It’s A Small World, After All

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


Just back from two weeks in London. It was a getaway from California’s dehydrated climate, but not from the many issues that confront us back home.

Britain certainly isn’t facing a drought and we’re not facing the Scottish Independence movement or a decision on whether or not to stay in the European Union. (Although there’s long been grousing about secession from, or splitting up, California. And in many ways, our debate over Fast Track trade authorization mirrors the fight over Britain’s relationship with the EU).

However, every day, the British press and the telly (when not fixated on the FIFA scandal) was full of stories about—and debate over– immigration, high speed rail, fracking, health care, social services, education, trimming the deficit, ISIS and defense spending, privacy, the role of unions and money in politics.

Britain and the US are both representative democracies, but how their systems operate has long differed in many ways. That’s changing. U.K. politicians, it appears, are eagerly raiding our political tool box.

For example, the initiative and referendum processes are in California’s DNA. In the U.K. last year, Scotland held a referendum on the question of Scottish independence (The “No” side won handily). And Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union (EU).

Like America’s—and California’s–Republican Party, Britain’s Conservative Party has been struggling to overcome its long-standing inability to attract a growing number of minority voters. But the Tories appear to be gaining some ground. A U.K. think tank reported that, in this last election, the percentage of “black, Asian and ethnic minority voters” who supported the Conservatives “set a new record for the party …”

Britain’s Labour Party took a beating in this year’s elections, for some of the same reasons the Democrats stumbled nationally in 2014. During Tony Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister, “New Labour” took a centrist tact, mirroring Bill Clinton’s “New Democratic” agenda. Now, Labour has swung left–with unions calling many of the shots. Like Democrats in California, Britain’s Labour Party is now grappling with how closely to identify with the big unions. (The fight for Labour Party leader is lining up as a brawl between more moderate Blairite candidates and the unions’ favorite. Sound familiar?)

Actually, the Conservative Party is not all that conservative by American standards. The Tory policies could pass for a Democratic platform in this many parts of this country. One reason is that UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), the closest thing Britain has to the Tea Party, competes as a separate, if minor, political party. UKIP draws some votes form the Conservatives, but it’s not strong enough to commandeer the Tory agenda.

For those Americans who are fed up with never-ending campaigns and intrusive political media, Britain’s abbreviated election season and its ban on TV spots are most enticing.

The reality is that the British are taking more and more political cues from their American cousins. British Parliamentary elections have taken on the aura of a U.S. Presidential campaign.

Big money and independent spending committees have stirred concerns across the pond. U.S. political consultants have for many years been invading British campaigns. These days, the role of outside political consultants has been amped up—at least in major party campaigns. This year, two high-powered Obama strategists faced off against each other in Britain–with David Axelrod handling Labour and Jim Messina working for the Conservatives.

Over the years, U.S. elections have become more candidate-centric than party-centric. Although Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher had larger-than-life profiles, it was Tony Blair who pushed U.K. campaigns down the American path of “personality politics”, Personality, as well as “trust” and “credibility”, have become key weapons in the arsenal of Britain’s national political leaders. In the end, the Tories’ Cameron was perceived by voters to be more “credible” than Labour’s Miliband (also less goofy).

This year’s parliamentary elections saw several “Presidential-type” debates (although with the leaders of seven British parties involved). And the “breakout star” was neither major party leader, but Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the pro-Independence Scottish National Party (Just ask Britain’s political pundits. Or as our commentators would put it, “Nicola won the media primary.”).

Oscar Wilde was said to observe over a century ago, “We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Not quite.

It’s still true that all politics is local, but “local” has new meaning in our expanding global village. Politically, the language gap between the “motherland” and “the colonies” is narrowing. And here’s a message from the American electorate to our British cousins: It’s nothing to cheer about.

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