With the race heating up for the 2016 US Presidential Election I took the opportunity to attend a live WebEx with US Presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders, in London last week.
This year’s US Presidential election is set to be the most explosive for a generation. It all kicks into gear this Tuesday March 1st, aka Super Tuesday, when the leading candidates for the Democrats and Republicans go head to head over 11 primaries and caucuses (plus other territory votes).
As you may be aware, the main US political parties select their candidates by holding a series of state elections (primaries and caucuses) so that their party supporters can choose their best bet to win the General Election in November this year. Starting in February (although campaigning started last year) and continuing on ’til mid June, these elections act as a 5 month long public job interview, with relentless media scrutiny. Candidates get the chance to share their ideals and even go head to head in public debates with their opponents, all of which you may have seen over the last few of months.
Believe the Hype
Never before have we seen such a gulf in ideologies between the front running candidates. On the Republican side you have the outrageous Donald Trump leading the field, whose far-right “policies” have included building a giant wall along the US/Mexican border to stop “drug-dealers and rapists” and banning all Muslims entering the United States.
Whilst on the Democratic side we have US Secretary of State and former First Lady, Hillary Clinton, who was initially favourite to win at the beginning of the campaign. She’s fighting off democratic socialist Senator, Bernie Sanders, who claims to be the only presidential candidate who has never accepted a corporate donation or Super-PAC. He pledges to end corporate “Wall Street greed” and bring about egalitarian social justice, including free healthcare and fixing the legal system which currently imprisons more people than any other country in the world.
The Democrats Abroad
The Democrats arranged a worldwide WebEx for the Democrats Abroad constituency; “The Global Town Hall”, which screened in 65 countries across the globe. The population of American expatriates living abroad (8.7 million) is treated as separate “constituency”. They will have opportunities to vote over the course of the next week. UK based Americans will have various opportunities to vote in the next week or so, follow this link for more information on voting centres and dates. So this is an opportune time for presidential candidates to address the needs of the 200,000 that live in Britain. The Republican Party does not consider the votes of expatriates in their candidate selection process.
The Priory Tavern, in Kilburn, gradually filled with American voices, all finding seats aimed towards the TV, hooked up to a laptop in the corner. Bemused Londoners peered in for a gander, expecting us to be watching a major sporting event. The idle chatter and beer swilling continued through the Q+A of Madeleine Albright on a faulty internet connection, a half an hour endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Her perspective focussed on the fact that no-one understands international issues as well as U.S. Secretary of State, Mrs Clinton. She also discussed questions of Hillary’s integrity, which has been a recent theme in the Democratic debate.
The atmosphere intensified with anticipation as Bernie Sanders was introduced, the obvious crowd favourite. Indeed a show of hands half way through proceedings highlighted that out of all attendees (30-40 or so) only 2 were not Sanders supporters. Given that he was happy to dedicate his own time to addressing the expat communities, this was hardly a surprise.
Sanders delivered the key messages in his mandate as he has persistently done so throughout his campaign; highlighting the need for a political revolution that would ensure that most Americans, including the poor, were represented in Washington – not just the wealthy. On foreign affairs, he highlighted that the Obama administration had made progress given the state that was inherited after the previous government. He continued to say that there was a lot more that could be done, given issues facing the world with extremism and climate change.
What can we learn from this in the UK?
I have heard the US election processes criticised by some for being a long drawn-out form of entertainment, which focuses a lot on the individual character and not policy, there are actually a lot positive aspects of this kind of process that we can learn from:
- It is arguably more democratic than our current systems. All members (and in some cases non-members) are invited to vote for their party representative and then of course, again in the election.
- It gives candidates a chance to voice their policies direct to voters, and on many occasions, making media “spin” less likely and more obvious. Our media is often criticised for pushing an agenda on its readers rather than conveying facts (see below).
- It ensures political transparency and accountability. The candidates in these elections have been open to extraordinary levels of press and public scrutiny. The public gets to dissect arguments and policy to form an accurate opinion of their potential leaders. NowThis has been an excellent source for exposing the discrepancies and hypocrisies of candidates, particularly voting histories and misquotes.
- It broadens the debate. Candidates are often accused of stealing each others arguments. As much as this may be unfair, it means that the winning candidate could go into the general election race with an improved mandate, based on the collective pressure and support of their party.
- It increases interest and electorate participation. With everyone talking about the election all the time, whether it be Trump’s latest gaffe or Sander’s most inspiring speech, people are sharing and talking about the election.
Could it work here?
The Conservative Party has already used primaries when selecting their new MPs, which they say has proven to be somewhat successful, although these campaigns were small and at local level (obviously). The Labour Party has discussed using primaries, but abandoned it for the mayoral candidacy campaigns. We saw some improvement in the leadership election last year when the party adopted a “one member, one vote” (OMOV) system. However, campaigning lasted for only one month and there was no sense of dividing the electorate into constituencies. It meant that chances to see the potential leaders was minimal and the narrative was dictated by the media channels which covered it. Perhaps this is something that could change in the future.
If you’re an American Democrat residing in the UK, tomorrow (1st) is your chance to vote for either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton in London, Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh. Polling stations will also be open on March 5th (this coming Saturday) in London and St Andrew’s. There is also a rally tomorrow evening in Parliament Square for Bernie Sanders supporters. Well worth checking out.
So what do you think. Should we start making our politicians more accountable and answerable to the public, especially during election campaigns? Do you think this kind of politics would increase voter participation in the UK?