‘We don’t do God,’ endless campaigns and big ad spends: How UK election races differ from American ones

Must read

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, left, and U.S. President Joe Biden speak at the start of the meeting of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) during the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 11, 2023.

Paul Ellis | AP

The U.K. and U.S. have a lot in common — a shared language, history, democratic ideals and values. But when it comes to politics, us Brits do things very differently from our American friends.

Those differences are plain to see as election campaigns ramp up in the U.K. and U.S., ahead of the British vote on July 4 and the U.S. ballot on Nov. 5.

Of course, our political systems encompass different electoral procedures and processes, but there are other nuances to how the Brits and Americans do political races differently. Here are a handful of them:

1) Campaigns

By the time a presidential election takes place in the United States, the electorate will have already endured months of seemingly endless electioneering — with the entire election campaign process from candidacies and the campaign trail to the actual presidential election and inauguration taking up to two years.

In the U.K., the time frame between a prime minister calling a general election to the actual vote is just six weeks. American readers might, very reasonably, read that and weep.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer boards his campaign ‘battle bus’ after holding a Q&A with students during a visit to Burton and South Derbyshire College in Burton-on-Trent, whilst campaigning for next month’s General Election on July 4. Picture date: Thursday June 27, 2024. 

Stefan Rousseau – Pa Images | Pa Images | Getty Images

With such a tight window in which to win voters’ support, the leaders of Britain’s political parties dash about the U.K. on campaign “battle buses” as they try to visit as many constituencies as possible to persuade voters to elect the local party candidate as a member of Parliament (MP).

The party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons (the British Parliament) usually forms the new government and its leader becomes prime minister. It sounds simple, and usually is, unless there’s a “hung parliament” in which no political party wins a majority of seats. In that case, the largest party can either form a minority government or enter into a coalition government of two or more parties.

Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, told CNBC that there are many historical and structural differences between the countries when it comes to politics, and reasons why American campaigns are so much longer.

“The hugeness of the election in the U.S. is a function of the massive amounts of money at play to some degree. You do have to have these long periods of fundraising alongside campaigning and we just have completely different rules and structures around that.”

2) Election spending and ads

Money is certainly one of biggest differences between U.K. general elections and U.S. presidential elections. Stateside, billions of dollars can be fundraised and spent on campaign activities and political ads, far above that spent in the U.K. (after all, the parties in Britain only have six weeks in which to spend the money!).

For a Brit, the money raised and spent by Republicans and Democrats during election campaigns is eye-watering. In April, the U.S. Federal Election Commission released data that showed that during the first 12 months of the 2024 election cycle (covering 2023), presidential candidates collected $374.9 million and disbursed $270.8 million, while political parties received $684.5 million and spent $595 million, and political action committees raised $3.7 billion and spent $3.1 billion, according to campaign finance reports filed with the commission.

There are political action committees, or PACs, with a number directly raising money and making contributions to candidates’ campaigns or parties. In the case of “super PACs,” such committees raise and spend an unlimited amount of money in support of their preferred candidates, often funding large-scale ad campaigns.

Former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a campaign event in Philadelphia on June 22, 2024.

Tom Brenner | Reuters

In the U.K., meanwhile, the Electoral Commission sets out strict rules on spending limits for political parties contesting the general election in Great Britain (made up of England, Wales and Scotland). In England, for example, the limit is whichever the greater is of £1,458,440 ($1,845,098) or £54,010 times the number of seats the party is contesting in each part of Britain. Parties can be fined, and often are, for breaching those limits.

In the U.K., political advertising on TV and radio is not allowed, so U.K. voters are subjected to the somewhat quaint “party political broadcasts” during election campaigns. That’s where parties are allocated broadcast slots, free of charge, on radio and TV channels in which they can set out their election pledges. The broadcasts are sporadic, however, and easy to miss, unlike the thousands of ads in the U.S.

3) ‘We don’t do God’

You will never hear a British politician — at least not a mainstream one — mentioning God in a political speech or campaign. Ever.

Religion, in general, is kept separate from politics in the U.K., a multifaith country but also one in which religious belief is declining, particularly among younger generations. Just under half (49%) of Britons surveyed in 2022 said they believed in God — down from three-quarters (75%) in 1981, according to a study by King’s College London published last year.

While it’s common to hear U.S. politicians proclaim “God bless America,” jaws would drop in the U.K. if a British politician made such an expression of faith in a political speech. Political aides say the subject is better left alone.

Britain’s then-Prime Minister Tony Blair (R) and his official spokesperson Alastair Campbell, leave the Inverness Royal Academy after meeting schoolchildren there, in 2001.

Ben Curtis – Pa Images | Pa Images | Getty Images

Alastair Campbell, who served as the Labour Party’s director of communications and strategy under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, reportedly interjected with the now famous phrase “we don’t do God,” when Blair, then a member of the Church of England, was asked about his faith while in power.

On another occasion, Blair was reportedly keen on ending a speech with the phrase “God bless Britain” but later said he was advised against it, noting that “one of the civil servants said in a very po-faced way ‘I just remind you prime minister, this is not America’ in this very disapproving tone, so I gave up the idea.” Blair converted to Catholicism on leaving office in 2007.

An aversion to mixing politics and personal belief still runs deep in British public life, Dan Stevens, professor of politics at Exeter University, told CNBC, unlike in the U.S.

“They’re just a much more religious society than we are. The U.K., along with much of Western Europe, is just so secular it’s just not even something worth talking about. Whereas in America, although it is secularizing, particularly among younger people … there is still this need for political candidates, including people like Donald Trump, to espouse some kind of religion to earn the electorate’s trust.”

4) Age is just a number

U.K. voters have been hearing a lot in the press about how U.S. election debates have focused on incumbent President Joe Biden‘s age. Indeed, British politicians look like whippersnappers when compared with the 81-year-old president and 78-year-old Republican candidate Trump.

Democratic Party presidential candidate U.S. President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate former U.S. President Donald Trump speak during a presidential debate in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., June 27, 2024 in a combination photo.

Brian Snyder | Reuters

Incumbent British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is a youngster in comparison, at a mere 44 years old while Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party and, polls suggest, the man likely to become the next prime minister, is “only” 61.

“There are so much older candidates in the U.S.,” the Policy Institute’s Duffy told CNBC, describing it to a “gerontocracy trend” in which society is governed by old people. “It’s very different from around the world where we’re actually seeing a decline in the age of world leaders.”

In the U.S., the age of the candidates reflects the decades it takes to build “political capital and connections,” Duffy said. With support for Biden shaken by his poor performance in a televised debate with Trump, it’s that political capital and connections that appear to be keeping Biden’s election campaign alive.

5) ‘Culture wars’

Another point of difference in British elections, and politics in general, is that “morality issues” are not prominent points of debate, dissent or divergence. Unlike the U.S., where the abortion debate, gun control and gay marriage are sources of contention, those debates are not hot topics in the U.K. where abortion is legal, gun ownership is rare and heavily restricted (critics would argue the U.K. has a knife crime problem instead), and gay marriage is (aside from among some members of the clergy) uncontested.

Attendees hold large Pride flag at the 2023 LA Pride Parade on June 11, 2023 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

Rodin Eckenroth | Getty Images

Similarly, “identity politics” and “culture wars” — the umbrella term for conflicts between often opposed political groupings with different cultural values and beliefs — are not so prominent in the U.K. But the U.K. does have our “moments” — the topics of immigration, transgender rights, the U.K.’s relationship with the European Union (yes, Brexit is still “a thing” eight years after a referendum on EU membership) and assisted dying are hot topics where divisions are evident among the British press and public. Still, such issues are seen as “more of a personal rather than a party issue” in the U.K., according to John Curtice, a top U.K. polling expert who has studied British social attitudes extensively.

“Moral issues of life and death are indeed taken out of our party politics, but other aspects of the argument between social liberals and social conservatives are not taken out, and it’s become more important,” he told CNBC.

6) ‘Absurd’ diversions

British political experts note that, unlike in the U.S., where broad political debates tend to remain the key focus, U.K. election campaigns can see more minor or fringe issues dominate the short election campaign.

A betting scandal has erupted in Britain in recent weeks, for example, after several candidates for the Conservative Party, and a candidate for the opposing Labour Party, were found to have placed bets on the date of the general election before it was officially announced, and its outcome, leading to accusations of impropriety in public office. It’s uncertain what amounts were staked, and those accused deny wrongdoing, though investigations have been launched by the U.K.’s gambling watchdog and the police.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) meets with a British D-Day veteran during the UK Ministry of Defence and the Royal British Legion’s commemorative ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the World War II “D-Day” Allied landings in Normandy, at the World War II British Normandy Memorial near the village of Ver-sur-Mer, which overlooks Gold Beach and Juno Beach in northwestern France, on June 6, 2024.

Ludovic Marin | Afp | Getty Images

Before the gambling debacle, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to skip the main D-Day commemorations in France also caused a massive stir in the British press, who questioned his judgment. Such “diversions” during British election campaigns are common, and often pertain to issues that start as “matters of principle” that are then “taken to absurd lengths,” according to Stevens.

“There’s a tendency for our campaigns to veer off in these strange directions where we just lose the big picture,” Stevens said. “I don’t think that happens in America where maybe the stakes are just higher,” he said.

“There, the stakes are just massive.”

More articles

Latest article