I’ve been reading Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Race of a Lifetime, a book ostensibly about ‘how Barack Obama won the White House’, but in truth a quite in-depth look at each viable campaign first of the 2008 Democratic primaries (Obama, Clinton, Edwards) and then of the general (Obama and McCain). It’s not the same kind of book as Andrew Rawnsley’s recent Brit-centred political tome, The End of the Party (in this month’s coveted Words We Like spot), since it prioritises narrative over detail, which may itself be a useful metaphor. Halperin and Heilemann have no footnotes and no moments of great pause. They simply tell a story we haven’t heard before very well.
I wouldn’t say, then, that the book is instructive to read whilst we in the UK are having our own general election. But it is interesting, firstly because it emphasises how very personal the American political system is. The British system can be about individuals, too, of course – in every general election, some surprise local story sneaks up on the national media, in no small part because of the quite personal effects specific candidates can have in a given constituency. But the broad sweep of our system has traditionally been party political – all colours and rosettes, manifestos and messaging.
Except that this campaign has been different. It’s striking how little actually happened in the week between the first ever televised debate between the candidates for Prime Minister (even that term seems alien to the Commons system) and, er, the second ever televisied debate between the candidates for Prime Minister. The Tories, for instance, didn’t hold a single London press conference; Gordon Brown, as Jonathan Freedland has noted, is nowhere in particular to be seen. The polls came out, and everyone agonised about a sea change in British politics, but the whole affair seemed on hold until three men – out of thousands of parliamentary candidates across the country – had another slanging match on the telly.
So our politics just got personal. But Halperin and Heilemann make very clear how much travelling American presidential candidates do, and how visible they are. There is a tension in this new focus of the British system: we haven’t entirely made the change. We await the big debates, but in between we try and have a normal British campaign. Predictably, this results in a feeling of weird inertia – amateur politics going on between over-produced slices of network primetime. This isn’t how the American system, weened on the personal, operates. Not only that, but there are hundreds of constituencies across the UK which are electing hundreds of different representatives, some of whom do not – gasp! – belong to one of the three ‘main’ parties. There is some of this in the American system – Halperin and Heilemann detail how the Missouri Democratic candidate for the Senate, Claire McCaskill, worried that Hilary Clinton would damage her chances were they on the same ticket in November 2008 – but presidential candidates are also truly national figures who are ultimately performing for their own benefit. The ‘candidates for Prime Minister’ are quite different. The campaign feels like an unwieldy, unsatisfactory, hybrid.
Still, this may be the last campaign of its kind. All polls currently point to a hung parliament in which the most likely result would be a ruling coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This would ensure the introduction of some form of proportional representation – particularly if the party with the most seats also came third in the popular vote, a probable outcome once First Past The Post begins to struggle with a truly three party system. PR would surely lock the Tories out of power forever, and the party is therefore therefore desperate to halt the slide in their support (though right-wing tactics smack instead of a twitchy core vote strategy). But Cameron was in last night’s debate reduced to arguing that change was good, but to make sure it happened you needed to vote for a known quantity you could trust. And we all know how that tactic worked out over the pond.