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Britain goes to the polls tomorrow in one of the tightest elections in living memory. For a political nerd like me it’s been quite enjoyable living here during an election campaign. Despite having the same basic parliamentary system as Britain, Australia has certain key differences, and of course being a different country means that while you might have the same system, you have a different political environment. Both countries’ politics are fucked, but they’re fucked in different and interesting ways.

Labour and the Conservatives are neck-and-neck in the polls, which is to say they’re both on about 34% and, despite what both party leaders claim, they’re therefore both going to fall well short of the majority required to command the confidence of Parliament and thus retain or seize government. John Lanchester has been running an entertaining and informative election diary at the LRB, and he has a breakdown of the potential results here. Suffice to say that no matter how you cut it nobody will get a majority, just as in the 2010 election, when the Conservatives were begrudgingly forced into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Support for the Lib Dems has badly flagged in the five years since then, while north of the border, the Scottish National Party – despite the failed referendum last year – has grown so strong and popular that it’s not out of the question they might win every single seat in Scotland. By far the most likely scenario is that the SNP will be kingmakers, and there is zero chance they will support a Conservative government. Yet Ed Miliband has consistently ruled out a coalition with the SNP, even on an informal basis. This is bizarre. I know he needs to go out on the campaign trail and pretend Labour can win enough seats to form government, but he’s not stupid; he knows how this is going to play out, and his pre-election refusal to deal with the SNP will surely haunt him as much as Julia Gillard’s infamous words “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.”

Speaking of Gillard, one of the ways in which British and Australian politics are similar is that in both countries, the electorate is mortified by the concept of a coalition or a hung parliament, despite this being the norm in most of Europe. I wrote about this a few years back. I believed then – and still believe, in both Australia and the UK – that this is a symptom of the Americanisation of politics, and a sheer lack of understanding about how the nation operates and a childish desire for a “strong” leader. The Westminster system is not supposed to produce a extremely powerful executive like an American president. It’s supposed to produce a legislative assembly which passes laws, with Prime Minister and Cabinet being an afterthought.

The buzzword of the final week of the campaign, courtesy of the Tories and the right-wing press, has been “legitimacy.” People who should know far better have been talking on the BBC and writing in newspaper columns about how unfair it would be if the party with the most seats didn’t form government. That is not how Parliament works, and there’s no excuse for not knowing that, because it’s not a difficult concept to grasp. Nor can I fathom why anybody, apart from die-hard major party supporters, considers the influence of other voices in a diverse parliament to be a bad thing. Who would prefer a single-party government which rubber stamps its agenda, rather than a minority government which must negotiate and compromise with smaller parties and independents? Which of those options sounds like a healthier democracy?

Nonetheless, I have no doubt the British populace will be subjected to constant Tory whining about legitimacy for the next five years in the same way the Australian people were forced to endure Tony Abbott’s aggressive three-year campaign against the legitimacy of the Gillard government. At the moment the Tories seem to be focusing their spite at the SNP (the word “propped up” gets thrown around a lot), which if nothing else totally validates the Yes vote in last year’s Scottish independence referendum. The Scots are being treated like interlopers in their own country’s general election. Still, the Tories would be wise to stay focused on that, rather than arguing that they deserve to form government because they have the most seats; that draws to attention the unrepresentative aspect of the Westminster system, in which the Greens can get 6% of the popular vote but take only one seat, while the SNP can get 4% and take fifty-nine seats. It’s not a thread the Tories should pull. (On the other hand, it worked for Abbott.)

The most important reason this is a superior system than any other, to my eyes, is how entertaining it all is. Not only does Britain have a far larger and more diverse Parliament than Australia, so you can ponder, say, how Cameron might get over the line with the assistance of the Democratic Unionist Party, but the sheer closeness of this election has made it fascinating. It’s essentially a four-way race, with the minor parties holding more power in the post-election negotiating stage than the major parties. An election campaign, as in any country, is the most rigidly stage-managed and predictable part of any political cycle. The real battle for Downing Street begins on Friday. (Make your own majority with the BBC’s weirdly animated tool!)

I thought about whether I should vote or not. I’m entitled to, not only as an Irish citizen, but as a Commonwealth citizen residing in the UK – a courtesy which Australia, at least, doesn’t extend back towards the British. (Curiously, EU citizens residing in Britain are ineligible.) It seems a bit dishonest to vote in an election when I’m leaving the country in a few months. On the other hand, Britain is an important enough country to influence the rest of the world; I doubt Abbott and the IPA would be trying to strip away Australian workers’ basic rights if Reagan and Thatcher hadn’t made neoliberalism the new world religion in the 1980s. I also feel like it’s morally OK to vote because I live in a safe seat anyway – Bethnal Green and Bow, which will almost certainly go to Labour. Of course, this raises the point of whether it’s worth voting at all.

This is where Britain and Australia diverge quite sharply. We have safe seats in Australia as well, of course, but we also have the Senate. Everybody in an Australian state has an equal say in the senators that state sends to Canberra, so your vote matters even if you live in the safest seat in the country. Britain, on the other hand, has the House of Lords. I consider myself a fairly well-read and knowledgeable person, but until I started doing work for the BBC a few years ago, I thought it was just a name. I hadn’t realised the House of Lords is actually an unelected upper house – in the fucking 21st century!

Furthermore, Britain doesn’t have preferential voting, although this is a case where Australia is ahead of the curve rather than Britain lagging behind. It makes the entire voting system deeply undemocratic. If you live in a swing seat, do you make a tactical vote to keep your least preferred party out of office? Or do you follow your heart and vote for the Greens or Plaid Cymru or UKIP? (If you’re a right-wing/libertarian American, think about the choice to vote for Gary Johnson or John McCain in 2012; if you’re a left-wing American, think about the choice between Ralph Nader and Al Gore in 2000.) A preferential voting system removes this undemocratic issue completely, and it still boggles my mind that the British people soundly rejected it in a referendum in 2011. I suppose you can chalk that one up to the power of negative campaigning and the Tory-dominated press.

So I can totally understand why so many British people feel apathetic and disenfranchised. The system is stacked against them. On the other hand, Australia’s compulsory voting changes the dynamics once again. In Australia, a safe seat is definitely safe, because virtually everybody votes. In Britain, the turnout was 65% at the 2010 election; slightly higher than the 58% turnout in the 2012 US presidential election, but still shameful. As long as voter participation remains so low, you can’t really argue that your vote doesn’t matter or won’t change anything, even if you live in a safe seat.

So I’m going to vote tomorrow. If I was in a marginal I’d vote for Labour, but I’m not, so I’ll vote Green. The Green Party of England is a little more soy-and-lentil than their respectable (and respectably successful) Australian counterparts, but I nonetheless feel it’s an important movement that needs support. Tim Winton once said that a hundred years ago it was a case of “Daddy, what did you do in the war?” whereas in the future it will be “Daddy, what did you do to stop our planet turning into a salt pit?” But, yes, really, I’m going in to vote because I’m an irredeemable nerd and I’m curious to see what the process is like in another country.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986) 302 p.

I read a book when I was in primary school called Castle In The Air, a great little Arabian Nights-styled fantasy adventure which stands by itself for the most part, and only becomes confusing towards the end when it becomes clear that it’s a sequel to another book and a bunch of old characters pop up. I suppose my reading choices were limited by what the school library had in those days, because I never ended up reading the first one, Howl’s Moving Castle, or any of Jones’ other books – I think I tried Hexwood but found its plot far too confusing for my age. Howl’s Moving Castle was, however, adapted into a film by Hayao Miyazaki in 2004. It’s not his objective best (that would be Spirited Away) but it’s far and away my favourite of his films: a beautifully creative unconventional fantasy which also slots neatly into my beloved genre of “oddball crew on a weird vehicle.”

So anyway, I thought I’d give the book a shot. It was an experience oddly similar to reading The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: obviously very different novels, but both cases where the film adaptations are equally brilliant, and pretty faithful – in some instances Miyazaki has replicated the book right down to certain gestures or seemingly unimportant lines of dialogue. The plot, in both the film and the book, revolves around a young woman named Sophie working in a hat shop in a town at the edge of a wild waste, which is the domain of the mysterious wizard Howl and his legendary moving castle, and also of an evil witch. After being paid a visit by the witch for reasons unknown, Sophie finds herself magically transformed into an old woman, with the curse also preventing her from telling anybody about what’s happened. She leaves the hat shop, sets off into the Waste and encounters Howl’s castle.

I think it’s a good book, but as with The English Patient, found it difficult to judge it separately from the film. I prefer the film, which is unsurprising since I’ve loved it for so long, but it’s also because the book has a few too many extraneous characters and plots, and is written in a sort of semi-fairytale style which makes the characters’ motivations and feelings more muddied. (That’s a first – the Japanese story making more sense.) I still liked it quite a bit, intend to read Castle In The Air again, and would recommend it for young fantasy readers. Watch the film as well, though.

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May 2015