Lessons From Across The Pond

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

Last Thursday, Great Britain had its big parliamentary election, and the results astonished every single observer: a Tory (Conservative) landslide that no one saw coming.  But there are important lessons for America in the UK election, as many of the politics, and the issues, are the same on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lesson one: pay no attention to pollsters.  They missed the British result by a mile; virtually everyone said the two main parties, Conservatives and Labour, would be tied because they were running neck and neck in the polls.  Turns out this was nonsense; the Conservatives achieved a 99-seat majority over Labour.

In ancient times Roman generals consulted sheep entrails before battle.  The Oracle at Delphi was also helpful.  They would have been as useful in this election as the polls were, and that included the famed American analyst Nate Silver of “538” who called every state in the 2012 presidential election.  He missed the UK result like everyone else.

Second, expect the unexpected.  This election turned on an issue no one saw as recently as a month ago.  It was clear that Scotland was going to vote for a nationalist party that wants to leave the UK, but it also became clear that for Labour to form a government, they would be dependent on the Scottish members of Parliament.  The Tories raised a stink and asked why allow a party that wants to destroy the union to have the balance in Parliament.  Labour did not see this as the defining issue until it was too late.  The lesson: the 2016 presidential election will probably be decided by an issue no one even conceives of today.

Another lesson: competence pays off.  The five-year Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron has turned around the British economy, albeit slowly and painfully.  As Dan Balz of the Washington Post put it, “One key to Cameron’s victory was his focus broadly on the most fundamental of all issues, the economy and, particularly, the improvements that have taken place during his leadership. Incumbency can be a powerful asset during times of a rising economy, and he made the most of it.”

The best thing going for the Democrats in 2016 will be the slow but real turnaround in the US economy.  Stock market prices have more than doubled under President Obama, unemployment is down, and Obamacare is at least reducing the uninsured population.  Stay the course, the famous Republican argument in the Reagan years, may have more salience in 2016 than many people realize.

But there is a danger for the Democrats in going too far to the left, as Hillary Clinton seems determined to do, at least in the early campaign.  Labour leader Ed Miliband abandoned the New Labour policies of former Prime Minister Tony Blair that gave Labour three straight victories beginning in 1997.  New Labour, a more centrist and modern approach, was largely based on the New Democrats that Bill Clinton rode to power in 1992.

But Hillary Clinton seems determined to repudiate her husband’s centrist record on things like crime control, welfare reform and economic growth for a progressive policy of income redistribution.  That’s what Miliband did, taking his party back to the left on themes like taxing the rich and beating up on the inequalities of capitalism.  The voters completely rejected this; the numerous seats that Labour expected to win on a platform of fighting income inequality via wealth redistribution went Tory in droves.  The British electorate, which is generally more liberal than the American electorate, was not buying the progressive platform.

Finally, immigration cuts both ways.  Britain has an immigration problem resulting in a backlash not unlike America’s.  Because it belongs to the European Union there is virtually unlimited immigration to the UK from the poorer parts of Europe.  This is replacing semi-skilled native labor with immigrant labor.

Democrats in this country think there is a sure fire winner for them in immediate citizenship for illegal immigrants and maybe there is with Latino voters, but in Britain you saw a major backlash from voters that believed immigrants were taking away the jobs of natives.  This took the form of a new party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), that ran candidates throughout the country on a platform of leaving the European Union and cutting back on immigration.

It was expected that UKIP would devastate the Conservatives by taking away their voters, but in fact they took away as many Labour voters as they did Conservative voters, and while UKIP ran third in the popular vote, it impact in the end was quite limited.  But in many working class constituencies, UKIP ran just behind Labour as Labour voters felt their own party was not protecting them from job losses due to cheap immigrant labor.  Republicans definitely need to deal with immigration before 2016, but the Democrats face a danger too that their voters will feel abandoned if they are not sensitive to job losses due to immigration.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in an earthquake election that ended British socialism; a year later Ronald Reagan followed with an earthquake in American politics.  In 1992, Bill Clinton reformed the Democratic Party and rode it to victory, as Tony Blair did with New Labour in Britain five years later.  There is a symmetry in UK and USA politics that American politicians and analysts would be wise not to ignore.

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