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.
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’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.
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.
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.