UK/US Political Parallels?

Last night while the Beloved Spouse was off at a holiday-themed meeting of her book club, I was glued to the Sky News coverage of the British election. As you are no doubt aware, the Conservative party won big – bigger than it had since Thatcher’s day. That result was clear from the moment that polls closed – 5:00 PM our time – though, so it wasn’t curiosity about who won that held my attention. Rather, I was fascinated by the emergence in the constituency-by-constituency results of two facts that seem highly relevant to our own politics.

The first of these relates to a profound change in traditional party loyalties. Regions that had been the heart of Labour’s support – old mining and industrial towns – went for the Tories, many for the first time since the 1930s or before. Meanwhile, prosperous, university-educated, urban voters shifted broadly toward Labour, just not in numbers that offset Labour’s losses in its traditional constituencies.

One of the on-air commentators remarked that these shifts represent a seismic change in how the British think about politics: whereas for generations, political loyalties had been determined by class – with the lower classes fiercely loyal to Labour, the upper to the Conservatives – this election marked a shift toward identity-based voting. Those who see themselves as solidly, and perhaps defensively, British voted Tory because Boris Johnson was quite clear about his intention to get Brexit done, while those who saw themselves as happy participants in the global economy either went for Labour, where Corbyn was equivocating on Brexit, but had a chance to win, or for the Liberal Democrats, a party that was fiercely pro-Remain, but had no shot at an over-all victory. (The Scots also voted their identities: they went for the SNP in a big way).

It almost goes without saying that this change in British voting patterns closely parallels the equally-unexpected shift in American voting patterns in 2016, when formerly-solidly-Democrat areas in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Missouri went for Trump while prosperous big-city suburbs moved away from the Republicans and into the Democrat camp.

The second aspect of the British election that fascinated me is the quite possibly decisive role played by a man – a very, very intelligent man, in my book – who was not on the ballot. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party had done very well in the 2017 British election with its extremely clear platform advocating a hard Brexit. Even though Farage thinks of Johnson as a relative “wet” on the Brexit question – Johnson would clearly prefer an exit negotiated on a friendly basis over simply quitting and sorting out the trade arrangements later – Farage decided not to contest yesterday’s election in districts in which he saw a real chance of a Tory victory.

Rather than split the broadly pro-Brexit votes and run the risk of an over-all Labour victory (or, worse yet, a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition that might keep the UK in the EU) , Farage opted for supporting what he clearly saw as a second-best outcome that would inevitably deprive him and his followers of any formal power at all. He chose to advance his policy aims over personal advancement. Consequently, the pro-Brexit vote wasn’t split between the Tories and the Brexit party and the Tories had much better chances of prevailing, as they did.

The Liberal Democrats did exactly the opposite. They contested seats everywhere, offering the clearest anti-Brexit platform, thus giving upper-crust pro-Remain voters an alternative to voting for the frankly odious (but perhaps ultimately pro-Remain) Corbyn. The result was a bloodbath for Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The American parallel to the counter-productive purism of the Liberal Democrats’ strategy is the apparently suicidal desire of the Democratic base to impeach President Trump. Apart from being, in my view, wrong on the facts and the law, Congressional Democrats’ apparent inability to control their base’s Trump Derangement Syndrome -derived compulsion to impeach is, well, stupid. They have no chance whatsoever of removing Trump and, again in my view, a Senate trial can only highlight both the flimsiness of their case and the corruption behind both the Mueller investigation and the Bidens’ family activities in Ukraine. The Trump-obsessed Democrats won’t get what they want and they will almost certainly end up with a lot of egg on their faces.

Like the Liberal Democrats, the Democrats are letting their passions get in the way of their preferred policy outcomes; they are opting for the politics of personal destruction over the steady or considered advancement of their policy aims – and I expect that they will pay a similar price to that of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

And, oh, by the way, Farage will get most of what he wanted in terms of policy outcomes; he’ll also likely be treated as the extremely important power-broker that he is.

M.H. Johnston

12 comments to UK/US Political Parallels?

  • Jose  says:

    While there are certainly parallels between the US and UK situations they can be overstretched. The more interesting story may be Johnson’s effective co-option and likely snuffing of the UK far right, Farage (Nigel not Jeremy) included – his political career may actually have been ended last night. Johnson will drive Brexit for sure, but his policy instincts, insofar as he is anything beyond a very effective opportunist, are far more Michael Bloomberg than DJT. Setting aside parallels between UK Labor and US Dems, which may be more limited than you are presuming, I believe the bigger question for the US – and i am putting this in non-partisan terms – is the fate of the US far right in the GOP tent in 2020 and beyond.

    • M Johnston  says:

      You’re right, of course, about Farage’s name – wrote too quickly (as perhaps you did on yours, or was that a sly joke?), will correct. Thanks. I clearly disagree on Farage disappearing, though. I think he won by losing. Time will tell…

  • DP  says:

    Not sure what happened there. I wrote a long comment and when I saved it, it said I had duplicated it, but actually it was deleted.

    To cut it short, I think Nigel Farage is Brexit’s father, because he was stubborn and single-minded and not afraid to carry out his threats. But he doesn’t own the issue any longer and his power to threaten has evaporated with the election a Tory government with a strong majority and a five year (probable) tenure. He’s Britain’s Ross Perot or John Anderson, and about as popular as the distant , unloved relative you have to invite to a family wedding but will avoid at the reception. He shows no signs to me of wanting to become a mainstream politician.

    This is Boris Johnson’s day and the pundits are only now beginning to realise the practical significance of this realignment after essentially 10 years of divided government. He has gone overnight from being the laughing stock of the Western world’s big country leaders to arguably the one with the strongest domestic position. This is the big story and the one that everyone overlooked, except possibly Boris himself.

    The Economist’s leader this afternoon online broadly mirrors your arguments Mark about realignment:

    https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/12/13/victory-for-boris-johnsons-all-new-tories

  • DCS.  says:

    I broadly agree with this account of how things played out in the uk. It may be helpful to note that between 1997 and 2015 the Labour Party had a broadly centrist / left center leadership. The leadership under Corbyn is left wing socialist. The Tory victory seems to be in part down to a wholesale rejection of the hard left / strongly progressive policies put forward by Corbyn as a conversion to the right. 1983 saw a similar division between a hard left Labour candidate and an incumbent who appealed to the hard working no nonsense values of the working class. In that instance the Tory leader was Margaret Thatcher. Progressive Democrats would do well to take note. Ritual working class voters don’t like having their manners dictated to them by metropolitan progressives.

  • Jim E  says:

    Jose – Electorally there is no such thing as the “Far Right” in the US. It’s just a coded smear term for Trump supporters. Unless you define respect for the law, including immigration law, as being far right – which would be a smear.
    Another US/UK parallel that jumps out is the stark urban/rural split. Anybody who has seen the color coded county mapof the 2016 US election knows what I mean. It doesn’t look like Labour won a single predominantly rural constituency.

    • T. Marcell  says:

      Well said, Jim. As soon as I read “far right”, I sensed a Marxist. For UK readers, there is no far right as a matter of practical politics. There certainly is, however, smearing by Leftists that patriotism is now “nationalism,” opposing views as, “hate speech,” and rightful suspicion of government programs as “bigoted”. But anything that may have resembled a far right here, e.g. the Christian coalition, has long been exiled by the party of Marx. BTW, our media never makes mention of a far Left.

      • M Johnston  says:

        While I agree with the thrust of your comments about the media’s obsession with a virtually nonexistent “far right”, the truth is that your response to “Jose”‘s comment is interesting for reasons you couldn’t be expected to know. “Jose” – a typo for his actual name, or a joke, per my response to his comment – as I know because I can see the email address behind his comment – is no Marxist. He is, in fact, a friend of mine and a very successful capitalist in his own right. But he is also steeped in the assumptions of a political/cultural milieu in which the premise is that the “far right” is the bigger threat to our civil liberties than the (in my view, fascist) left. We disagree with each other – strongly, and publicly – but all in the spirit of friendship.

  • Geezer  says:

    Boris Johnson is no Margaret Thatcher. This is also an interesting interpretation of what the UK election may mean for “conservatives”.

  • Pyrthroes  says:

    This “identity vs. social-class” distinction seems a highly significant insight, as does Farage’s strategic decision not to split the Tory vote. In broader context, ongoing global shifts from 2017 definitively end the requisite 72-year Postwar Period from Hiroshima in 1945; to wit–

    Inescapably, worldwide, three 24-year generations constitute well-defined 72-year demographic-societal eras, whose long-term tone is set by their first cohorts. As social-economist Vilfredo Pareto, 1848 – 1923, noted in his 80/20 rule, the Law of the Vital Few or “principle of sparsity”, all generations break to quintiles whereby 20% of any group drives the other 80%.

    In post-tribal, exchange-based socio-economic milieus fostering entrepreneurial opportunity via open-market risk/reward, “fathers create, sons manage, grandsons dissipate their heritage”. Thus broad polities confront socio-cultural inflection points at regular 72-year intervals: In the U.S., 1788 – 1860; 1860 – 1932; 1932 – 2004 et seq. Just as Russia’s murderous Soviet regime lasted 1919 – 1991, so Red China’s fraying Maoist order begun 1949 faces generational comeuppance in 2021.

    On this basis, what we are seeing here and overseas from Trump’s accession in 2017 is the 72-year, three-generation end of two 36-year epochs, due for radical shifts as bipolar Cold War globalism gives way to diversely competitive regional sectors driven not merely by socio-political/economic cycles but by accelerating commercial-industrial/scientific growth-and-change. From China to the EU, DC’s Deep State three-epoch coup d’oeuvre from 1908 – 2016, contemporary Énarque dirigistes recall post-Versailles’ Lost Generation, dismissing 19th Century forebears’ eternal verities “dead as nail in door.”

  • Michael K  says:

    Boris is well to the left of Trump on economics but that may shift as he accomplishes BREXIT. Good post.

  • a bee ee?  says:

    In all the analyses I’ve read about the election since yesterday, not one mentioned the last Labour leader to bring them back from the brink: Tony Blair, who apparently has not weighed in on his party’s uncertain future.

    It took his realism to take Labour back from the ashes of the Thatcher years. Too bad for them they don’t have anyone with such vision waiting in the leadership wings now.

    Until then, let us be grateful that the Tories won as big as they did, and hope that augurs well for the GOP here next November.

  • Francis W. Porretto  says:

    Party alignments in the U.S. have shifted more than once. It comes as no surprise that they should shift in the U.K. — and over the same major issues, broadly speaking!

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