For decades Americans and Brits have looked across the Atlantic at one another, seeking omens of the political future. Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal turn in 1979 was matched by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” presidency begun in 1993 presaged Tony Blair’s victory in 1997. The earthquake of the 2016 Brexit vote was followed just four and a half months later by the equally shocking victory of Donald Trump.
Now Americans even take interest in U.K. local elections. Last week, about a quarter of England’s local councilors, half its mayors, the parliaments of both Scotland and Wales, and the London Assembly were all simultaneously up for a vote. A U.K. parliamentary by-election in the North East port town of Hartlepool was also on offer. The race results can be summed up in the lesson of the Parable of the Talents: “to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance.” In England Boris Johnson’s governing Conservative party triumphed. In Scotland the Scottish National Party will go on to its fourth consecutive government. And Welsh Labour is set to embark on its twenty-third straight year as the governing party in Wales.
England makes up 85 percent of the United Kingdom’s population, and it is to England that Americans look for political lessons. Here the story is the remarkable political resilience of the Conservatives, already in their eleventh year in power with no signs of fading, and the continuing collapse of the Labour party. The Tories not only won half the English local council races up for election and now control another thirteen local councils; they continued destroying large sections of Labour’s famed “Red Wall,” a swath of territory in the post-industrial English Midlands and North that prior to 2019 had been voting Labour since time out of mind. In Rotherham, home to the largest child protection scandal in British history, Conservatives went from zero to twenty councilors in a single election. Hartlepool fell to the Tories for the first time since the constituency’s creation in 1974. Conservative gains in County Durham caused the local council to fall out of Labour hands for the first time in a century.
Not all was gloom and doom for Labour. Much like the Democratic party in the United States, Labour in England is the choice of cosmopolitan cities, university towns, ethnic minority voters, the young, and the professional class. Labour mayors won re-election in six of England’s eight largest city regions, including London and Manchester. The party maintained control of local councils in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Newcastle as well as a plurality in the London Assembly. In West Central London—the city’s poshest district, with neighborhoods like Knightsbridge, Chelsea, and Notting Hill—the Conservative candidate won re-election by a mere 1.6 percent vote margin. In 2008 the Tory margin of victory there was 31 percent.
But Labour cannot rebuild its future on the neighborhoods of Nigella Lawson and David Beckham. As Conservatives eat into Labour’s traditional working-class voter base in the North, the Green party is rising on Labour’s professional-class flank. Greens more than doubled their number of local councilors across England to become a viable #4 party nationally. In London they easily surpassed the Liberal Democrats to solidify their position as the capital city’s #3 party. Greens even took a third of Labour’s council seats in Bristol (England’s Portland, Oregon) to tie as the council’s plurality party.
Many have concluded from this election that culture is replacing social class as the main axis of British politics. It is important not to treat culture and class as opposite frames of analysis, however. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observed, (class) positions are strongly correlated with (cultural) dispositions. In England, Brexit is now a symbol of British—or perhaps English—national identity, of pride in the country’s autonomy, institutions, history, and way of life. By promising and delivering on “getting Brexit done,” the Conservatives have reaped the electoral rewards of representing that identity. While Labour under its new leader Sir Keir Starmer sought to play up symbolic commitments to Britishness, its image as the half-hearted party of Remainia was not easily shaken. And like the American left, England’s left is aggressively anti-nationalist. Labour has become the party of hatred for “white van man,” the symbol of white, middle-class England. Thus downscale “Red Wall” voters have increasingly turned to the Conservatives as the party of hope against a Labour status quo that has failed to deliver.
In Scotland, of course, the constitutional question is not Brexit but independence. Yet as in England, a single party has seized the mantle of both nationalism and hope through “change,” and has been rewarded by the voters. Last week the Scottish National Party won sixty-two of Scotland’s seventy-three first-past-the-post constituency seats, the largest number for a single party in the history of the Scottish Parliament. Because of the oddities of the country’s additional member electoral system, these wins did not translate into an outright majority for the SNP. But together with the pro-independence Scottish Greens’ eight seats, the largest pro-independence majority ever will soon sit in Edinburgh.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon did not mention a second independence referendum during her victory speech last week, but public pressure for a repeat of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence will be tremendous. Despite winning no seats, former First Minister Alex Salmond’s new pro-independence Alba Party is not going away and will continue its campaign for that second referendum. The SNP’s ability to dominate Scotland’s political landscape so thoroughly despite its underwhelming fourteen-year record of accomplishments is premised upon its supporters’ belief that it will secure that referendum. The SNP will govern Scotland until the constitutional issue is settled one way or the other.
The resonance of constitutional questions, a persistent multi-party system, and strong centrifugal regional politics make direct comparisons between the United Kingdom and the United States fraught. Secession of California or Texas is (for now) fantastical. Wide swaths of America can barely muster two competitive political parties, much less the four to six that exist throughout Britain. The U.S. also has a more diverse electorate, dampening class politics to some degree in favor of race.
That being said, the class and cultural politics are very similar, particularly between the U.S. and England. So, too, are the trajectories of the center-right parties in each country. Under Boris Johnson the Conservatives not only championed Brexit but also limited immigration and abandoned austerity for robust spending on the National Health Service and an industrial strategy for the North of England. Under and after Trump, many Republicans have likewise embraced a populist political economy of immigration restriction, infrastructure spending, industrial policy, and family allowances. The full populist package is still a minority position in the GOP, and the Trump cult of personality may yet disrupt the party’s future. But Boris Johnson’s example is already casting a long shadow across the Atlantic.
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.
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