Lessons from Across the Pond

Baruch Nutovic '19
Guest Columnist

In a momentous June referendum last year, Great Britain decided to leave the European Union. On March 29, the British government triggered Article 50, formally announcing its decision to leave the European Union and starting a two-year period for a negotiated exit. At the same time, the United Kingdom is threatened with disunity. There is a renewed push for Scottish independence, and there are calls for independence referenda in Wales and Northern Ireland as well. It’s an incredibly exciting time in British politics, and it’s worthwhile examining the British partisan landscape, the backdrop against which these developments are taking place. Moreover, a glance at the British partisan landscape can provide perspective on politics here in America. 

Changes are afoot in British politics. Parties usually lose popularity the longer they have been in government, but instead the governing Conservative Party is garnering increased support as it approaches its eighth year in power. Its poll lead over Labour, the leading opposition party, has been above ten percent for months, significantly greater than the Conservatives’ margin of victory at the 2015 general election. Prime Minister Theresa May enjoys a strong net approval rating of +13, with voters appreciating her businesslike personal style, centrist policies, and focus on expanding opportunities for the underprivileged. The Conservatives look like they are headed for a landslide reelection in 2020, which is remarkable considering that they entered government in 2010 almost 20 seats short of a parliamentary majority. 

Of course, the Conservative Party’s success is made possible by Labour’s failure. Labour is deeply divided between the moderates who dominated the party from the mid-1990s through the 2010 election, and the radicals who want Labour to be a hard-left socialist party. In two recent party leadership elections, one of the radicals’ leader, Jeremy Corbyn, prevailed. As an almost seventy-year-old white man with impeccable leftist credentials, Jeremy Corbyn is like a British Bernie Sanders, with somewhat less impressive political skills.

The story of Labour under Corbyn is a cautionary tale for those who think the Democratic Party should embrace Sanders-style radicalism. Not only has Corbyn’s weak leadership been incapable of bridging the divides in his factious party, the extremist positions he has adopted have alienated moderates in their millions. Corbyn is about as unpopular in Britain as Donald Trump.   

The result is that Labour’s poll ratings are Labour’s worst as an opposition party in the era of modern polling, at a time in the parliamentary political cycle when opposition parties are usually peaking. Labour under Ed Miliband—Corbyn’s none too popular predecessor as Labour leader—was five-to-ten points ahead in the polls at this stage, and went on to lose the general election regardless. Under Tony Blair’s moderate leadership in the mid-1990s, Labour was generally fifteen-to-twenty points ahead in the polls. It was winning by-elections—elections held to fill seats vacated during a parliament—with historic swings like the almost thirty percent swing achieved at Dudley West in December 1994. This was the prelude to the greatest electoral victory in Labour’s history: its landslide majority of 179 in 1997. 

Today, by contrast, Labour is suffering historic by-election swings to the Conservatives. In the recent Copeland by-election, they suffered a six-and-a-half percent swing to the Conservatives, and lost a seat they had held since 1935. Governing parties generally do very badly in by-elections, since by-elections are an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with the status quo. So for an opposition party to be hemorrhaging support in by-elections is nothing short of catastrophic.  Not since 1982 had a governing party even gained a seat at a by-election, and not since the Worcester by-election of 1878 had a governing party taken a seat with a swing greater than that the Conservative Party achieved in Copeland. 

Labour seems determined to turn the page forever on its most successful chapter. Tony Blair is a hated figure on the British left, partly owing to his partnership with George W. Bush in the Iraq War, but mostly because of his centrist domestic policies. It’s highly ironic since he’s the most effective leader the Labour Party has ever had. Labour has never won two successive full terms in office—except under Blair’s moderate leadership, when it won three. Jeremy Corbyn’s radicalism, by contrast, looks set to deliver a third consecutive Conservative term, with a greatly increased majority to boot. America’s Democrats would do well to consider the lessons of Labour’s struggles. 

In the context of this UK-wide party dynamic, developments in Scotland are all the more interesting. The main divide in Scottish politics is between secessionists and unionists. Naturally, the Scottish National Party (SNP) commands support from almost all secessionists. Historically, Labour was the leading unionist party. At the 1997 general election, Labour took 56 of Scotland’s 72 seats in Parliament. In recent years, due to weak leadership and rising support for independence, Scottish Labour has cratered. At the 2015 general election, the SNP took all of Labour’s seats in Scotland except one. Labour has lost support in every Scottish Parliament election since the parliament was established in 1999.  In the 2016 Scottish Parliament Election, the unthinkable happened: the Conservatives overtook Labour to claim second place behind the SNP. 

The last time a party actually won a majority of the vote in Scotland was when the Conservatives won slightly more than fifty percent in 1955. From that high-water mark, the party began an almost sixty-year decline. Margaret Thatcher was deeply unpopular in Scotland, and her legacy helped bring about the wipeout of 1997, when the Conservatives lost all their seats in Scotland. Their share of the vote in the Scottish Parliamentary Election of 2011 was in the low teens. 

The remarkable Scottish Conservatives revival has been brought about by their leader Ruth Davidson, a veteran, lesbian, and moderate who has done wonders for their image. No longer seen as an essentially English party standing for selfishness and bigotry, the Scottish Conservatives have made major inroads among erstwhile Labour voters. Unionists increasingly prefer Davidson’s strong pro-union stance to the wishy-washy unionism of the Labour Party, which is still trying to win back former supporters who defected to secessionism and the SNP. Ruth Davidson’s success is a testament to the power of personal appeal, centrism, and good strategy in politics. If the United Kingdom is saved, she will have arguably done more than anybody else to save it. 

Conservatives in America would do well to reflect on the stunning success of their ideological brethren in Britain, particularly with respect to women. Britain’s Conservatives have embraced female leadership without giving special preferences to women in their selection of female candidates, as the Labour Party has done. The result: the Conservative Party is on its second female prime minister while the Labour Party has yet to have a female leader. There is practically no gender gap in British elections, which helps explain why Britain’s Conservatives have been so successful. 

There is much to learn from today’s British political landscape. And for political junkies, following British politics can be as addictive as cocaine in times as dramatic as these.