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A man in a white shirt drinks a cup of tea surrounded by other people.
Long, drawn-out campaigns just aren’t Rishi Sunak’s cup of tea. Chris J Ratcliffe/WPA Pool/Getty Images.

UK and US elections: 2 very different systems united by a common political language

Voters in the United Kingdom on May 22 learned the date they would be joining the many, many people casting ballots around the world in 2024.

In a surprise move, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a snap election to be held on July 4 – six months earlier than many had expected. An early election is certainly a major gamble for the prime minister but one he felt was worth taking. With the ruling Conservative Party more than 20 percentage points behind opposition Labour in the latest polls, Sunak faces an uphill battle to stay in office.

The Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer, is heavily favored to return to power for the first time since 2010.

To a U.S. audience, many of the top issues in the election campaign will sound familiar: the economy, immigration, health care, Ukraine and Gaza. The choice of date, too, may ring a bell – and political soothsayers are already trying to read into what it means for the U.K. election to fall on Independence Day.

A person with a trash bin head gestures with his thumbs down to a person with a bucket as a head.
U.K. elections can be an odd affair in which mainstream politicians can rub shoulders with the likes of rival candidates Count Binface and Lord Buckethead. Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

But as to the campaign itself – well, they do things a bit different on the other side of the pond. While Americans may be used to set terms and lengthy campaigns filled with endless advertising, in the U.K. such things are, to use a Britishism, “just not cricket.” Here are three main ways in which the British conduct their elections.

1. Election timeline

U.S. elections follow a predictable schedule. In 1845, Congress passed a law establishing a single day for federal elections to take place on “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November.” Further, presidents are elected for a fixed four-year term, making the dates for upcoming votes knowable for the foreseeable future.

That isn’t the case in the United Kingdom. By convention, elections have been held on a Thursday since 1935. But the month of the vote has varied considerably. For the most part, they take place in late spring or early summer – but fall and winter elections are not unheard of.

The U.K. Parliament does have a fixed term of five years, with elections automatically scheduled once that time has lapsed. In practice, however, parliaments have rarely gone the full five years.

Indeed, prime ministers in the United Kingdom have the authority to request the dissolution of Parliament at any time. They can do so without the approval of the cabinet, and so prime ministers have taken liberal advantage of their ability to control the timing of the election to try and gain an advantage.

Many thought that Sunak may have been eyeing an election later in the year, but a number of factors, including economic forecasts and not wanting the distraction of a U.S. election, may have factored in to him calling an earlier-than-expected vote.

2. Campaign rules

Besides the shifting timing, the nature and rules of the campaign are also very different in the United Kingdom. This starts with the sheer brevity of the campaign. Once Parliament is dissolved, the election must take place 25 working days later. This means the parties have a mere six weeks to make their case to the public.

And unlike in a presidential system, voters in the United Kingdom do not cast a ballot for the person they want to see lead the country. Instead, the U.K. is divided into 650 distinct constituencies; voters pick their preferred candidate to represent their local constituency in Parliament. The party with the most seats typically wins the election, and the leader of that party has the opportunity to become prime minister and govern as a single-party government or as part of a coalition.

U.K. election campaigns are also subject to strict rules to maintain neutrality. Once the campaign starts, the period of “purdah” kicks in, which imposes certain restrictions on government activities. This involves, for instance, strict prohibitions on government ministers announcing new initiatives to affect the election or using public funds for political purposes.

In the same manner, civil servants – employees of the crown who work for the government but are not political appointees – are required to maintain strict impartiality and not become involved in partisan debates.

Moreover, the Office of Communications, the United Kingdom’s independent media regulatory authority, also enforces strict rules for broadcast media, including television and radio. The 2003 Communications Act requires that all broadcast media must cover the elections in an impartial manner, providing coverage of all parties, even if they do not assign equal time.

A man in a white shirt chats to a man in a blazer. Bith hold cups.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer, left, poses on the campaign trail with what the photographer says is a cup of coffee … but which I strongly suspect is actually tea. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Broadcast media is also not allowed, on polling day, to suggest the outcome of the vote before polls are closed.

In a huge departure from the U.S., U.K. political parties are banned from buying television ads, but this rule does not apply to streaming television.

3. The role of money

The limited role of money is another distinct feature in U.K. elections. Even factoring in the different population sizes, U.K. elections are significantly cheaper than their counterparts in the United States.

Indeed, total campaign spending in the 2020 U.S. elections, covering presidential and congressional races, hit more than US$14 billion. That scale completely dwarfs how much parties and candidates will be able to spend in the 2024 United Kingdom election.

Through regulations established by the Electoral Commission, an independent government agency, a British party that competes in all constituencies in the United Kingdom will be allowed to spend just over £34 million (around $43 million) in total to support all candidates.

That figure in itself marks an 80% increase from the allowance at the last election in 2019, so to factor for inflation since limits were set in 2000.

Individual candidates can spend funds to support their campaign. But the amount, defined partly by the size of the constituency, is low and in the scale of tens of thousands of pounds. This is again a far cry from some of the more expensive congressional races in the United States, where even primary elections could attract close to $30 million in spending.

Challenging times ahead

As a result, both Sunak and Starmer will have only a short time – and limited funds – to make their case to voters. Whoever wins will face a very challenging situation at home and abroad, with little to no respite. According to the think tank Institute for Fiscal Studies, the state of public finances is “a dark cloud that hangs over the election.” And then there is the delicate matter of maintaining a special relationship with the U.S. – a country that may itself have a very different political landscape after it goes to the polls later in the year.

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