by Michael Barone
DURHAM, England — When I first visited England to cover a British election 20 years ago this month, there were striking similarities between British and American politics.
In Britain, Tony Blair’s Labour Party was about to sweep to a landslide victory after 18 years of Conservative Party government, promising a third way between the free market policies of Margaret Thatcher and the socialist policies of traditional Labour. Voters and politicians seemed filled with exhilaration at the prospect of an articulate, optimistic 44-year-old leader promising an exit from the politics of deadlock.
There were echoes of what was going on across the Atlantic. Bill Clinton was re-elected at age 50 in 1996, promising a third way between Reagan conservatism and dogmatic liberalism. As Blair did with his New Labour movement, Clinton made deep inroads in affluent suburbs in big metropolitan areas even while maintaining traditional party strengths.
Clinton’s articulate optimism remained exhilarating even as he was hammering out balanced budget and Medicare reform deals with congressional Republican majorities led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The American and British economies were surging ahead, led by a booming tech sector. No one had heard of Monica Lewinsky or Osama bin Laden.
Today there are again parallels between the two nations’ politics, as interviews with British voters and politicians and frequent iPad updates on American headlines show. But the mood in May 2017 on both sides of the Atlantic is 180 degrees away from that of May 1997. Disillusion and scorn have replaced exhilaration and hope.
New Labour has utterly vanished, just as Hillary Clinton’s leftish identity politics replaced her husband’s New Democratic appeals to the kind of voters she labeled deplorable. Labour was narrowly defeated in 2010 by David Cameron’s Conservatives.
After the Tories won again decisively (and unexpectedly) in 2015, Labour members who had sent in 3 pounds over the internet chose left-wing backbencher Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. Cameron resigned after losing the Brexit referendum on leaving the European Union last June and was replaced, after frantic maneuvering, by Home Secretary Theresa May, who promptly declared, “Brexit means Brexit.”
The new political divide in the United States and the United Kingdom is between capital (plus ethnic fringes) and countryside — between Washington, D.C./New York/Los Angeles/San Francisco and interior America in the States and between London/Scotland and the great bulk of England in the U.K. Those lines held last year in the victories of Brexit in June and Donald Trump in November.
Now polls show May’s Conservatives running about 20 points ahead of Labour — and running about even with the working class in the Midlands and the north of England, which has historically been Labour’s base but voted heavily for Brexit. The party has already lost all but one of its seats in Scotland. The only traditional Labour bloc the London-based Corbyn retains is left-wing intellectuals and immigrants in the capital.
May’s appeal to “people who are just about managing” and her continual calls for “strong and stable” government have made her appeal personal and not party-based — like Blair in 1997 and Trump in 2016. On the street in industrial Wolverhampton and Bishop Auckland, former Labour supporters told me they’re “voting for Theresa May,” as opposed to “voting for the Tories.”
There are obvious echoes here with Trump’s poaching of traditionally Democratic non-college-educated whites in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Florida, which netted Republicans 100 new electoral votes and the presidency.
The result is that America’s Republicans and Britain’s Conservatives have more demotic constituencies than they did under George W. Bush and David Cameron. Trump has forsworn any cuts in Social Security or Medicare entitlements. May has promised to cap utility bills and to target tax cuts toward low earners. So much for the policy thrusts of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
This looks to be a more successful electoral strategy than those of their parties’ immediate predecessors, which were aimed more at highly educated voters centered in the capital — voters who had moved to New Labour and Democrats.
Trump’s narrow victory and May’s impending landslide — the only real question is about its magnitude — suggest that these demotic appeals are more effective than Mitt Romney’s or David Cameron’s. There are many more movable votes in the countryside than in the capitals.
There may be prices to pay for these victories. If you believe that entitlements are on a trajectory to squeeze out other public spending or strangle the private-sector economy, the Trump and May policies will most likely do nothing to stop them. Clinton and Blair seemed at least open to stopping them 20 years ago. A reason, perhaps, for the trans-Atlantic glum mood.