Don’t understand the UK election? Here’s the simple answer…

Britain is f*cked.

Gone are the days when power was exchanged between the main political behemoths — Labour and the Conservatives. Recent years have heralded the emergence of several smaller parties with divergent and competing ideologies, each flourishing by tapping into the electorate’s increasingly visceral scorn at the political status quo.

Britain’s “first past the post” voting system (the same used to elect to Congress) was designed to create majority governments — yet for the second election running it will yield no winning margin. That’s because neither the Labour Party nor the Conservatives will get within a piss-length of the post (let alone be the first to cross it) such has been the hemorrhage of voters to the political fringe.

Without sufficient members of parliament (MPs) to form a majority, the two main parties are fated to court potential partners, such as Nigel Farage’s fiercely Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (Ukip), Nicola Sturgeon’s pro-secessionist Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), and the Liberal Democrats, cohorts in the last coalition, led by Nick Clegg (who are likely to be decimated by voters, thus limiting their influence). The Greens, alongside the nationalist party of Wales (Plaid Cymru) and the unionist DUP of Northern Ireland, complete the undercard.

Backroom negotiations start on May 8; it’s a hand of high-stakes poker with each party gambling on how much of their own agenda they can compromise in exchange for power. The Tories and Ukip form a potential center-right alliance, Labour and the SNP a prospective center-left counterbalance. No combination therein is likely to produce a stable government, with Clegg this week predicting another general election before Christmas.

This is simply democracy working, you’re no doubt squealing at the screen. Yes — a coalition government can (in theory) mean a broader range of interests is represented in Westminster. However, the core vision of Ukip is to take Britain out of the European Union, while the SNP is determined to beak up the United Kingdom.

Current Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader David Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU by 2017. The increasing popularity of Ukip, to whom the Tories have been leaking members and MPs, allied to a general suspicion towards Britain’s European partners makes an exit all the more likely, an economically ruinous outcome for both the U.K and the continent.

On the economy, the U.K.’s budget deficit is stuck at 5 percent of GDP and though the last coalition (the Tories and the Lib Dems) cut unemployment, this came at the expense of living standards, with declining wages and soaring house prices disproportionately affecting Britain’s young.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has promised to tackle the deficit with smaller, less painful strides, allied to tax increases for the wealthy, including a levy on houses priced at more than £2 million. All very progressive, but to enact these reforms he’ll need the support of the SNP, who look set to become Britain’s third largest party.

Although the nationalists are unlikely to push for an independence vote in the next parliament (last year’s vote was defeated 55 percent-45 percent) their increasing power makes a second referendum and Scotland’s eventual dismemberment somewhat inevitable — again, with huge economic implications for the U.K. and beyond.

So here’s Sophie’s choice for Britain: leave the EU or end the UK. Think upon that the next time you’re getting charged up about Hillary’s donors or Ted’s hosts.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

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A black president, but America remains troubled

Watching President Obama’s acceptance speech in the early hours of that November morning, one had the feeling that history, for one of those seldom moments in life, was tangible, material… almost touchable.

It could have been the lateness of the hour or the cheap wine, but I was sure this was a demarcation point in American history – just as significant as the Gettysburg address or the falling of the Berlin Wall.

Its true impact is the remit of historians yet to come, though even the most dismissive of their discipline will surely note the general and widespread welcome that accompanied Obama’s victory. When else has the world rallied so universally around the story of one man?

However, lost behind the placards and crowds, overlooked by a media carouselled by the public mood were those who felt not so much the comforting hand of history, but a sharp jab to the stomach.

Racists from the wrong end of the Republic were dismayed. Those of equally bigoted bent around the globe no doubt felt the same. Yet a more subtle form of racism has since emanated from a hard-right fringe of political commentators for whom Obama’s election sticks in the craw.

We all winced at those moments during John McCain’s campaign when Republican housewives offered the microphone would use the moment to question Obama’s heritage.

“He’s a Muslim and an Arab,” was an oft repeated charge from the flag-waving throng.

These allegations have wandered even further down an intellectual cul-de-sac in recent months with a small group of conservatives actively seeking to delegitimise the election through increasingly wild claims about Obama’s birthplace.

Know as Birthers, the attackers are directly questioning Obama’s eligibility to be president by suggesting the Hawaiian-born Democrat was, in fact, born in Kenya, despite firm evidence to the contrary, including Obama’s birth certificate, issued by the Republican-held state.

The White House press office has even taken the step of placing the certificate online, making it freely available to download. However, the Birthers maintain the certificate is a forgery, thus making his presidency illegal under Article II of the U.S. constitution.

These claims have been widely vilified in the American press, yet the whispering campaign continues, some going as far as to suggest Obama is a plant, a Muslim agent, the centrepiece of an international conspiracy to take over the USA. Would the far right go down this road if Obama were anything but black? If Arnie, a non US-born white Republican, was to suggest a change in the constitution allowing him to run for the top job, it would be interesting to see what, if any, outcry would follow.

Unfortunately the Birthers – a collection of activists and conspiracy kooks – have received encouragement from some quarters with popular commentators, including radio host Rush Limbaugh and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, adding credence to their claims.

Recent weeks have seen plenty of disenchantment with the current administration, with conservatives rallying around town hall meetings to protest at healthcare reform. Is it Obama who is the source of their angst or his reforms? For the majority, it is probably the latter. Having been preached to about the evils of socialism since the end of the Second World War, is it any surprise that your average American is voicing concern over Obama’s proposed healthcare plans?

The Birthers have clearly benefited from a credulous population, many of whom will turn automatically to a conspiracy theory, comforted by the feeling that at least they know “the truth”. You hardly need to trawl the internet to find thousands of sites dedicated to ill-considered theories surrounding 9/11, the holocaust, the moon landings and now Obama’s birth.

During the election, many analysts felt uncomfortable predicting the outcome because of the Bradley Effect – a theory suggesting that some white voters wouldn’t vote for Obama simply because he is black. That Obama was elected suggests that the effect was minimal, though we’ll never truly know.

As such, the current town hall challenges facing the administration are more likely to be a result of the president’s progressive policies (warped by Republicans shouting “communism” at every opportunity) than the colour of his skin.

But the fact a conspiracy theory as bizarre as the Birthers’ can take root in the U.S. shows that, for all the optimism surrounding Obama’s win, America remains a society deeply troubled by race.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.

God will win the US election

There have been plenty of subplots to the 2008 American election, the two most obvious being gender and race. Women, it seems, have finally arrived at the sharp end of US politics, while the Democratic nomination of an African American could be prove a watershed in US history.

Should Obama lose on November 4th, the election will be viewed in hindsight as entirely about race. However, beneath gender and race is another even larger undercurrent, a river of division soaked into the soul of American society – that of religion. God, it seems, has the casting vote. In a country founded on Puritanism, religion has provided a backdrop to every US election in history, even more so in recent times thanks to the political mobilisation of the evangelical Right.

There’s a widely held belief in the States that a non-believer could never be elected to the White House. This is not necessarily true. A non-believer could easily get elected to the White House… as long as they pretended to be a Christian. Bill Clinton is the most recent example. It is probably no coincidence that his wife, Hilary, looked most insincere when discussing matters of God. As long as you profess to be Christian, whether that requires cognitive dissonance or not, you’ve got a chance at the top job.

Not that it needs to be a specific Christian belief – McCain is a Southern Baptist brought up Episcopalian; Barak Obama is a mainline protestant (if you dismiss rumours of a clandestine allegiance to Islam). Even candidate Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which until 1978 was officially a racist organisation, managed to secure plenty of support during his campaign. Christian ecumenism is the key. As long as you have faith, the flavour is up to you.

It is a paradox that a country in which a separation of church and state is written into the constitution requires its politicians to fawn so desperately over the bible and those who purport to speak with its authority. Earlier in the campaign we witnessed Obama and McCain paying due reverence at a faith forum hosted by Rick Warren, a pastor and self-styled leader of the evangelicals whose influence stretches out to the thousands of Megachurches scattered from coast to coast.

Billed by Fox News as the Saddleback Showdown, the candidates went separately to answer questions of leadership, stewardship, world view and international concerns. Playing to the audience, Warren was quick to set the discussion with a Christian framework, swaddling the conversation with religious motifs.

He stopped short of asking who Jesus would vote for, but not by much. It was all good knock-about stuff, as both candidates fell over themselves to kow-tow to the conservative throng. McCain seemed more at home, but neither appeared entirely comfortable opposite such overt religious posturing. Even the selection of Joe Biden as Democratic running mate had a religious slant. Although added to the ticket to add international experience, the Obama camp also hope to appeal to Roman Catholics, as well as the blue collar vote – two areas of weakness for the Illinois senator.

Yet the election took a more sinister turn this week with revelations on CNN about the religious affiliation of the Republican running mate Sarah Palin. The Alaskan Governor, brought in by McCain to help convert some of the disillusioned Hilary voters has enjoyed a mixed start to her Vice Presidential campaign. Several strong speeches early on were tempered by an obvious naivety when it came to international relations (she only recently acquired a passport).

News of her 17-year-old daughter being pregnant out of wedlock also sullied the sheen, though the impact this will have on the core social conservatives of the GOP come November 4th is probably negligible. Far more worrying is Palin’s long-time membership of a Pentecostal church in her home town of Wasilla in which the congregation speak in Tongues, the practise of making unintelligible sounds as if being relayed a message from God (or as some practitioners believe speaking in the language of angels).

The church is also known to practise faith healing and, most troubling of all, believe in End of Days, a cataclysmic event that precedes the return of the Messiah and an ushering of believers to up to heaven. Palin left the church six years ago, yet most Republicans remain quiet on her faith. Whatever her current belief, it doesn’t take a savvy political operator to spot that a person who thinks they can speak directly to the Almighty might unease potential voters.

And the prospect having the second in line to the presidency delighting in a forthcoming Doomsday and a subsequent rapture to heaven should leave more than US residents shifting uneasily in their seats. Palin has gone on record describing US soldiers in Iraq as “on a task from God”. It’s a dangerous sentiment, the kind often peddled by Osama Bin Laden or the mullahs of Iran.

Such comparisons may seem severe, particularly as religious fanaticism manifests itself in different ways. Yet there is no doubting the real danger to the world is fanaticism itself, whether that originates in America, Afghanistan or the Middle East.

“What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a bulldog?” Palin quipped at the recent Republican convention. The answer? “Lipstick”.

So what separates a hockey mom from the other crackpot leaders with a direct ear to God? Let’s hope in this instance it’s a little more than lip gloss.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.