Hidden lessons from the UK election for the US
Not surprisingly, we are awash in declarations that the British election results “prove” that Democrats here must adopt the writer’s long-held views. In fact, transnational political lessons are rarely as clear as these writers claim, and those of the UK election are no exception. Still, several aspects of the British experience do bear consideration here.
First, the object of elections is to win. Although the British Conservatives received less than 44 percent of the vote — and right-wing parties overall garnered only 47 percent — everyone across the spectrum is describing this as a landslide victory for the Tories.
In the U.S., by contrast, progressives spend far too much time pointing out that Hillary Clinton received more popular votes than Donald Trump. Like their British counterparts, both U.S. candidates knew the rules going in and designed their campaigns accordingly. No one on either side of the Atlantic thought that winning the popular vote would affect anything. The contrast is particularly striking because in Britain, the Right really did lose the popular vote while in the U.S., right-wing candidates won a small but clear popular vote majority in 2016.
Second, muddled messages work badly. This was particularly true on the defining issue of the campaign, Brexit: the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. The three parties clearly supporting Brexit — the Conservatives and the far-right Brexit Party and UK Independence Party — increased their collective share of the popular vote by 1.4 percentage points. The five parties clearly opposing Brexit — the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalists, the Welsh Plaid Cymru, the Northern Irish Social Democratic and Labor Party, and the Greens — increased their collective share of the vote by 6.2 percent.
By contrast, the three parties that were not clearly working for or against Brexit fared badly. Although none are moderates in the traditional left-right sense, their ambivalence on the defining issue of the day cost each of them dearly.
Labor’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was a long-time Euroskeptic who half-heartedly campaigned for remaining in the EU during the 2016 referendum. Since Brexit won that referendum by a slender majority with strong Russian support, he has insisted that Labor supports implementing the result but opposes all the Brexit deals Conservative prime ministers advanced. Much of the rest of the party supported a new referendum giving voters the chance to reverse the 2016 result. Voters of both persuasions found the party untrustworthy and deserted it in droves: It lost 7.9 percentage points and more than one-fifth of its seats.
The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland propped up the Tories’ minority government and claims to be supportive of Brexit but helped torpedo each of the proposed Brexit deals. It lost a significant fraction of its vote share and two of its ten seats.
Sinn Fein, the political heirs of the Irish Republican Army, claims to oppose Brexit — but it runs for seats in parliament and refuses to take them, which has the effect of making majority votes easier for the Conservatives to achieve. It broke even on seats but lost a quarter of its vote.
In this country, Harry S. Truman once said that “Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for the real Republican all the time.” Yet some Democratic candidates are eagerly blurring their message by adopting Republican talking points. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has taken to lecturing Democrats about the budget deficit — a deficit that was blown up by Republicans’ 2017 upper-income tax cuts. Vice President Joe Biden, in turn, has insisted that he can restore bipartisanship without explaining what concessions that would require to a Republican Party that has forced most of its moderates into retirement.
A third lesson from the British election is on the importance of trust both within a political party and between a party and the voters. And here, both the Left and the Center of the Democratic Party have much to learn.
A major factor in Labor’s defeat was the unpopularity of its leader. Jeremy Corbyn struck many as too rigidly socialist and possessing too little judgment to become prime minister. But those saying that he is a symptom of a party gone too far to the left are seeing only part of the story.
Jeremy Corbyn won his initial leadership election — and defeated efforts to unseat him — because progressives had become deeply suspicious of their party’s establishment. That establishment gave them good reason for distrust by deliberately betraying progressive values. Tony Blair celebrated his rejection of Labor’s leftist traditions and proceeded to follow George W. Bush into the Iraq War on false pretenses.
Corbyn’s opponents for party leadership echoed Conservative talking points that the last Labor government had been fiscally irresponsible, requiring subsequent austerity.
In the U.S., Bill Clinton betrayed progressives even more egregiously. He bragged about his ability to “triangulate” by working as hard against progressives as he did against Republicans. He proudly signed into law major setbacks for civil rights, civil liberties, low-income people, immigrants, vulnerable parents, environmental stewardship, and other long-time progressive priorities.
Blair and Clinton insist that their abandonment of progressives was crucial to their victories. Both, however, arrived at a time when charismatic leaders who built conservative juggernauts — Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan — had been replaced by much-less-gifted successors, and voters had tired of long conservative rule.
Seeing Corbyn as their only protection against a return to Blair-style betrayals, progressives stood by him even as his liabilities became increasingly apparent. Similarly, U.S. progressives have imposed purity tests on Democratic candidates — particularly support for single-payor health care — for fear that anyone not taking that pledge will betray them as Bill Clinton did.
To avoid the disaster that befell Labor, U.S. progressives need to relax their litmus tests, assessing candidates instead on the broad range of their proposals and what their records say about their values. Establishment candidates, in turn, need to stop inflaming progressives’ fears by echoing Republican talking points or minimizing progressive values.
David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1