. How should people even begin to think about that? But I’m getting off on a tangent…

My friend, and many other people, argue that if you can’t live with the consequences you shouldn’t do the deed. That’s fine as an argument, but we aren’t going to be illegalizing unprotected sex. Nor are we going to be making a law that says someone can only have unprotected sex if they want to have a kid. People are well within their rights to have unprotected sex if they choose to. So sure, you can tell people that they shouldn’t have unprotected sex if they aren’t ready to have a kid – but saying that isn’t going to stop anyone from having sex, nor is it a substitute for policy. Ultimately I’m not sure what good it does to even make that argument.

I suspected that the reason most women have an abortion is because the logistics aren’t lining up for them. So I googled, and literally the first relevant response backed up my suspicion. 86% of respondents in the most recent study I found cited reasons for getting their abortion that I would categorize as logistical: unready, can’t afford baby now, has all the children she wanted or all children are grown, has problems with relationship or wants to avoid single parenthood, is too immature or young to have a child, would interfere with education plans/would interfere with career plans.

This makes me think that we’ve been focusing on what divides us instead of what can unite us. Sure, whether or not abortion should be legal is a thing that divides our population. But making sure that pregnant women have the support they need to confidently give birth is a completely different conversation that does not have to divide us. That is simply a question of logistics. What logistics would make a difference for people who would, in today’s world, consider abortion? Enough maternity and paternity leave, robust adoption and foster programs, affordable day care and affordable medical coverage – I’m just brainstorming here, but these are what come to mind. I imagine that those of you reading this can come up with more good ideas as well.

If it is indeed roughly accurate that 86% of abortions in the US in a given year are due to pregnant women not feeling like they can get the support they will need (don’t take my word for it, I just did a cursory review of one study)… then we’ve been having the wrong conversation this whole time. The primary question is not “should abortion be legal?” but “how do we support women who are pregnant?”

Whether or not abortion is legal isn’t going to change the demand for abortion. But I do think we have to consider the role of government policy and/or private institutions in a woman’s calculus when she is choosing to have a baby or not. I think that if we address this as a society, we can look towards a future when the issue of abortion is actually in the rearview mirror. When we can read about it in history class, instead of in blaring headlines in the news feed of our choice.

Our Views Have Been Weaponized. Or, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Immigration

In America we don’t actually talk about immigration, really. We talk about loosening immigration or tightening it. We talk about where immigrants should or shouldn’t be from. Or what kind of people they should or shouldn’t be. A conversation about immigration would be much different than the conversation we are having.

If we were going to have a real conversation about immigration we would start by answering the question of; how many immigrants do we want at once? What is the ideal mix of new and old residents that preserves the original culture while being enriched by the culture of the immigrants? How do we ensure that immigrants enmesh themselves in our society instead of forming their own little enclaves of like-minded people and not interacting with the culture as a whole? Are there certain kinds of people that we want to actually recruit to come to this country? Doctors, for instance? Temporary workers? Is there a percentage of the overall number that we want to reserve for refugees?

So that’s step one, determine how many immigrants we want in our country at once. Have a nationwide conversation to get some sort of agreement around that. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to choose that America can manage an immigrant population of ten percent. I don’t know what an actual ideal number would be, but ten percent makes the math easy. Ten percent of our current population, according to the population estimate on Wikipedia, would be 32 million people. But it probably takes more than 1 year for someone to acclimatize to living in America, to “become American.” Let’s say it takes an adult five years. We divide our 32 million by five and get: six million, four hundred thousand people.

So, let’s imagine that we decide 6.4 million people can immigrate to the country each year. The next question is, how long do we want it to take for someone to get approved to immigrate to the US? The actual immigration process rarely gets the coverage it deserves in this country – but it seems that an underreported issue is that the reason we have so many illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central & South America is due to the insanely long wait times for residents of those regions to get into our country legally (check out this post to get started on your research). If you have to choose between being able to feed yourself and your family, or waiting to get into our country legally, well I don’t really begrudge anyone for breaking the law in those circumstances. Once we pick a timeframe that someone has to wait (say, a month), then we staff the US Citizenship and Immigration Services to meet the demand.

There are a few more questions to answer. Are there certain types of people we want to weed out of the immigration process? Serial killers, serial rapists, people who habitually commit crimes and aren’t going to change with a change of scenery, people who are going to blow stuff or people up…. Then, do we have reliable ways of identifying those people and removing them from the immigration pool? If not, can we create ways to do that? I personally think that if we haven’t developed means to do that, it is well within our capabilities. If you don’t think so, I would assert that you aren’t talking to the right people.

So that’s a framework. Develop some consensus around answers to those questions, and in this country we will be well on our way to winding down immigration as the hot button topic that it is today.

I’m going to assert something here, something that may sound like a bit of a stretch but that I think is worth considering. Or, it maybe old news to everyone reading this. I really am not going to be able to tell until I post this and see how you all respond: If the politicians/political parties/pundits/”news” outlets that you follow are not working to answer the questions above, they’re not interested in actually resolving anything for this country. Politicians are using the fact that you are for or against open immigration as a rallying cry, to easily and effectively motivate you and people like you to take action. The great majority of politicians are mediocre at best, and don’t have great speeches that they can pull out of their back pocket. So they use political footballs like immigration to get people excited about them running for or staying in office. The pundits and media use your passion about issues, like immigration, to generate clicks and views. The more they inflame people on both sides the better their ratings are. Issues that become political footballs are divisive, so as politicians drive supporters to them, they are also driving detractors away and widening divisions in our country. But in the short term, people get elected by using political footballs. That’s why they stick around. This is why everyone keeps talking about immigration, but rarely do people talk about specifics.

As soon as you start talking about specifics, you start talking about things that actually affect people’s lives. Hopefully I’m not losing too many of you here with this metaphor, but our political footballs are about scoring points. Not about actually affecting people’s lives. It feels good to “score one for the immigration team” to beat the “anti-immigrants.” Or vice versa. They are about winning and losing – yet not about people who actually win and lose because a policy has been enacted – winning and losing for your ideological team.

So am I saying that we could solve all the world’s problems if we were just able to give up beating the other guy that’s different than us?

Well yes, apparently I am…

I guess the important distinction here, after writing all of this, is that it’s time to call out our leaders on this behavior. It’s time to say “hey, if you were really motivated to resolve this you wouldn’t be talking about Muslims or sanctuary cities or immigrants stealing our jobs. You would be talking about how many immigrants we want, how we make sure they contribute to society, and how to make sure people aren’t foregoing the immigration process because they simply can’t wait through it.” Or instead of asking “how are you going to make ‘what we think’ into the law of the land?” asking “how are you going to lead our people to a solution that will work for a large majority of the population?” Or however you want to say it. Don’t use my words, use your own. To be fair to our politicians, and most people who are talking about the issues in general, is that most probably don’t realize that how they are talking about these issues simply perpetuates them. They don’t realize that by taking a side in the fight they simply further entrench both sides. So I suggest… be nice when you’re calling people out on this stuff?

In any group of people there are always going to be interests that pull people into conflict and interests that drive people apart. A capable leader is someone who gets people’s interests aligned where possible, and gets them out of conflict when alignment isn’t possible. It is not an easy thing to do – but it is the opposite of what our elected representatives and our media have been doing. They have been inflaming our differences and driving us apart for political expediency. Because conflict is more invigorating and motivating in the short term than resolution. Nevermind that constant conflict has a negative effect on our country, and on the ties that bind us together as a people. Nevermind that it affects everyone in their daily lives whether they notice it or not. Nevermind that the issues that we have been wrestling with for years remain unresolved, and that we are not moving on to new challenges as a people.

My friends, our views have been weaponized. They are being used against us.

 

PS: I would love if there was research on the effects of constant “perceived conflict” have on people within a society. If you are aware of any research like that, please let me know.

PPS: Until I get a graphic designer to work with me for my posts, they are going to continue to feature pictures of my animals. I hope you like the unrelated sleepy cat 🙂