The View from Across the Pond What the Conservative Landslide Means (or Does Not Mean) for the 2020 Elections

Isabella Wilkinson

Johnson’s gamble has paid off. The House of Commons now seats 365 Tory MPs, a majority unseen since Thatcher. Their single-issue platform resonated with a public exasperated with a public exasperated with the dillydallying over Brexit. On Thursday night, the “red wall” crumbled as Labour faced shattering defeats in their traditional heartlands. After an optimistic foray into the public eye, the Liberal Democrats have retreated back into the woods. Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party gained enough ground to resume calls for an independence referendum.

Since the referendum in June 2016, the whole affair has been distinctly British: awkward, offensive and vaguely lost in translation. But all hope was not lost. The unearthing of the Vote Leave campaign’s illegal and frankly immoral campaign tactics ironically fuelled hope for Remain voters: it rendered the referendum at least partially illegitimate. Just months ago, over a million People’s Vote supporters marched through the streets of London with banners reading “Every Poll Shows the Will of the People Has Changed”. Last week’s election changed the narrative.

On the slopes of the conservative landslide, the British left is equal parts dismayed and discombobulated. Honestly, it would have been easier to blame the Tory’s success on Putin’s bots, Cummings’ cunning or another vaguely sinister balding man with malicious intent. Estimates vary and time will tell how clean the Johnson’s hands are after his overwhelmingly triumphant campaign. But this time around –to – to quote Guardian tech columnist Alex Hern – “it was boomers, not bots, who won it for the Tories.” Why? “Because real people are weird”.

Across the Atlantic, Trump was delighted. “I think that might a harbinger of what’s to come in our country. It was last time. I’m sure people will be thrilled to hear that. But a lot of people will be, actually.” Actually. As the new year approaches, there’s a lot keeping the Democrats awake at night. Last week’s election may become another nightmare. Is the conservative landslide in the UK an indicator of what’s to come in the 2020 elections? Tentatively: no, for three main reasons.

First, Corbynism is not synonymous by any measure with the left-of-field candidates in the Democratic race. Likening Labour’s socialism to Warren and Sanders’ socialist policies is dangerously reductionist and wilfully ignores the long history of divergent socialisms between the US and UK. While it is true that US two-party system is growing increasingly polarised, the Democrats represent such a diversity of perspectives that they make the Labour Party look like fringe radicals.

That is not to say that the Democrats should not learn from Labour’s defeat. Labour’s shortcomings – from Corbyn’s well-intentioned yet poorly executed leadership to the party’s overly ambitious manifesto – should serve as a cautionary tale for the recent wave of House Democrats and candidates alike.

Second, our two favourite blonde bombshells don’t really have that much in common. Despite some hot mic mishaps at Buckingham earlier this month, Trump could not have been more pleased with Johnson’s unholy confirmation. But as it stands, beyond populist rhetoric, the Special Relationship isn’t that special.

Is this the wishful thinking of a disheartened leftie? Yes, probably. But much unlike the incumbent Trump administration, the “People’s Government” has made a marked move to the centre in its first few days in power to compensate for a campaign that alienated many of their centrist voters. It’s not nearly enough to make the disenfranchised left feel remotely optimistic. But it is something, and it could be worse.

Johnson has promised £80b in infrastructural investment to Labour’s former strongholds in the northeast, decisive in delivering Tory victory. After the election furore, the new government has pushed improving the NHS to the top of its agenda, with a new bill enshrining a £33.9bn increase in annual funding. Anyway, Trump wouldn’t be interested in the NHS, even if it were presented “on a silver platter”.

The plans to dissolve the Department of International Development and merge its functions into the Foreign Office is cause for concern. We can only hope that the planned Whitehall reshuffling does not resemble in the slightest the chaotic State Department shakeup orchestrated in Trump’s first few days in the Oval Office.

Boris may walk like a bumbling fool, and talk like a bumbling fool, but he’s smarter than he looks. And he’s smarter than Trump. With the people’s mandate and the Conservative party’s confidence, Johnson wields more personal power and commands more legitimacy than Trump ever has, or will.

As for the “tremendous” trade deal promised by Trump, time will tell whether it evolves into something more substantial. It’s unlikely. Of course, there’s not always much behind political rhetoric. But until the dust settles, it’s all we have. And what we have suggests that Johnson’s personal victory means little for Trump.

Third, the British and Americans elections are markedly different affairs. For better or for worse (read: for worse), last week’s election was fought and won on a single-issue platform. As it stands, in the US there is no single issue that could define the 2020 elections. The US doesn’t have a cross-cutting issue as big as Brexit that the Republican party could capitalise on.

Looking back to 2016, the Brexit vote in June was not a harbinger of the US election in November. It was a combination of bad timing and rotten luck. While the referendum may have expressed the Euroscepticism of British voters, it did not cause it. Across the Atlantic, Trump may have emboldened xenophobic American voters, but in reality, he’s nothing but the figurehead of an even uglier undercurrent.

This ugly undercurrent is not the conservatism that we know. The last conservative wave – led by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s and into the 1990s – had a shared agenda for a democratic world under Western leadership. This modern iteration of conservatism is the opposite. It’s nationalist, populist, selfish and defined by the lack of a common vision. Transnational relationships are increasingly transactional and strategic. (Johnson’s decision to dissolve DFID is a case in point. Even international aid can be strategic and reserved for promoting the national interest, not (God forbid!) alleviating global poverty.)

Both the fearmongering political commentators on the left and hopefuls on the right are in the wrong. The conservative landslide in the UK is not the harbinger of conservative doom for the US. The left is different this side of the Atlantic. Johnson is in a considerably better position than his special friend in Washington. And the upcoming race in the US doesn’t have a “Brexit”: an issue capable of dividing the nation in two. Put simply, there isn’t a transatlantic conspiracy. And the US is perfectly capable of heralding doomsday (read: Trump’s re-election) all by itself.

Only time will tell whether last week’s election marks the beginning of the end for Western democracy as we know it. It may assume inestimable symbolic value and re-embolden the millions that got Trump elected in the first place. But in the meantime, what to prescribe nervous Democrats afflicted with seasonal insomnia? A strong dose of political learning, a healthy balance of realism and optimism, and an annual injection of alarmism.

 

 

Isabella Wilkinson is a first year master’s student in the Democracy and Governance program at Georgetown University, with a research focus on democratisation and local governance. Isabella gained her Bachelor of Science in History and International Relations from the London School of Economics with first class honours in July 2019.

 

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