JACK VAN DAM and JOHN SHIVELY are politics students from America. They arrived in Croydon last week keen to see a British election in action. This is what they found
On Friday, we walked out of the busy East Croydon rail station not knowing exactly what to expect. We are both students at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, and have studied European and British politics over the past year. Despite our studies, experiencing an election is far different than studying one.
We met Labour councillor Andrew Pelling and immediately went to see the headquarters for the even busier Labour parliamentary candidate, Sarah Jones. Right from the start there was an immediate contrast to American politics due to the level of involvement on the street.
In the United States, you rarely see national campaigns going door to door vying for support for their party’s candidate. Most of our campaigning is done with the constant bombardment of 30-second TV commercials and relentless mailers.
In our view, the British elections seem to value democracy better in some ways than our own. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on political campaigns like in the United States, the candidates here only spend tens of thousands of dollars. Also, it doesn’t take long to notice that instead of using continuous smear tactics, candidates here seem to run mostly positive campaigns based on the issues.
They tend to focus on their policies and the ways it directly impacts their constituents. The candidates are also far more visible. Especially Sarah Jones, who we were surprised to see at a housing estate. Not only was she there, but she was working as hard as everyone on her campaign team going door to door!
We also had the unique experience of attending the hustings on Saturday night in central Croydon. The small room could hardly contain all of the people eager to listen to two of the candidates.
We had spent several days around Croydon, but had yet to see Gavin Barwell before that evening.
What was most surprising about the event was the level of engagement from the crowd, which simply wouldn’t happen back home. Most questions are pre-screened and attendees have to get tickets. Any attempt to interrupt the candidates or, heaven forbid, ask a difficult question that wasn’t submitted previously, would most likely result in being removed from the event.
This event was however quite the opposite. It contained passionate and legitimate democratic discussions and asked the tough questions. While most of the individuals there were obvious Conservative supporters (and one gentleman who could only be described as rude and disruptive), overall the event was lively. There was a real passion present that seems to have faded from the American system, an almost lost form of authenticity.
We are going to continue on in our journey studying Britain’s electoral system, and hope that whatever the result that we all continue to cherish our unique and diverse political systems. It’s wonderful to see elections in action and has been a great experience overall.
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