The British elections on Thursday revealed a fascinating contrast with the United States. Britain’s once-rigid political parties now look pragmatic and flexible in comparison with sharply divided Washington, D.C. They offer a model for reform on this side of the Atlantic.
The elections were outstanding news for the Conservative Party, which has been in power in the United Kingdom for the past five years thanks to the support of the Liberal Democratic Party. While polls before Thursday had predicted a close contest, Conservatives picked up 100 new seats to win an outright majority of 327 — the first ruling party to expand its power since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1983 election. This was a disastrous result for the Labor Party, which had hoped to regain the governing power it enjoyed from 1997 to 2010. Not only did Labor fail to unseat the Conservatives but its long-standing hold over Scotland was decimated by the nationalist party there and its dynamic new leader Nicola Sturgeon.
Beyond the results, though, there is a deeper reality about British politics today.
Thanks to an invitation from Oxford University, I had a front-row seat for much of the campaign. And what became impressively clear was that, no matter who won, the result seemed likely to produce a government more practical and functional than what we’ve usually seen in America over the past few decades.
The pragmatic turn in British politics is startling to students of political science. Until recently, generations of American political observers described Labor and Conservative lawmakers as rigidly divided into intractable ideological blocks on domestic policies.
This contrasted sharply with U.S. politics from the 1950s to the early 1980s, when fluid coalitions of Democrats and Republicans formed to make compromises across a wide range of policies from civil rights to Social Security and Medicare to tax cuts and deregulation.
The cause of the difference seemed simple: unwavering class loyalties in Britain vs. supple responsiveness in America to local constituents and a broad middle class filled with centrist voters.
Our era has brought a striking reversal. The unbridgeable divides of ideology that once shaped British politics now define the U.S. scene. American-style pragmatism and the political convergence of old are showing signs of life in the United Kingdom.
Democrats and Republicans now do battle as tightly disciplined armies on such social issues as same-sex marriage and climate change. Know a lawmaker’s party, and you can usually predict his or her position.
Ditto on budgets. President Obama calls for more spending on education and higher taxes on the affluent and business. Republicans charge in the opposite direction: more than $5 trillion in absolute reductions in domestic programs (including education) and holding the line on taxes.
In Minnesota, MNsure typifies the gaping divide. Minnesota Democrats followed Obama’s lead by enacting health reform that has reduced the number of uninsured by 40 percent. But their ambitious plans did not extend to serious consideration about how to operate the program effectively. The result is a continuing saga.
Meanwhile, Republicans reach for dynamite. At a recent panel I moderated at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles bemoaned that legislators in St. Paul are “not dealing with the real problems” and, instead, remain cemented in place — either insisting that MNsure is a colossal failure that needs to be repealed or declaring it a resounding success that justifies the program’s original vision. The “fix-it-up” gang from the past is nowhere to be found.
The moderation of Britain
Back across the Atlantic, Labor and Conservatives certainly differ; each devoted its recent campaign to highlighting the contrasts to win votes. Yet what most stands out are the convergences on domestic policy over the past several decades.
“New Labor” continues to follow the trajectory forged by Tony Blair two decades ago. The party now refrains from promising the kind of large-scale welfare-state expansions that once defined its mission. (Can you imagine Hillary Clinton even hinting at moderating Obamacare?)
In the last election, Labor agreed with Conservatives that government spending needed to be cut. The dispute was over how much — Labor argued for about 50 percent less cutting than its rivals. Labor’s campaign this spring favored new spending on the National Health Service and education, but the amounts were modest and cautiously phased in over time.
Meanwhile, Conservatives, under the leadership of David Cameron, warmly embrace the National Health Service. Can you imagine the 2016 Republican presidential candidate even tolerating Obamacare? (Background: Britain’s National Health Service was passed by Labor and ranks as its most notable accomplishment.)
Prime Minister Cameron called the health service a “birthright” and insisted that it is “safe in my hands.” His campaign pitch was to “protect” and “ring-fence” health care — along with education — from the kind of absolute cuts Republicans have enacted here.
If you are attentive, sometimes silences are as telling as a five-alarm bell. Here is what I did not hear during the British campaign:
No strident demands — familiar in the U.S. — to “repeal” or privatize the welfare state. And no impassioned proposals from Labor that reach for the ambitions of “Obamacare.”
No fiery debates over social issues. Conservatives accept global climate change and the science that points to a human role in it. Cameron has also fully embraced the legal recognition of same-sex marriage as fitting Britain’s “proud traditions of respect, tolerance and equal worth.”
Britain’s turn away from polarization did not start with this election — it was begun by the fiery ideological election of 1983. Thatcher became prime minister and won her most decisive victory over Labor by running on a strident platform of privatization and lower taxes. Michael Foot steered Labor into a savage defeat by campaigning to nationalize banks, raise taxes, and more.
But over the following three decades, the Conservative Party moved away from its hard-right platform and, to a far greater degree, Labor abandoned the hard left.
The wrinkle in Britain’s turn to pragmatic moderation on domestic policy is the recent emergence of the far-right U.K. Independence Party (UKIP). Foreign policy and, specifically, a virulent anti-immigration campaign catapulted UKIP into prominence; it won 27 percent of the 2014 European Parliament elections. But its failure to articulate a coherent domestic policy stalled its rise. It won 13 percent in Thursday’s elections; Britain’s electoral rules that require the winning of individual districts limited UKIP to just one out of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. Its leader was defeated and resigned.
America’s weakness: feeble parties
What’s the lesson for American politics from across the pond? Above all, that political parties matter — and control over who is nominated by each party is a weapon that can enforce party discipline.
Labor and Conservative leaders fight for the up-for-grabs votes that swing elections, and they have the power to force members to follow direction and to punish the disloyal. British lawmakers dissent, but defying leadership on top-priority issues can prompt party leaders to drop them and nominate a more docile candidate.
A very different reality has developed on this side of the Atlantic, of course. For more than a century, American reformers stripped party leaders of control over their parties’ nominations. “Democracy” was the rallying cry, but the focus was not on the battle between rivals from opposing parties — Democratic vs. Republican candidates. Instead, reformers declared an all-out assault on how political parties operated internally, creating primary elections and caucuses.
Such well-intended reforms have now come home to roost as power has shifted not to “the people” but to well-organized and often well-funded candidates championing agendas that excite a relatively tiny number of the most passionate activists. The breakdown of campaign finance rules has further marginalized parties and empowered each candidate and his or her narrow clique of supporters.
The result hits us on Election Day each November: Most of us are compelled to choose among candidates who are often more liberal or uncompromisingly conservative than we are.
The feebleness of American political parties to discipline politicians is etched in the pained face of Republican Speaker John Boehner as he suffers defections within his own caucus on key votes in the U.S. House of Representatives. Unlike their British counterparts, Boehner and other party leaders have little leverage over members who largely run their own campaigns on their own record. This has opened the door to Tea Party and libertarian activists to nominate their allies and to use the GOP as a vehicle to promote their own agendas.
Unable to exercise control, the Republican Party is pulled further to the right against the will of the leadership.
Democrats also yield to party activists, though with less obedience. Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s vote against unions stirred significant opposition to her renomination in 2010 and forced her to commit scarce resources to prevail in a close race within her party. Republicans cheered on the family fight before handily winning her seat.
The ironic lesson from Britain is that the purpose of strong political parties has shifted — from enforcing rigid ideology to facilitating pragmatism.
For America, it is time to strengthen the Democratic and Republican parties for new missions: to resist the extremism of ideological activists who do not represent America and resume the search for common ground on workable policies that help America move forward.
Lawrence R. Jacobs is director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.