UK Election a Tangled Web

If you thought James Comey’s congressional testimony was the political highlight of last Thursday, you better go back and read what’s been going on in the UK.

Teresa May’s Conservative Party already had a majority in Parliament when the prime minister called a snap election party leaders believed would tip the scales even further in their favor and help at the Brexit negotiating table. May was pushing for a “hard” Brexit after 52% of voters last year opted to leave the European Union.

The Tories’ main rivals are the Labour Party, led by a Bernie Sanders-like man called Jeremy Corbyn, a declared socialist. No one believed Labour had a chance, except those like our English friend Ian Almond.

Going door-to-door

Ian is a professor of world literature at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, but before that, he was at Georgia State University, where he taught with Marilynn. Despite his support for Arsenal archrival Liverpool, we quickly grew fond of this lad from Preston, who didn’t learn to drive until he lived in Georgia.

Leading up to Thursday’s vote, Ian spent several weeks going door-to-door for the Labour Party, which stunned the Tories by adding 31 seats, while the Tories lost 12. The result is a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives cozying up to Northern Ireland’s staunch Unionist party DUP in order to form a majority bloc. It’s an unlikely marriage and one that Corbyn intends to fight.

“Although it’s not a victory, it’s a huge step forward for the Labour party,” Ian says, “particularly since Corbyn was subjected to such an intense hate campaign and widespread demonization by, sadly, almost the entire spectrum of the UK mainstream media.”

He notes that only the Mirror and the Guardian endorsed Corbyn and that the TV channels were largely against him. The Labour Party’s gain, the biggest swing since 1945, was made more significant because few believed Labour had any chance before the votes were tallied, Ian says.

Strange bedfellows

The DUP is the same party that in Northern Ireland can’t agree to share power with the republican party Sinn Fein, following its own snap election earlier this year after Deputy Minister Martin McGuinness resigned (and then died). DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, has been in the cross-hairs recently for her dictatorial management style and a funding scandal related to when she was enterprise minister. The parties have missed a deadline to form a power-sharing government, and a second deadline is looming. Failure to agree would mean either another snap election in Northern Ireland or the return of direct rule.

Many of DUP’s stances (denying climate change, refusing to recognize LGBTQ people) are out of step with a majority in the UK, one of the many reasons Corbyn is looking to form his own coalition government. Although Sinn Fein won seven seats, its MPs won’t participate, owing to their longstanding stance against UK rule.

The prospect of a “hard” Brexit has been taken off the table since the Conservatives no longer have a majority and Labour favored staying within the EU.

This election should be a wake-up call to Democrats in the US that change is possible, one person and one issue at a time.

I’ll let Ian have the final word, commenting in a recent Facebook post about going door-to-door:

“It’s a curious thing, this canvassing business: some people argue, some don’t say anything, some are lonely and drag the conversation on, some just tell you to piss off, some people don’t answer the door at all – you turn around and see a flicker of the curtains as you walk away. Going door to door, you see the damage twenty years of consensus, cross-party politics has done – so many people see no reason to vote at all. Does make you reflect on a system which actually preserves itself through its own ineffectiveness.”

NI Political Situation Clear as Mud

Talk about muddy waters. Thursday’s special election in Northern Ireland raised more questions than answers about power-sharing and a potential border poll.

The unionist DUP wound up with 28 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly versus 27 seats for the republican Sinn Fein. Fewer than 1,200 votes separated the parties.

But looking beyond the main parties, to those that lean one way or another, it’s pretty much of a tie. The main parties have three weeks to form a new power-sharing government, which remains very much in doubt as the leaders of both parties remain entrenched in rhetoric.

Failure to form a new government could mean the return of direct rule from London, which I’m not sure anyone wants. The election was historic in that unionists will not have an overall majority should the new government be formed, the first time in 100 years.

Election differences to US

This was a special election triggered in January by the deputy first minister from Sinn Fein resigning and the party not appointing a new minister. After a short election period, which saw greater Belfast blanketed with election placards affixed with zip ties to utility poles, nearly two-thirds of voters turned out. In the last US election, which was regularly scheduled and much expected, only 55% of eligible voters turned out. I think that speaks volumes about participation in the political process.

I’ll point you to a previous column about the political situation in Northern Ireland for the reasons behind the special election, but I wanted to point out the differences between the election systems.

Regardless of your political position, I think you would agree that many US voters wished they had had more choice among candidates, that neither Democrats nor Republicans truly represent their feelings. But in a two-party, winner-take-all system, voting for a third-party candidate is like whizzing in the wind.

In Northern Ireland, fractional votes count. In other words, you don’t just vote for a single candidate. You rank the candidates according to your preferences. In some cases, the fourth or fifth choice could swing an assembly seat one way or the other, which happened in this case. Some voters we talked to take great delight in listing their most-despised candidates 12th and 13th out of a field of 13.

To me, that seems like a much better way for the electorate to be heard.

Now for the border question

Beyond the power-sharing question, political pundits also are talking about the potential for a poll on whether Northern Ireland remains in the UK in the wake of Brexit. The divorce of Great Britain from the European Union means the border between Great Britain and the EU will become the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The island is accustomed to free movement of people and goods. The only way you know you’ve passed from one country to another is whether the signs are also in Irish and whether the speed limit signs are in kilometers or miles per hour.

No one is talking about a hard border and immigration checks, but Brexit and the nationalist gains in this election bring up larger issues about where Northern Ireland believes it belongs in the world order.

And if no government is formed in three weeks, yet another snap election is possible. So stay tuned.