What if the United Kingdom had an election to settle Brexit, but one of the political parties talked mostly about other issues? That was the Labour Party’s strategy in the most recent election. It did not work. Labour lost dozens of seats and fell to their lowest level of representation in Parliament since the 1930s. While there are important differences between the U.K. and other political contexts, the loss illustrates three key lessons that apply in any country or year — lessons that should remind us that elections are complicated.
Perhaps this was supposed to simply be “The Brexit” election since Parliament had reached a dramatic and frustrating impasse on that issue. But it is not clear that Brexit alone decided this election. While it is true that the parties took asymmetric strategies toward the issue, the problems of the Labour Party run much deeper than Brexit.
Lesson No. 1: It is always important to have a clear strategy and message.
Boris Johnson’s theory of the election was that he should speak only about Brexit. In fact, it seemed like Brexit was the only thing he could discuss sometimes. In one of the televised debates, when asked a concluding fluff question about what Christmas present he would give his opponent, Johnson offered up a copy of his Brexit plan for bedtime reading. This focus on Brexit mattered because the Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn, had no clear Brexit position, in part because Labour voters were divided on the issue, making it more difficult for the party to settle on a single message or strategy. (Their actual Brexit position: they would negotiate a new deal over several months and then take that new deal to a new referendum, though the party leadership — including Corbyn — was unclear about whether or not they would support the deal they planned to negotiate. Seriously, that was their actual position.)
Given the Labour Party’s conflicted and somewhat confusing Brexit stance, they tried to shift attention to other issues. And the YouGov polling in advance of the election in some ways backed up this strategy. It showed that most British voters (about 70%) believed Brexit was an important issue, but it was not the only issue. Crime, the environment and the national health service were also key points of concern for many voters.
Such varied assessments of important issues are not surprising because voters generally tend to have a diverse set of concerns. Labour did their best to use these issues to construct a coalition that would lead to majority support, but their best efforts simply failed to persuade voters — in part because they were hampered by voters’ extremely negative views of Labour’s leader, Corbyn.
Lesson No. 2: People will not elect a challenger they do not trust.
Johnson may be arguing that his victory was the result of his Brexit strategy, but the gap in trust between the two party leaders was clearly about much more than Brexit. YouGov found that Corbyn’s favorability was deep underwater — by an astonishing 40 points. Britain did not really trust Johnson either, but his negative 10-point favorability rating meant veritable popularity by comparison. When asked what they were concerned about, most respondents listed Corbyn’s ability to be prime minister. In talking to voters these past few weeks, the list of concerns people had about Corbyn was long, ranging from distrust of his fiscal plans, to past support for IRA terrorists, to a lack of belief in his leadership ability, to worries that he was anti-Semitic.
His position on this last point was not helped when leaders of both British Jews and Christians made a statement against Corbyn’s stance toward Jews. So Corbyn’s best efforts to make the election about bread and butter issues that had served the Labour Party well in the past (welfare and social services spending) went for nothing.
Lesson No. 3: In politics, we often talk about right and left, conservatives and liberals, but the meaning of what is “right” and what is “left” seems to be changing.
Since the 1930s, British politics has often been about class and economics. For decades, Labour won the votes of the working class all around the nation because they promised to serve this group. But the alignment today reveals a Britain deeply divided by urbanization and education. Cities voted for Labour and Corbyn, the countryside and the suburbs voted against him, and income or class was clearly not the deciding factor. Today’s politics look more like the “one-nation conservatism” of Prime Minister Disraeli in the late 19th century or even the urban-rural divides of the English Civil War in the 1600s.
Politicians who understand political dividing lines are changing and can appeal persuasively to new coalitions of voters are likely to thrive, even if (as in the case of Johnson) voters have some qualms about them personally. Johnson clearly understood the changing nature of the coalitions better than Corbyn and his Labour allies. In his first post-election policy statement, Johnson touted the new spending the Conservatives would inject into the National Health Service, for example. He is not, at least these days, a Margaret Thatcher-style conservative interested in cutting down the welfare state.
How should Americans interpret last week’s election outcome and its implications for politics closer to home? For one, Americans should avoid thinking that Britain is a leading indicator of American politics. The political contexts and concerns are different. But the electoral lessons we have highlighted apply everywhere.
One important similarity between the two contexts is that the meaning of left and right is in flux in the United States, too. Across a variety of issues both foreign and domestic, Donald Trump is quite different from Republicans of the past. And he leads an increasingly rural coalition that includes voters in swing states who have previously voted with the Democrats. On the other hand, he faces popularity issues somewhat like Corbyn, so there are no perfect parallels. Certainly the Democrats’ choice of opponent will matter a great deal for 2020, not only in terms of popularity, but also in terms of an ability to win back voters who took a chance on Trump in 2016.
The future for Great Britain is uncertain. The nation is only now in the first stage of a period where it will need to negotiate a new relationship with the European Union (and perhaps with the United States).
The future for Great Britain is uncertain. The nation is only now in the first stage of a period where it will need to negotiate a new relationship with the European Union (and perhaps with the United States). Whether Johnson’s coalition can hold together is anyone’s guess. And do not forget that the Scottish Nationalists had an impressive night as well. Their seat gains mean that many of them will be pressing for a referendum on Scotland’s membership in the United Kingdom. If this was not enough, for the first time, the Irish Nationalists outnumber the Unionists among Northern Ireland MPs, a fact that is likely to cause unrest as well.
Chris Karpowitz and Jeremy Pope are the co-directors of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and professors of political science at Brigham Young University.