No Big Money Or TV Ads — What's With The U.K.'s Low-Key Election? : It's All Politics There may not even be any televised debates, but the U.K. really is less than two months from national elections. Why is it so different from the U.S., where attention is already on 2016?
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No Big Money Or TV Ads — What's With The U.K.'s Low-Key Election?

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No Big Money Or TV Ads — What's With The U.K.'s Low-Key Election?

No Big Money Or TV Ads — What's With The U.K.'s Low-Key Election?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/391936801/392142427" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The conversation about Hillary Clinton comes just as a reminder with the presidential election more than a year away. In the U.K., national elections are less than two months away, but the British do not experience the long drawn-out election fever we do. From London, NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the differences.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: What are the events you most strongly associate with a presidential campaign? Political consultant Steve Morgan has worked on both sides of the Atlantic and for him, political rallies are high up on the list - bleachers packed with screaming supporters.

STEVE MORGAN: I remember being in Denver in 2008, where the stadium was full and thousands and thousands of people outside, and millions watching on television.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you.

MORGAN: We don't have that.

SHAPIRO: He remembers the last time a British political leader tried to do something similar.

MORGAN: It was Sheffield in 1992, and it was Neil Kinnock.

SHAPIRO: It was a disaster.

MORGAN: The British media crucified him for trying to run an American-style campaign.

SHAPIRO: His party lost that year and no British politician has had a big rally like that since. So, no rallies. What else defines American elections?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I welcome you to the first of the 2012 presidential debates.

SHAPIRO: There were four total that year, including the vice presidential debate. In the U.K? Margaret Scammell is a political scientist at the London School of Economics.

MARGARET SCAMMELL: Last election, we had a leader's debate for the first time. We may or may not have another one this time.

SHAPIRO: That's because Prime Minister David Cameron is threatening not to show up, which points to another big difference between American and British campaigns. In the U.S., you vote for the president, but in the U.K., you don't vote for the prime minister. That means there's no primary system and no polarizing wild card candidates. Everything is far more predictable, says Scammell.

SCAMMELL: So there isn't a lot of bunting and razzmatazz and hoopla around British elections. They've become rather dull affairs, if you want my honest opinion.

SHAPIRO: The current party leaders have been around for years. The parties chose them to be middle-of-the-road consensus builders. And as a result, voters may not feel very intensely about them one way or the other. So, no rallies, no debates, no primaries. But what about this?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mitt Romney's negative attack machine is back.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He should be absolutely ashamed of himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Fiscal conservative - really?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Great patriots turned to God, gave their all.

SHAPIRO: In the U.K...

SCAMMELL: We have very strict rules where you're not really allowed to advertise via television or radio as a political party.

SHAPIRO: That's right, no political ads on British TV and radio. Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, a nonpartisan group that focuses on improving the way campaigns operate. She says the U.K. is seeing a bit of American-style political advertising on the Internet, but campaigns here just don't have the money for the hyper-saturation that Americans are used to.

KATIE GHOSE: We just think that there is a really grotesque amount of money spent in the U.S. on politics.

SHAPIRO: That's a pretty widely-held view in Britain. And this points to a big cultural difference between the U.S. and the U.K. In America, campaign laws value free speech above all else. The Supreme Court has ruled that limits on campaign spending may amount to limits on speech. In the U.K., you hear less about free speech and more about what Ghose calls a level playing field.

GHOSE: If you have one party that's able to just amass a load of money and then shout louder than the others, that's actually not healthy for our democracy. And we wouldn't interpret freedom of speech to mean an unlimited ability to spend, spend, spend.

SHAPIRO: The result is a British political campaign that can seem almost eerily quiet. Unless you follow the news, you might not even realize that this country is less than two months away from an election. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.

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