NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, December 11th, 2019

As Britain’s general election looms, American progressives can learn from what goes down

On Thurs­day, the Unit­ed King­dom (UK) faces its third gen­er­al elec­tion in four years, and the sec­ond since the vote to leave the Euro­pean Union (EU) – known as “Brex­it” – changed Britain’s polit­i­cal land­scape for­ev­er. This vote comes less than five months into the pre­mier­ship of Boris John­son, who became Britain’s Prime Min­is­ter after replac­ing There­sa May as the leader of the gov­ern­ing Con­ser­v­a­tive par­ty.

Boris Johnson has been Prime Minister for only five months

Boris John­son has been Prime Min­is­ter for only five months (Pho­to: UK Prime Min­is­ter, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Johnson’s admin­is­tra­tion has been defined by the issue of Brex­it, and more par­tic­u­lar­ly a com­plete inabil­i­ty to get any­thing done about it at all, thanks to irrec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ences among Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment (MPs) over what Brex­it even means. Every time the gov­ern­ment has pre­sent­ed a poten­tial for­mu­la for leav­ing the EU it has imme­di­ate­ly fall­en apart, with some MPs want­i­ng as close a rela­tion­ship as pos­si­ble, while a hard-right fringe tries to sab­o­tage any­thing oth­er than a total polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and ide­o­log­i­cal split from the Con­ti­nent.

Johnson’s increas­ing­ly des­per­ate attempts to put togeth­er a deal led to the alien­ation of the Con­ser­v­a­tives’ only allies in Par­lia­ment over the sta­tus of North­ern Ire­land, and cul­mi­nat­ed in an unprece­dent­ed purge of sen­si­ble Con­ser­v­a­tive MPs, includ­ing for­mer gov­ern­ment min­is­ters and even a grand­son of leg­endary wartime Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill. Noth­ing worked and John­son had to humil­i­ate him­self by ask­ing the EU to delay the UK’s leave date to the end of Jan­u­ary 2020 – some­thing he said he would rather “be dead in a ditch” than do.

In the face of the sham­bles that the Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment has devolved into, Britain’s main oppo­si­tion par­ty has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to retake pow­er after more than nine years in the wilder­ness.

Labour has under­gone dra­mat­ic change in that time. The gov­ern­ment that lost pow­er in 2010 was led by Gor­don Brown, one of the prin­ci­ple archi­tects of the “New Labour” rebrand that took the par­ty in a neolib­er­al direc­tion, but after los­ing pow­er, the par­ty has slow­ly been dragged back to its social­ist roots by its activist base. This cul­mi­nat­ed with the lead­er­ship elec­tion of Jere­my Cor­byn in 2015.

How­ev­er, the par­ty is far from uni­fied: count­less shad­ow cab­i­net mem­bers have resigned, Cor­byn had to fight a bit­ter lead­er­ship chal­lenge in 2016, and some Labour MPs have left for oth­er par­ties.

As things stand, John­son looks like­ly to win – a recent poll by YouGov pre­dict­ed 359 Con­ser­v­a­tive seats, a major­i­ty of 68.

How­ev­er, British elec­tions are fast-mov­ing.

The 2017 elec­tion was pre­dict­ed to be an over­whelm­ing vic­to­ry for the Con­ser­v­a­tives; instead, a blis­ter­ing cam­paign effort by Labour denied them a major­i­ty, doom­ing There­sa May to two years of par­lia­men­tary dead­lock and mis­ery.

Since the YouGov poll, both par­ties have released pol­i­cy man­i­festos, John­son and Cor­byn have gone head-to-head in two debates, John­son has come under increased scruti­ny as he has repeat­ed­ly avoid­ed debates and inter­views – and Labour have become embroiled in scan­dal over anti­semitism with­in the Par­ty.

Why should Amer­i­can pro­gres­sives care?

The rela­tion­ship between the UK and USA has for decades been described as the “spe­cial rela­tion­ship” due to its close­ness, long dura­tion and the often per­son­al warmth between lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton D.C. and Lon­don.

This was exem­pli­fied by the friend­ship between Win­ston Churchill and Franklin Roo­sevelt dur­ing World War Two and played a crit­i­cal role in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq inva­sion: Tony Blair’s gov­ern­ment was the only gov­ern­ment that decid­ed to lend troops to George W. Bush’s inva­sion force (a deci­sion that even­tu­al­ly con­tributed to Blair’s down­fall).

Beyond inter­na­tion­al rela­tions, the domes­tic pol­i­tics of both coun­tries often reflect each oth­er. For exam­ple, Ronald Reagan’s tri­umphal­ist reac­tionary move­ment was in many ways mod­eled off of Mar­garet Thatcher’s pol­i­tics (she came to pow­er eigh­teen months before Reagan’s elec­tion).

In the 1990s, Labour leader Tony Blair rebrand­ed his par­ty using sim­i­lar “Third Way” schemes that Bill Clinton’s advis­ers used to appeal to vot­ers.

To see how such reflec­tions still exist, one only needs to look at the men at the helm of each coun­try. A quick look at the résumés of Don­ald Trump and Boris John­son show two very dif­fer­ent men. John­son is an expe­ri­enced polit­i­cal oper­a­tor who has spent eigh­teen years in elect­ed office; Trump is cur­rent­ly in his first elect­ed role. John­son has a long career as a tal­ent­ed writer, his­to­ri­an and jour­nal­ist, while Trump’s best­sellers are all ghost-writ­ten.

How­ev­er, there are sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties between the two. Both are good at media manip­u­la­tion and por­tray­ing them­selves as pop­ulists, despite the enor­mous priv­i­lege both have spent their whole lives enjoy­ing. Both also have a depress­ing ten­den­cy to “fail up,” gath­er­ing increas­ing suc­cess despite obvi­ous incom­pe­tence. Sim­i­lar­ly, both have an alarm­ing­ly shaky rela­tion­ship with the truth going back decades into their careers in and out of pol­i­tics. Worse, both men open­ly dis­play deep-seat­ed big­otry against a wide vari­ety of mar­gin­al­ized groups.

Trump and John­son are not only per­son­al­ly sim­i­lar, they also both act as sym­bols of deep­er changes that have tak­en place in their polit­i­cal par­ties.

Trump rec­og­nized years ago that the Repub­li­can Par­ty was mor­ph­ing into a racist, misog­y­nis­tic right wing polit­i­cal horde, and began posi­tion­ing him­self to take advan­tage. In 2016, he defeat­ed six­teen more qual­i­fied can­di­dates to become the Repub­li­can Par­ty’s nom­i­nee for Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.

The trans­for­ma­tion of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty has been much more rapid. One of the world’s old­est and most suc­cess­ful polit­i­cal par­ties went into the 2015 gen­er­al elec­tion on a plat­form that was social­ly lib­er­al and in favor of free trade agree­ments. Many of the MPs now sup­port­ing John­son are fer­vent­ly in favor of a “No-Deal Brex­it,” a pol­i­cy with such dis­as­trous eco­nom­ic con­se­quences they make Trump’s trade wars look sen­si­ble and well-thought-through by com­par­i­son.

If the Con­ser­v­a­tives win the elec­tion, it could strength­en Don­ald Trump in a vari­ety of ways. The vic­to­ry of a par­ty that has shed so many of their prin­ci­ples to become reac­tionary and nation­al­ist would be tak­en by the Pres­i­dent as a vin­di­ca­tion of his own approach to pol­i­tics.

Fur­ther­more, if Britain left the Euro­pean Union on Johnson’s terms – or worse, crashed out with no deal – it would be iso­lat­ed eco­nom­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly. This would present an oppor­tu­ni­ty for Trump to bring Britain into his inter­na­tion­al alliance of right-wing coun­tries, giv­ing him more clout on the inter­na­tion­al stage.

How­ev­er, the oth­er side of the House of Com­mons offers an alter­na­tive to Johnson’s gov­ern­ment that Amer­i­can pro­gres­sives would do well to learn from. Labour plans to rad­i­cal­ly reform the British econ­o­my, push­ing back the tide of neolib­er­al­ism that has dom­i­nat­ed the West­ern world since the 1980s.

This includes restor­ing Britain’s most trea­sured insti­tu­tions – espe­cial­ly the Nation­al Health Ser­vice – and mak­ing mas­sive new invest­ments, such as pro­vid­ing free broad­band through nation­al­ized dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture.

Pro­gres­sives should watch how Labour pro­mote their reforms, if they are to push for sim­i­lar­ly large-scale poli­cies like Medicare-for-All in the USA.

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn have ambitious progressive plans

Labour under Jere­my Cor­byn have ambi­tious pro­gres­sive plans (Pho­to: Sophie Brown, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Labour’s posi­tion on Brex­it may offer insights on how to heal a frac­tured polit­i­cal land­scape – an obvi­ous neces­si­ty in a post-Trump Amer­i­ca.

With polar­iza­tion between those for and against Brex­it (known as “Leavers” and “Remain­ers”) cut­ting across many of the lines that pre­vi­ous­ly defined pol­i­tics, Labour’s plan is to nego­ti­ate a new Brex­it deal with the Euro­pean Union, and then orga­nize a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, offer­ing the choice between leav­ing with a deal in place, or remain­ing in the Euro­pean Union.

The hope is to set­tle the ques­tion of Brex­it in a more sat­is­fy­ing way to all vot­ers than the 2016 vote (where nobody knew on what terms the U.K. would leave the E.U.) did, and thus step towards a more har­mo­nious polit­i­cal land­scape.

In order to win the elec­tion, Labour face a chal­lenge sim­i­lar to that of the Democ­rats in 2016 and 2020. Labour relies on a “Red Wall” of seats in the Mid­lands and the North of Eng­land, pop­u­lat­ed by loy­al work­ing class vot­ers.

The Con­ser­v­a­tives hope to break Labour’s grip on this region with its fanat­i­cal Brex­it stance and a faux eco­nom­ic pop­ulism – sim­i­lar to the way the Trump cam­paign wooed “Rust Belt” vot­ers away from the Democ­rats with promis­es of tar­iffs and bor­der walls. How Labour per­forms in these areas could be instruc­tive to pro­gres­sives hop­ing to defeat Trump in Min­neso­ta, Wis­con­sin, and Michi­gan.

Wild Cards

This elec­tion is not mere­ly a two-par­ty bat­tle for suprema­cy. Unlike the Unit­ed States, which has just two dom­i­nant par­ties, the Unit­ed King­dom has a vari­ety of small­er par­ties that will play an impor­tant role in the elec­tion.

Far from being wacky protest votes (like the Amer­i­can Green or Lib­er­tar­i­an par­ties), these par­ties can end up as king­mak­ers in the com­plex math­e­mat­ics of par­lia­men­tary majori­ties. In 2010, the Con­ser­v­a­tives were forced to form a coali­tion gov­ern­ment with the Lib­er­al Demo­c­rats. Five years lat­er, the Con­ser­v­a­tives won a very slight major­i­ty, in part by spook­ing vot­ers about a “Coali­tion of Chaos” between Labour and the Scot­tish Nation­al Par­ty (SNP).

Labour is not expect­ed to win a major­i­ty, and so the Lib­er­al Democ­rats and the SNP will be a cru­cial part of Britain’s gov­ern­ment if the Con­ser­v­a­tives lose their major­i­ty. How­ev­er, both par­ties have wild card ele­ments to them.

The Lib­er­al Democ­rats are Britain’s neolib­er­als, espous­ing poli­cies that on the whole fall between the extremes of Labour and the Con­ser­v­a­tives. How­ev­er, on the issue of Brex­it, they have become one of the most extreme par­ties in Britain, cam­paign­ing on a pledge to call off Brex­it alto­geth­er, ignore the 2016 ref­er­en­dum, and remain in the Euro­pean Union. If they stick firm­ly to this pol­i­cy, they could be a seri­ous hin­drance to Labour’s plans to hon­or the result of any sec­ond ref­er­en­dum.

Equal­ly prob­lem­at­ic for Labour are the Scot­tish Nation­al­ists.

The SNP look set to per­form extreme­ly well, win­ning upwards of forty of Scotland’s fifty-nine seats (thanks to a col­lapse in Scot­tish sup­port for the Con­ser­v­a­tives) and have pro­gres­sive cre­den­tials to equal Labour’s.

What’s more, they have years of gov­ern­ing expe­ri­ence, thanks to their dom­i­na­tion of Scotland’s par­lia­ment (which has com­pa­ra­ble pow­ers to a U.S. state), which could prove invalu­able to any team replac­ing the Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon opposes Brexit but favors Scottish independence from the UK

SNP leader Nico­la Stur­geon oppos­es Brex­it but favors Scot­tish inde­pen­dence from the U.K. (Pho­to: First Min­is­ter of Scot­land, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

How­ev­er, the SNP’s defin­ing issue is advo­cat­ing for an inde­pen­dent Scot­land, an unpalat­able idea to almost every oth­er British polit­i­cal par­ty.

Any sup­port they give to Labour will like­ly be con­di­tioned on allow­ing a sec­ond inde­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum; two years before the Brex­it ref­er­en­dum Scot­land vot­ed to remain in the U.K., in part due to con­cerns that Scots would lose the ben­e­fits of EU mem­ber­ship. The SNP’s ded­i­ca­tion to their life­long goal throws a major hur­dle in the way of coop­er­a­tion between two par­ties that are oth­er­wise nat­ur­al allies.

Anoth­er poten­tial wild-card ele­ment of the next par­lia­ment could be the North­ern Irish MPs. North­ern Ireland’s pol­i­tics are defined less by tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal fault lines and more by the lega­cy of years of con­flict between those who want North­ern Ire­land to remain a part of the Unit­ed King­dom and those who want to join the Irish Repub­lic. The for­mer group – known as Union­ists – dom­i­nate North­ern Ireland’s del­e­ga­tion to Lon­don, since the pro-Ire­­land Nation­al­ists do not rec­og­nize British legit­i­ma­cy and there­fore always boy­cott Par­lia­ment.

North­ern Irish Union­ist par­ties have been tra­di­tion­al­ly friend­ly towards to Con­ser­v­a­tive par­ty – There­sa May’s gov­ern­ment relied on North­ern Irish Union­ist MPs for its major­i­ty. How­ev­er, Union­ists have been burned by Boris Johnson’s Brex­it pro­pos­als, which include the pos­si­bil­i­ty that North­ern Ire­land, thanks to its land bor­der with the Repub­li­can of Ire­land, could be exclud­ed from British mar­kets.

The Union­ists, whose whole rai­son d’être is to keep North­ern Ire­land as close to the rest of the Unit­ed King­dom’s oth­er con­stituent coun­tries as pos­si­ble, could be a dis­rup­tive influ­ence for any gov­ern­ment if the elec­tion has a close result.

This will eas­i­ly be the most impor­tant elec­tion Britain has held in decades and the result has the poten­tial to decide far more than the fate of one coun­try off the north­east coast of Europe.

Fac­ing a mas­sive­ly impor­tant elec­tion on this side of the Atlantic next year, pro­gres­sives should watch close­ly and learn from the results of Britain’s vote.

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One Comment

  1. You summed up the stakes in this elec­tion pret­ty well.

    # by Avis Short :: December 13th, 2019 at 8:54 AM