The UK Election Landslide: A Canary in the Coal Mine for U.S. Democrats

On December 12, the Conservative Party, with a massive landslide in the U.K. parliamentary elections, obtained a solid majority of 365 out of 650 seats. The Conservative Party gained the most seats in any election since 1987, and the greatest vote percentage (44%) since 1979. The Labour Party, a U.K. party with comparable policy positions to the progressive wing of the U.S. Democratic Party, was absolutely crushed, obtaining only 203 seats in its worst result since 1935 [1]. A notable historic similarity in the trajectory of  U.K. and U.S. politics illustrates that the 2019 U.K. election results constitute a stark warning that U.S. Democrats are on a likely road to a 2020 electoral ruin if they continue down their current path. 

While Labour’s fortunes have fluctuated over the last century, Labour has historically been able to consistently rely upon the loyal support of working-class voters, especially miners, in a northern portion of England known as the Midlands, and in Wales. These voters were so reliable that the latitudinally contiguous region became known as the Red Wall (in contrast with American politics, red in the U.K. is associated with Labour and blue is associated with the Conservatives). Some of these Red Wall districts had voted for Labour in every election since the early 1920s [2]. Nevertheless, these voters had become skeptical of globalization and immigration over the last couple of decades as outsourcing gutted the manufacturing sector in northern English towns. They therefore joined voters from many Tory districts in voting in favor of Brexit in 2016. 

In an equally decisive manner, these loyal Labour working-class voters, angered over parliamentary obstruction tactics on Brexit, flipped their allegiance in the 2019 parliamentary elections, obliterating the Red Wall and delivering the election to the Tories [3]. Does this narrative sound familiar? It should. A similar story could be written about Obama voters in the American Rust Belt that narrowly delivered the 2016 election to Trump due to his policy stances on international trade and illegal immigration [4]. These working-class, white swing voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin will likely play a pivotal role once again in the 2020 presidential election. Other striking similarities between the two nations abound.

After the 2016 Brexit and U.S. presidential elections, allegations of foreign election meddling and improper campaign tactics surfaced in both countries, prompting prominent special investigations in both nations. President Trump was ultimately found not to have colluded with the Russian government [5] and Nigel Farage was cleared of allegations of Vote Leave campaign wrongdoing [6]. Nevertheless, the investigative clouds emboldened losers of both votes to claim that the results were illegitimate. Democrats asserted that Hillary Clinton had lost only due to Russian interference [7], while Remainers claimed that the pervasiveness of “disinformation” during the Brexit vote campaign meant that Brexit voters did not know what they were voting for [8]. 

The Democratic and Labour Parties also delivered similar successes in the first elections after the 2016 votes. While Labour was expected to lose the 2017 parliamentary elections, by promising to respect the will of the voters and deliver Brexit, Corbyn’s party was able to nearly close the gap in polling. More importantly, Labour focused its campaign messaging on its economic populist slogan of “For the many, not the few” [9]. By promising to oppose and roll back austerity measures, Labour managed to prevent a decisive Tory majority and deliver a nearly hung parliament [10]. U.S. Democrats were able to take control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms for the first time since the 2008 election by riding a “blue wave” that focused on kitchen table issues like health care, economic inequality, and infrastructure improvement. While a few prominent progressive Democrats, such as the “Squad”,  generated a lot of noise in the media by winning primaries over long-time Democratic incumbents, the House was won back by moderates in Republican-leaning districts, like Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, that promised to set party allegiance aside to work on bipartisan legislation [11]. 

Both the Labour and Democratic Parties ultimately forgot or ignored their election manifestos, however, in order to pursue partisan pet agendas. While Labour had promised to respect the referendum in its 2017 manifesto, the party quickly fractured on its Brexit position. While some Labour MPs from Leave-voting regions of northern England, such as Caroline Flint, continued to promote the pursuit of a Brexit deal [12], others openly began pushing to block Brexit and still, others advocated for a second referendum. Those pushing for a second referendum were split further on whether Labour leadership should advocate for remaining in the E.U. during the hypothetical second referendum campaign or stay neutral [13]. In order to prevent a Tory-lead Brexit, however, nearly all Labour MPs participated in novel parliamentary maneuvers with a handful of Remainer Tory rebels, such as Dominic Grieve, that forced the Prime Minister to delay the Brexit date three times [14]. These maneuvers sucked up the media oxygen for nearly a year and reduced legislative attention to other pressing national issues. 

In contrast, while the Tory MPs were split on the type of Brexit deal they preferred, with European Research Group (ERG) members preferring a “hard” Brexit or even a no-deal exit, and One-Nation Tories advocating for a “soft” Brexit, openly Remainer Tories were small in number and most Tories advocated respecting the will of the referendum vote by implementing Brexit [15]. Tory rhetoric stood in stark contrast to the numerous seemingly undemocratic Labour efforts preventing a new election to break the parliamentary deadlock [16].

In the United States, grandiloquence about the merits of bipartisanship was quickly drowned out by a deafening drumbeat in favor of impeachment being loudly pushed by the progressive elements of the Democratic base. While many Democratic moderates in the House such as Slotkin and Spanberger initially resisted the impeachment drive in the aftermath of the release of the Mueller report, they ultimately joined the drumbeat by co-authoring a prominent op-ed in the Washington Post [17] that played a pivotal role in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to begin impeachment proceedings [18]. While the House did indeed pass numerous meaningful bills such as an increase in the minimum wage, these legislative achievements failed to garner attention in a sensationalistic media obsessed with impeachment. Fair or not, Trump’s “Do Nothing Democrats” moniker arises because the legislative achievements of House Democrats have not seen the light of day either in the Senate or in the news [19]. Furthermore, while American support for impeachment initially spiked, it has gradually declined since the impeachment inquiry began, as President Trump and Republicans castigated the effort as a meritless soft “coup”. As of December 24, impeachment support was underwater nationally in the RealClearPolitics polling average [20]. Impeachment has been especially unpopular in key swing states such as Wisconsin [21]. 

The U.K. election demonstrated that a small shift in the aggregate popular vote can play a decisive role in a First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system in differentiating a hung parliament from a landslide. The Tories only won 1.2% more of the total vote in comparison to 2017, but the geographical distribution of the vote shift in the Midlands and Wales generated a massive change in outcome due to the FPTP system and the participation of five viable major parties in the election. While the Conservative Party lost popularity in the wealthy suburbs of London and in Scotland, its seat gains in the Midlands and Wales more than compensated for these losses [22]. In a similar fashion, U.S. Democrats’ focus on impeachment and attacking Trump’s personality may drive down his and congressional Republicans’ support with affluent, well-educated suburbanites in Democratic-leaning states and districts, but a geographically strategic focus on Rust Belt white-working class voters may more than compensate and prove pivotal in securing a second term for Trump and a Republican House majority. This is due to the “swing state effect” of the Electoral College and the “swing district effect” of the FPTP system for the House of Representatives. Just as “Red Wall” voters in the UK were disgusted by Remainers’ attempts to delay or block Brexit [23], Rust Belt voters despise impeachment and may show their displeasure by voting for Republicans again in 2020. Democrats would be wise to see the UK election results as a flashing red warning light before it is too late and their electoral fate is sealed.

[1]https://www.politico.eu/article/uk-general-election-2019-results-united-kingdom-how-britain-voted/

[2]https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/13/labours-red-wall-demolished-by-tory-onslaught

[3]https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2019/12/the-fall-of-labours-red-wall-is-a-moment-to-celebrate/

[4]https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/21/disaffected-rust-belt-voters-embraced-donald-trump-midwestern-obama

[5]https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/aba-news-archives/2019/03/mueller-concludes-investigation/

[6]https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1177849/Brexit-news-Nigel-Farage-Leave-EU-Brexiteer-EU-exit-referendum-Metropolitan-Police

[7]https://thehill.com/policy/national-security/450877-jimmy-carter-trump-only-won-in-2016-because-of-russian-meddling

[8]https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/07/voters-eu-referendum-did-not-know-what-they-were-voting-for-oona-king

[9]https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/may/27/tory-manifesto-disaster-labour-surge-polls-close-general-election

[10]https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/08/exit-poll-points-to-hung-parliament-in-2017-general-election

[11]https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/05/moderate-democrats-2020/589567/

[12]https://www.politico.eu/list/brexit-40-troublemakers-ranking/caroline-flint/

[13]https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-22/labour-s-brexit-splits-risk-undermining-party-ahead-of-election

[14]https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/aug/15/lib-dems-and-anna-soubry-reject-corbyn-caretaker-government

[15]https://www.politico.eu/article/brexit-8-tory-tribes-conservative-party/

[16]https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/28/boris-johnson-third-attempt-general-election-fails

[17]https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/09/24/seven-freshman-democrats-these-allegations-are-threat-all-we-have-sworn-protect/

[18]https://www.politico.com/news/2019/09/26/nancy-pelosi-impeachment-trump-002118

[19]https://www.vox.com/2019/11/29/20977735/how-many-bills-passed-house-democrats-trump

[20]https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/public_approval_of_the_impeachment_and_removal_of_president_trump-6957.html

[21]https://www.axios.com/trump-impeachment-poll-general-election-states-d9d92ffb-0272-4f7a-8425-68acfc628c49.html

[22]https://www.euronews.com/2019/12/13/how-did-a-1-2-per-cent-vote-share-increase-lead-to-a-conservative-landslide-euronews-answe

[23]https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2019/12/the-fall-of-labours-red-wall-is-a-moment-to-celebrate/

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Steven Schone

STEVEN SCHONE is a senior from Boise, Idaho. He is majoring in economics with minors in political science, math, and geology. He served an LDS mission in Detroit, Michigan. Some of his political passions include addressing climate change, macroeconomic policy, and the day-to-day thrills of “horse race” and entertainment politics. While not obsessively reading or watching the news, he enjoys watching or playing sports. He finds football, basketball, and volleyball particularly enjoyable. After graduating, Steven intends to pursue a Ph.D. in economics.

Steven Schone

STEVEN SCHONE is a senior from Boise, Idaho. He is majoring in economics with minors in political science, math, and geology. He served an LDS mission in Detroit, Michigan. Some of his political passions include addressing climate change, macroeconomic policy, and the day-to-day thrills of “horse race” and entertainment politics. While not obsessively reading or watching the news, he enjoys watching or playing sports. He finds football, basketball, and volleyball particularly enjoyable. After graduating, Steven intends to pursue a Ph.D. in economics.

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