What a Visiting Yankee Learned on the UK Election Trail

07/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I am a Columbia University undergraduate, and a proud American Democrat, but I've spent the past year at Oxford. In October, I joined the Oxford student Labour Club, to learn how my British peers approach grassroots activism. The answer: with a surprising amount of efficiency. In a country that many Americans associate with endless NHS waiting lines, and sluggish bureaucracy, local election campaigns are well-oiled machines.

At 5 a.m. on election day, I gathered with a crowd of over 100 Oxford University students and the local Labour MP Andrew Smith to make a final push for a Labour party victory. Things weren't looking good. The candidate, who has held office for the past 13 years, was expected to lose by at least 700 votes.

In America, the context would have called for a canned speech about the importance of student activism. The politician would have felt the need to get us "fired up" or "ready to go." There was no need for that here in England. We divided into cars, and were immediately sent out to deliver campaign literature. I ended up in the car of the MP (who was dressed down in a sweater and jeans), and he calmly orchestrated the drop-off and pick-ups. Surprisingly chipper for that hour, students power-walked down rows of houses, delivering information to as many voters as possible. "I leapt over a couple gates," one student mentioned casually.

The Oxford Student Labour Club has held canvassing sessions every Sunday morning for the past year. I've attended a few of them, and they're quintessentially British and very convivial experiences. We typically spend three hours knocking on doors and having conversations with voters, and then a fourth hour with the MP or local council leaders drinking pints at a pub.

What surprised me most about these canvassing sessions is that they're more of a tool for effective governance than a tactic for vote-grabbing. The first question we ask constituents is what we can do to make their neighborhood better. Volunteers jot down the responses, and Mr. Smith makes those issues his priorities for the upcoming week.

As the May 6th election approached, the Labour Club shifted the focus of the canvassing sessions to voter identification. On election day, the student activists planned a 15 hour canvassing session, to increase voter turnout. Student organizers sent personalized emails messages to every member on their listserv, to get as many volunteers as possible. It worked. On Thursday, Smith won re-election by 3,000 votes.

Back home at Columbia, students never pass up a chance for activism. Every few years we have a token student hunger strike. Students protest Columbus Day every year (even though the University doesn't recognize it as a holiday). The Columbia Democrats refer to themselves as the "pulse of liberal activism." Yet, for the most part, students are much more likely to put on an Obama t-shirt, than to give up sleep on a weekend morning. I served on the executive board of the Columbia Democrats club, and while we could easily recruit volunteers to go to Virginia with us to campaign on November 4 for Obama, only a handful of students ever attended our local canvassing events.

Even though the May 6th election has been called the most "Americanized" election in British history, in some ways, we Americans would do better to follow the British example. Local elections in Britain are not about rhetoric or about the national agenda, but about hard work, and commitment. British elections are not flashy. Unlike in America, British elections are less of an "event." At night, most Oxford students watched the election results come in around common room T.Vs. "You must find our election so boring," one British friend said to me, "We're not nearly as exciting as Obama or anything." What the British campaigns lack in hype, they make up for in substance. Maybe it's one reason why the off-season campaigns have been so well attended in Oxford. In America, on the other hand, our elections are more of a boom and bust cycle- long periods of apathy with punctuated weeks of enthusiasm.