The first day of an academic conference I attended this week in Lausanne, Switzerland coincided with the recent UK General Election, allowing me a unique perspective on the election as an American watching UK politics intently while in Switzerland with politics scholars from throughout the world. It seemed to me an experience worth sharing, so below I have laid out what I learned — vital lessons that you won’t want to miss.
(1) When watching election returns, watch with the native experts.
There is no better way to watch UK election returns than in a cramped hotel room with more than 20 gender politics scholars, including a majority of UK women political experts.
Also, don’t forget the snacks and G&Ts.
(2) Be patient. There are moments when you might actually miss the CNN Breaking News banner.
Unlike in the U.S., election results coverage cannot legally begin until the polls are closed at 10pm. Why? The 1983 Representation of the People Act makes it a criminal offense to report publicly before polls close on anything related to the exit poll. More specifically, it prohibits:
(a) any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted; or
(b)any forecast as to the result of the election which is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information so given.
Pro: Less time with the male-dominated panels of experts and the need to make news where there is none.
Con: How much Comey hearing news can one take on repeat before finding out the makeup of the new Parliament?
(3) But don’t worry — BBC election night is just as graphic-obsessed as US cable news coverage. John King and Wolf Blitzer (CNN) have serious competition for most gratuitous use of election-themed graphics.
(4) Blue and red don’t mean what you think they do.
Turns out the US stands apart from the UK (and most of the world) in associating the ideological right with red and left with blue. So when you show up at your meeting in Tory blue on Election Day, be prepared to defend your support for the conservative party.
(5) They work those kids hard in Sunderland. And I felt for them.
Want to see some youth political engagement in action? Check out these videos of young people transporting and counting paper ballots. The kiddos in Sunderland South and Houghton, the constituency that has been first to report results in every election since 1992, felt the first heartbreak of election night when they were eclipsed by eight minutes by the counters in Newcastle.
And if you don’t think folks take this seriously, check out this video of the sprinters and counters in Newcastle. They are not playing around.
Get ’em next time, Sunderland.
(6) Imagine this: candidates of all parties stand together and hear their results announced on stage.
Ok, you don’t have to imagine it. The slate of candidates in each UK constituency are brought on stage as the returning officer announces final vote counts and winners. A pretty impressive display of civility, at least by US standards.
But let’s not get carried away. They also allow folks (mascots?) like Mr. Fishfinger and Lord Buckethead on stage…and on the ballot.
And things can get even more awkward…especially when the returning officer announces the wrong winner. #OscarMoment
(7) The dearth of expert women’s voices in election analysis is universal.
A sadly familiar aspect of election night in the UK and US is the dominance of male experts and commentators on television. While the BBC’s election night coverage included multiple women reporters, it took almost two hours for the first woman expert to grace our TV screen. Our crowd of women and politics experts is accustomed to this trend, but was also ready to call it out in real time because, come on, #womenalsoknowstuff.
(8) Be patient. Forget sleep. Hand-counting takes time.
I’m used to all-nighters on election night, but mostly due to the differences in time zones across the US. UK election nights are long not due to differences in poll closing times, but instead because votes are counted by hand (remember the counters mentioned above) in each constituency. By comparison, less than five percent of votes are counted by hand in the US; most of us cast our votes via electronic or optical-scan ballots that make for much quicker counting.
On the plus side, when results come in slow you have time to envision what life would be like with an all-female government. For about 55 minutes, the only elected MPs were women. Take that as your moment of zen.
Sound crazy? Not so much if you remember that only men served in the U.S. Congress for 128 years.
If you are an election junkie, staying up to watch each UK constituency result trickle in is part of the fun, so this American stayed up most of the night until the final batch of results came in early Friday morning.
(9) Parliamentary systems are more fun.
Counting seats is more complicated, but also more fun, in systems where a majority is not guaranteed. As happened on Thursday, it’s quite possible that no single party wins the majority of seats in Parliament, resulting in a political uncertainty — and strategizing — that ensures election coverage continues for days (or weeks) to come. For many, like Brenda from Bristol, that’s probably a source of despair.
For others, the uncertainty can breed anxiety or fear…especially when the potential governing coalition may compromise away women’s and LGBT rights.
So maybe fun is too strong of a word. But at least there’s more counting.
(10) Narratives around women’s advancement are equally complicated, despite media tendency toward simplicity.
In the US, my colleagues and I at the Center for American Women and Politics are used to being the wet blanket on post-election narratives around women’s success. When we broke the 100 mark for women in Congress in 2014, for example, we reminded those celebrating that the denominator was 535. In that year’s election, women saw a net gain of five congressional seats, or less than one percentage point in their proportion of congressional seats (18.5% to 19.4%).
The story is similar in the UK this year. While women gained a net of 12 seats in Parliament from immediately pre-election to today, those 12 seats are out of 650 total parliamentary positions. Proportionately, women hold 32% instead of 30% of all seats. But this level of underrepresentation, as well as this pace of change is not much to celebrate. Here’s another point of comparison for you: women gained a net of 44 seats in the previous UK general election, meaning that women saw about one-quarter of the numerical progress they had experienced two years ago.
My UK colleagues are providing this much-needed clarity in written pieces and via social media, including this take by Diana O’Brien and Mary Nugent on placing women’s (modest) gains in context, but the headlines proclaiming “record-breaking” numbers for women will continue in the coming days and weeks.
Calling out the misrepresentation of the election results, and the progress made (or not) for women, is far from being just an academic exercise. It is also a direct challenge to the complacency that these narratives breed. Nope, you cannot check off that gender parity box because women crossed an invented milestone of 200 members of Parliament. Keep counting and get back to us when you’ve hit 325.
P.S. You are welcome for this GIF.