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London Calling: Washburn Students Experience UK Election from the Ground Up

John Shively and Jack Van Dam with UK Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg in Sheffield, England.

John Shively and Jack Van Dam with UK Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg in Sheffield, England.


By Bob Beatty

On April 29, Washburn University student Jack Van Dam participated in a House of Commons simulation for his European Politics political science class. Van Dam played the role of British Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Nick Clegg. One week later Van Dam found himself standing in the Norfolk Arms Pub in Sheffield, England, talking to the real Nick Clegg, who was there for an election rally. “He was quite surprised there was a ‘Kansas Nick Clegg,” but was impressed we had gone into such depth studying British politics,” says Van Dam. “Then he invited us to join his campaign team on election day. We did, and ended up canvassing with the Lib Dems in Sheffield from five in the morning until the polls closed at ten that night. We walked over 20 miles but did get several tea breaks.”

            Van Dam and fellow political science major John Shively were in Great Britain as part of their Washburn Transformational Experience projects, which are based on analyzing the 2015 British elections from a unique vantage point: The ground up. To that end, the two embedded themselves in the campaigns of candidates for parliament from the three major UK parties in the week leading up to the May 7 election. This technique, popularized by political scientist Richard Fenno, brought Van Dam and Shively into the Labour campaign in the Croydon Central constituency of South London, into the Liberal Democrat campaign in the Sheffield Hallam constituency of Sheffield in North England, and with the Conservatives in Buckinghamshire, England. In all cases, says Van Dam, “They treated us remarkably well and included us in all their activities, from canvassing to hustings (British word for debate) to rallies. It was a rare experience, and irreplaceable for our project.”

            Given the students’ unique vantage point, they noticed some interesting differences between elections for parliament in the UK and elections for congress in the United States, including one that Americans might be shocked to learn: “In British elections, candidate TV ads are not allowed,” says Shively. “Can you imagine an entire election without TV ads? We couldn’t, until we saw it for ourselves. I think that changes the dynamic of elections over there, and in a positive way.”

            Van Dam agrees. “Without TV ads, there’s just not a lot you can spend money on over there in the constituencies, so the system forces the candidates to be much more active and connected to their constituencies and their parties. In the U.S. money can play such a large role in our elections, but in the UK it’s a non-factor in the elections we observed.”

            Shively also thinks that the barrage of TV ads in US elections lull voters and candidates into a false sense of engagement with the issues, an engagement that by its very nature is going to be shallow. He gives as an example the Croydon Central constituency, where the Labour candidate Sarah Jones was locked into a tight battle with Conservative incumbent Gavin Barwell. In the weeks leading up to the election the candidates’ did ten hustings at various venues around the constituency, the last of which Shively and Van Dam attended. “At that final hustings,” says Shively, “the room was packed and it was really more like a town hall than a debate. It was the kind of discussion during an election that democracy demands, but we don’t have as much here.”

            Van Dam also notes that the British have more choices on election day. “Here we have Democrat and Republican, but in the UK five parties won five or more seats in the parliament. If you’re not happy with the two major parties, there certainly are alternatives, especially in Scotland!” (note: The Scottish National Party did very well on May 7, winning 56 of the 59 available seats in Scotland).

            As part of the Washburn Transformational Experience requirements, Van Dam and Shively will present their case study on the 2015 British elections in a public presentation in the fall.

Jack Van Dam attends a rally with Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg.

Jack Van Dam attends a rally with Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg.