UK Election and What it Means for 2020
The United Kingdom had its parliamentary elections on Thursday, which resulted in an enormous win for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party and a crushing defeat for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labor party, prompting Corbyn to summarily resign his party leadership position. There are some striking similarities between British and American politics. But in the end, these similarities are mainly superficial.
First, some background. The British government’s power is concentrated in its House of Commons, with its 650 members. They’re elected from geographic constituencies, that are designed to have roughly equal populations. At this time, that’s about 100,000 people per district. In this way, the elections are similar to those for our House of Representatives, which are spread into 435 districts throughout the country.
With 650 total seats, 326 are needed for an outright majority. When no one party has an outright majority, as in the case of the previous British government, less-stable coalition governments are required. In Thursday’s election, the Conservative party won 365 seats, substantially more than the number needed for majority.
Because each district uses a “first past the post” system, meaning that a plurality, not a majority, of the vote is needed to win, it is possible to gain a majority in the House of Commons without a majority of the vote. In fact, the Conservative party appears to have won about 43½ percent of the vote, which translated to its substantial majority of seats.
Like the American Republican Party, the British Conservative party has some structural advantages. Its strength is in many suburban and rural areas, while Labor is strong in the cities. Like the American Democratic Party, Labor often runs up enormous margins of “wasted” votes in inner cities. For example, in the Bermondsey & Old Southwark district in London, the Conservative party drew less than 20% of the vote even in this election.
In the United States, due to the nature of the way votes are sorted and some gerrymandering of House seats, Republicans have an advantage of anywhere from 3 to 6 percentage points. That is, Republicans could “lose” the raw numbers of House election votes by at least 3 points nationwide and still win a majority of the House of Representatives. Note that Republicans enjoy a similar, or perhaps even greater, advantage in the Senate.
Other similarities between US Republicans and UK Conservatives have dominated the media narrative. Both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump use populism and controlling immigration as two of their signature issues. Both have also made re-assertion of their nations’ world influence key components of their talking points; Trump by criticizing allies and resorting to unilateralism, Johnson by supporting Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The temptation is great, therefore, to pronounce that the British election is a potential harbinger of 2020, as the British Brexit vote in June of 2016 on a campaign of limiting immigration and decreasing reliance on the EU, foretold of Trump’s 2016 victory on a platform of “America first.”
Still, one must be careful before reading too much into the comparison. There are substantial differences.
First, the influence of Brexit on the 2019 UK election can hardly be overstated. Brexit voters cut across party lines, with many working-class Labor voters supporting Brexit due to fears of increased immigration. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to hold a new referendum to potentially reverse the Brexit election was seen as disenfranchising to some Brexit voters. On the other side, the “Remain” voters, seeing Brexit as mostly a foregone conclusion, did not move to Labor in droves. In fact, in Scotland, where “Remain” won 62% of the vote in 2016, the vote mainly went to the Scottish National Party, which took 45% of the vote and 45 of 59 seats. Interesting, it pulled most of its vote from what otherwise might have gone to Labor, allowing the Conservatives to win more votes and more seats than did Labor in this strongly “Remain” area.
Second, while the Conservative and Labor parties represent a similar “left-right” axis as we have in the US, the Conservative platform is hardly comparable to the American Republican platform. For example, the 2019 Conservative pledges include additional funding for Britain’s National Health Service, a government-run healthcare system that is free at the point of service, significant new government spending on science, schools and infrastructure and a pledge to reach “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050. While the pledge promised to avoid raising most taxes, promises of tax cuts were conspicuously absent.
In fact, with its combination of promises of steady taxation, fiscal responsibility, moderation on immigration, social and infrastructure spending and limited support for abortion, the British Conservative party might have more in common with the Democratic parties of Bill Clinton or even Barack Obama, than with the Republican party of today.