Meanwhile, the travails of the center-left Labour Party under its relatively new leader, Keir Starmer, are an indication of the fractionalization and recriminations that Democrats would almost certainly have confronted had Joe Biden lost in November. To understand how they dodged a bullet, they just have to look across the ocean.
The headline result that was a genuine triumph for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson: a Conservative blowout in a special election in Hartlepool, a coastal working-class constituency that, in various forms, had been under Labour control since 1964.
Conservative Jill Mortimer prevailed by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, and said her victory came courtesy of former Labour voters who “knew they had been taken for granted for 57 years.” Her success continued Johnson’s work of demolishing Labour’s “red wall” of once-loyal industrial communities in northern England.
Johnson gained a majority in 2019 by taking working-class seats that had not voted Conservative in eons (or ever). The Hartlepool result, combined with positive Conservative showings in municipal elections in the region, were a mark of Starmer’s failure to stem the Tory tide.
But the elections also held a warning for Johnson: They reveal a United Kingdom coming apart at the seams. In Scotland, the pro-independence Scottish National Party swept back into power just short of an absolute majority in Scotland’s Parliament.
Johnson’s Conservatives have become less a British party than an English nationalist party. Britain’s meandering exit from the European Union was popular in England but not in Scotland, where 62 percent of voters rejected Brexit in the 2016 referendum. And while Wales supported Brexit in that referendum, it bucked the national tide last week as Welsh Labour outperformed expectations, successfully defending one contested seat after another, even in areas where the Tories had done well in 2019.
The pandemic was central in all these outcomes, to very different political effects.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford won wide approval for his handling of the covid-19 outbreak, as did Scottish National Party First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Despite many false starts and mistakes by Johnson over the past year, the relative efficiency of Britain’s vaccination program clearly helped his Conservatives.
“There was a pro-incumbency effect across the UK that comes from covid,” Stewart Wood, a Labour member of the House of Lords, told me. “The incumbents dominated news coverage . . . which has hugely benefited Tories in England, Nats in Scotland, and Labour in Wales.”
The recriminations against Starmer for the losses in Hartlepool and elsewhere came fast and furious. The party’s left assailed him for distancing Labour from the legacy of his predecessor, left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn himself was among the critics, and union leader Len McCluskey summarized a popular view on the left: “People don’t know what Labour stand for anymore.”
But the party’s middle-of-the-road wing offered precisely the opposite criticism: that Starmer, whom many of them support, needs to move more quickly away from Corbynites and establish a far clearer image of his own.
Ultimately, Labour is struggling with a hard-to-heal split, as Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, noted. The divide is between socially liberal, pro-Europe supporters in Britain’s wealthy metropolitan areas where the party remains strong — Labour’s Sadiq Khan, for example, was reelected as mayor of London — and its older base in struggling, pro-Brexit, working-class towns.
Tory wins in Hartlepool and places like it, Goodwin told the BBC, were driven by “voters who have been left behind by the economic transformation of the country” and “want to slow the pace of change a bit.”
It’s easy to imagine a comparable fight among Democrats if 2020 had turned out differently.
Wood also pointed to Labour’s failure to recognize changes in its own heartland. “Home ownership has increased there,” he said, “while Labour continued to treat northern seats in the same old way.”
In the meantime, Johnson had distanced the Conservatives from austerity and the policies rooted in Thatcherism, making traditional Labour attacks feel dated. “In the less affluent northeast of England,” Wood said, “Tory local leaders are getting tough on local developers, building infrastructure, nationalizing local airports. Labour points at them and accuses them of the Thatcherite sins of a bygone era.”
Seen through a U.S. lens, you wonder what would happen if Republicans offered more than gestures to working-class voters.
Biden’s good fortune is that he has a shot at doing that. Britain’s politicians appear to have noticed. The lesson of Hartlepool, Johnson said Friday, was “making sure we build back better.”