Friday, 19 March 2010

Hush, listen, what's that sound?

It's the sound of people getting ready to rumble, it's the sound of knives been sharpened - it's the sound of a general election in the UK. Here's a quick guide to the how, why and wherefore for my non-UK friends who read this, so that when I start using this to give my thoughts on the campaign you can see why certain things happen.

Why Now?

Under UK law, a parliament can only sit for a maximum of five years after the last Parliament first met. That was on 11th May 2005, after the elections held on 4th May. After that, there has to be a period of time to allow the electoral procedure to complete, of not less than 21 days. The tradition in the UK is to hold an election on a Thursday, so the latest possible date is 3 June 2010.

Running an election is a mammoth logistical exercise, however, and elections to the local councils in the UK take place in most places on 6th May - so that is the most likely date.

When will it be called?

That is entirely in the purview of the Prime Minister, who must inform the Queen before he announces the date. If it was 6th May, the most likely date for the announcement would be 15th April. Parliament is about to rise for the Easter recess, however, probably on 31st March after the Budget next week. There would be good money on putting the election being called then, or when they return on the 12th of April.

So who is being elected?

Contrary to what many people think, we do not vote in the UK for someone to be Prime Minister - we vote for a representative to the House of Commons for the constituency we live in to act as a Member of Parliament. There are 650 seats in the new parliament, and the leader of whichever party gets the most seats is likely to be invited The Queen to form a Government. At this time, we do not elect members of the other chamber of government, The House of Lords, but a key election issue this time may be reform of that system.

Having said that, the election always focuses on the leaders of the parties involved, so it looks like an election of the prime minister.

Who can stand for election?

Honestly - anyone who can get 10 people to sign a piece of paper and can find £500 for a deposit. If they get more than 5% of the total vote, they get the money back, otherwise it goes towards the costs of running the election.

Who wins?

We have a "First past the post" system in the UK - one vote for every eligible person on the Electoral Register who is over 18, and whoever gets the most votes wins. Voting is not compulsory either, unlike say Australia.

Who are the main contenders?

In recent years, the Labour Party (under Gordon Brown) and the Conservative Party (David Cameron) have been the largest groups, followed by the Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg). Labour have been the party in charge for the last 13 years. In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party have a substantial block, and in Wales Plaid Cymru. Northern Ireland has a slightly different structure.

What happens during the campaign?

Unlike the US, the moment an election is called something called the "Fair Airtime" rule kicks in, which means that all major parties have to have equal representation on television and radio news programmes and current affairs reports. Each party is also allocated a number of 5 or 10 minute election broadcast slots, dependant on how many seats they are standing for. If a party has candidates in fifty seats, say, they get one 5 minute free to air broadcast on all stations - and all the major terrestrial channels are obliged to show them as are Sky in the UK. The more seats, the more broadcasts.

This year, fro the first time, there will also be televised US style debates - one on the BBC, one on Independent Television and on on Sky.

The press are allowed to show support for one or other parties, and always do. In fact, half the fun of the campaign is seeing what they write about the candidates...

Individual candidates also have strict restrictions put on how much they are allowed to spend in terms of election materials, and must account for it all.

On the day?

Polling goes from 7 am to 10 pm. No party is allowed to actively campaign on the day - the most they can do is ask if you have voted. The second the clock hits 10, the polls close and, to put it mildly, all bets are off. Counting in most areas starts immediately - some rural areas and Northern Ireland start in the following morning - and the first constituency result is normally available by about 11.30. Most seats have announced by about 6 am.

Assuming one party gets 326 or more seats, they will call on The Queen in the early afternoon of the Friday to be invited to form a Government. The new Parliament meets the following week for the first time.

When was the last time no-one got a majority of seats?

1973 - February. The correct term for this is a hung parliament - and there is a very real chance that will happen this time. Expect fun if it does.

That oen lasted exactly 8 months...

Hopefully, that starts to set the scene. More as time progresses - the next big indicator is next week;s budget, when we see how much or little they want to do.

Monday, 8 March 2010


Oh, this could get me into trouble...

Apologies for the extended absence. If you watch the business news, you will know the industry I work in and the company I work for has had some unfortunate moves recently, and my focus has been solely on trying to work out if I’ll still have a job at the end of it. The good news is, I will. The bad news is, I don’t know where in the organisation yet. It feels awfully like what happened when I was made redundant from Boots a few years back – but not quite as bad.

Actually, a lot of things in the news recently have brought back memories of the past. Take, for example, the recent press reports about a young man named Jon Venables. To many, the name may mean nothing, but for those who were around in the early 80’s it means one thing – Jamie Bulger, a two year old boy who was taken from a shopping centre in Bootle in 1993 and killed by two ten years old, Robert Thomson and Jon Venables. The two boys were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, but were released on licence in 2001 after various court rulings. Both boys were given new identities and strict limits were placed on where they could or could not go – including banning them from Liverpool.

The case caused much discussion at the time, particularly as the boys were so young and the fact they were tried in an adult court. As they were released on licence, it also meant if they were suspected of any sort of crime, or of any act that would present a danger to the public, they could be recalled to prison at any time without warning.

Last week, it was announced that Jon Venables had been recalled to prison for “serious offences.” Since that time, there has been much speculation as to the nature of those offences, and also the fact that no further details have been officially released.

Herein lies the quandary – if more details are released, then the identity this young man has been living under is blown, and that contravenes certain rulings at the time of their trial and release. It also virtually guarantees that there is no way he can get a fair trial if these offences lead to a new court case- the prejudice against him would be so strong it would be next to impossible to guarantee an unbiased jury.

On the other hand, if there is evidence he has committed a truly serious offence, then there has to be a trial to establish his guilt or innocence, and in the UK that is trial by jury. You see the dilemma? I hope so – and no, I don’t have an easy answer. I have a view on the subject, but that is a private affair.

For once.

You see, there is another person to consider in this as well – the other young man, Robert Thomson. If, as indeed may be the case, the name Venables had been living under becomes public knowledge, then there is a very real chance Thomson will be found and named. For all any of us know, he may be trying to rebuild his life and has genuinely atoned for his past crimes – would it be right and proper for him to be exposed and forced into hiding as well?

The people I feel most sorry for, however, and the parents of Jamie Bulger. They have had old wounds, which will never fully heal, opened afresh. They have made their views clear, and deserve to know what exactly is going on here. I hope someone has told them and asked them not to pass this on – vigilante justice is not the right way forward, but they have a right to know.

Is this all that’s brought my out of hiding? Nope – but they’re for another day. There’s also an election coming up here – with your permission, when it’s called I’ll use this to express my views on the events of the campaign as they arise. I’ll share some of my thoughts on what I call the “Phony Campaign” tomorrow.