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Letter from London: Mirroring US Politics and a Plug for the Golden State

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe
Senior Fellow at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California

We came to London for a respite from the lunacy of American politics, only to have underscored how like the U.S. model British politics have become. And I’m not talking parliamentary sex scandals here!

Observing media coverage of the annual Labour Party Conference revealed a party torn by ideology and a campaign process that relies on selling personality as well as policy. (The Brits are not yet at the stage where the parties’ parliamentary leaders drive the national party’s electoral fortunes the way U.S. Presidential candidates tend to do. But—for better or for worse—the Brits are getting closer.)

Lynton Crosby,  an Australian political strategist who helped elect Conservative Boris Johnson Mayor of London, laid it out this way in The Times: Labour’s “electoral success hinges on universally targeted, simple messages on the economy, welfare and the character of Ed Miliband [the Labour Party leader].”

And watching the Labour Conference unfold on BBC, I’d say not necessarily in that order!

The importation of political strategists and consultants from exotic places like Australia and America has helped to move British elections closer and closer to the candidate-centric U.S. model. It seems as though anyone who’s ever helped elect (or claims to have helped elect) a U.S. President might be sought after by Britain’s major parties.

And there’s a potential ideological divide brewing within the Labour Party. Remember “New Labour”—the party dragged, sometimes kicking and screaming—toward the center by former Prime Minister Tony Blair? The media, Labour’s political opponents and some disgruntled Blairites have attacked Miliband for moving the party left again.

Conservatives have dared to label Labour’s policy agenda as “socialism,” and Peter Mandelson, one of the key architects of New Labour, attacked Miliband, his own party’s leader, for his Conference promise to consumers to freeze energy prices.

This week the Conservative Party was on parade. Observing the Conservative Conference reveals a party afraid of itself—or, more precisely, in a near panic over the potential impact of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), a libertarian, right-wing, populist, minor party, on Conservative electoral fortunes. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron could form the current government only in coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party, the UK’s socially, economically and environmentally center-of-left third party. (You see, in both the States and the UK, politics continually make strange bedfellows.) Conventional wisdom is this won’t—can’t—happen again. That’s why Ukip will be so important to the Tories in the 2015 elections.

There’s some validity to the description of Ukip as the Tories’ Tea Party. Both share a distrust of government, an “anti-politics” attitude, are concerned about immigration and taxes. The Tea Party has a high percentage of Republican members (who maintain their GOP registration); Ukip shows a high proportion of ex-Conservatives among its membership—but, because Ukip is a separate political party, not a faction or interest group, its members have to surrender their previous party registration to join. That can’t help the Tories.

So Cameron and his government are caught in an ideological and political cross-fire between those who insist it’s necessary to woo current, and potential, members of Ukip over to the Conservative cause and those who argue that moving farther to right can only shrink the party’s base. Sound familiar?

Why did Cameron surrender to the Commons’ vote against engaging in Syria? It was, in part, because “Ukip says NO to war in Syria,” as its publicity cries out. The P.M.’s position is not unlike that of U.S.  House Speaker John Boehner, who has been pulled right by his Tea Party membership, on issues like Syria, immigration, and the government shutdown, out of fear of losing the GOP House majority and trashing his own political career.

Several studies show that the Conservatives risk becoming a regional party, unless they broaden their electoral base.

Just as in the U.S., where the national GOP is becoming more a regional party, centered primarily in the South, the Tory Party has been shrinking, with their strongest representation in the South and Southeast of England.

More importantly, argue some Tory leaders, the Party needs to embrace England’s ethnic minorities or risk losing the 2015 General Election outright.  According to The Times, “In the 2010 election only 16% of [ethnic minority] voters chose the Conservatives, compared with 68% who supported Labour.”

Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Conference gave every indication that he understands the need to woo the middle and swing voters, to gain—as he pledged—an outright Tory majority in Parliament in 2015. Sure, he gave a sop to Ukip with some tough language on immigration and banged his Lib-Dem coalition partners on taxes, but he also called for a shout-out for the country’s social workers—something not likely to be heard at a GOP convention.

Oh, and it looks like Scotland is Britain’s Texas, although the country is father along the road to secession than the Lone Star State. In September 2014, Scotland will vote on a referendum to decide whether it will become an independent nation.

(Here’s an interesting sidelight to the P.M.’s speech. He never once mentioned the United States—although he mentioned other countries. He did, however specifically call out the Golden State and Silicon Valley. “We’ve got to compete with California on innovation,” he told Conference delegates.

There is one significant difference between American and British politics. No, it’s not our systems of campaign financing. The Tories, like the GOP, rely heavily on business and corporations for support and Labour, well, on labor unions. And it looks as though soft money swirls around the British system as it does around ours.

Here is where the American system shines: Politics in Britain, in Cameron’s negative terms, may be “London-centric,” here they tend to be, more positively, pet-centric.

Last week, 10 Downing St was forced to issue a denial to a claim that the PM and his family disliked Larry, the resident Downing St. cat. That would never happen for Bo and Sunny at the White House—or Sutter Brown, California’s First Dog.

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