United Kingdom to hold major Parliamentary election this week
Brandeis students abroad interning in Parliament share what it’s like being involved during this high-stakes U.K. election cycle.
There are constant reminders of an upcoming election: passing conversations, news headlines and social media posts. Voters discuss a blond, conservative incumbent, an elderly democratic socialist and a fresh face in the Liberal Democrats. But these conversations are not about the U.S. presidential election next year.
On Dec. 12, the United Kingdom will hold a decisive general election, its third in almost as many years, that will decide the makeup of government ahead of the U.K.’s planned withdrawal from the European Union. Figureheads in this election include Conservative Party leader and incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, among others. This semester, several American students, including some from Brandeis, interned with the British parliament and learned how British politics differs from that of the United States.
In American elections, a president is elected every four years, separate from local representatives. But in the United Kingdom, elections determining the government’s makeup, and therefore the Prime Minister, are far less consistent. Voters elect local Members of Parliament to individual seats, and the leader of the party with the most MPs becomes Prime Minister. The last general election, called in 2017 by then-Prime Minister Theresa May, was held only two years after the previous election. Although the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 mandated that general elections must be held every five years, the political landscape changed after a 2016 referendum vote in favor of leaving the European Union, which has been dubbed Brexit. This year, Prime Minister Johnson called a “snap” election for Dec. 12 to better his chances of securing his Brexit deal.
The Conservative Party has been in charge since 2010, when voters first elected David Cameron to be Prime Minister. Cameron oversaw the Brexit referendum and resigned after a slim majority voted to leave. May took the leadership position but also resigned in 2019 after her proposed Brexit plans failed three times in Parliament, paving the way for Johnson to take the premiership. The current Opposition, the Labour Party, is seeking to win the 2019 general election by promising to negotiate a new Brexit deal, and to put that deal to the British public in a referendum. Another major political party, the Liberal Democrats, plans to stop Brexit in its entirety and cancel the results of the 2016 referendum.
Sara Hogenboom ’21 interned with the Liberal Democrats, participating in the University’s study abroad program in conjunction with the London School of Economics. Accepted into the competitive Parliamentary internship program, Hogenboom worked for Baroness Sal Brinton, president of the Liberal Democrats and a member of the House of Lords. This is a key difference between Parliament and Congress, the latter of which is separated between the upper chamber — the Senate — and the lower chamber — the House of Representatives. All members of Congress are directly elected by voters, and so are members of the House of Commons.
Members of the House of Lords, however, are appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission or inherit the position. Appointed members are known as life peers and members by inheritance are known as hereditary peers. As a life peer, Brinton is not a democratically-elected politician. Because of this, Hogenboom told the Justice that she did not work on the campaign trail. Her internship ended once Parliament called a general election, allowing her to focus on completing her semester abroad, she said.
Although the Dec. 12 election could have profound effects on the makeup of Parliament, there is more than one Parliament in the United Kingdom. Scotland, a country that is part of the United Kingdom, has its own Parliament with its own elections, the next due to occur in 2021. Scottish voters still elect MPs to the Westminster Parliament.
Jackson Shiell ’21 interns with the Scottish Parliament through the University’s study abroad program, the University of Edinburgh and the Institute for Study Abroad. Shiell told the Justice that he works for Shona Robison, a member of the Scottish National Party. The SNP is the leading party of the Scottish Parliament and the third-largest party in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Localized to constituencies within Scotland, the SNP supports the idea of an independent Scotland. The party also opposes Brexit, given that a majority of Scottish voters voted to remain in the EU during the 2016 referendum, and a majority continue to support remaining.
Shiell works in constituency services with his Member of Scottish Parliament, separate from the election campaigns of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. However, he said that the SNP has a decent chance in the upcoming election. “The SNP is a popular party, and by far the largest in Scotland. Almost every person I have spoken to votes SNP primarily,” Shiell said.
Reflecting on Scottish partisanship, Shiell said that Scotland is “more progressive than the rest of the UK” and that “politics in Scotland is much more civil than in the U.S.” However, he also mentioned that there was some voter skepticism toward the SNP for its calls for Scottish independence.
As for the actual election campaign occuring in the United Kingdom, other American students have gotten involved. Arcadia University student Stephanie Gumabon-Greaver interns in Parliament through Arcadia’s study abroad program and Goldsmiths, University of London. She told the Justice that the internship application process was “extremely competitive, especially as my internship took place during what would have been Brexit.” Following negotiations to achieve a snap general election, Johnson was forced to ask for an extension to the Brexit date from Oct. 31, 2019 to Jan. 31, 2020.
Before Parliament called the election, Gumabon-Greaver worked in constituency services with Labour MP Karen Buck. Gumabon-Greaver helped Buck deal with issues surrounding housing and immigration, two major concerns in British politics that are referenced in several parties’ policy manifestos. When elections are called, all MPs must stand for re-election, so Buck became a “candidate for MP.”
“The first half of my day was spent doing the same tasks I had done before. However, the second half of the day I spent canvassing, or going door to door asking people who they planned to vote for and advocating on behalf of the candidate. That was definitely an interesting experience, as obviously people feel very strongly about politics and can have equally as strong responses,” Gumabon-Greaver said.
The election is now just two days away, with polls predicting a Conservative victory, which could help ensure that Prime Minister Johnson’s Brexit plans come to fruition. However, opinion polls can be misleading and the election may come down to voter enthusiasm and turnout, especially among young voters. Candidates for MP will rely on their campaign staffs, Americans included, to see if Dec. 12 will end in victory or defeat.