These were the first elections in Britain since Boris Johnson became prime minister in 2019 and Johnson’s Conservative Party came out winning, both in local races and in a signature victory in a working-class, parliamentary district in northeast England long held by the Labour Party.
Johnson, like Trump, mishandled the early stages of the pandemic. Like the former U.S. president, he contracted covid-19, and had a far worse case, having been hospitalized and in intensive care for a time. But his later handling of the pandemic was less uneven, and this year Britain stepped farther and faster in administering vaccinations than other European nations. It helped.
The British elections were not purely about the coronavirus pandemic, but nothing in politics today is free from the virus’s effects — in health, economic well-being and the public mood. On the most important issue of campaign 2020, Trump was a victim of his own making.
A post-election analysis by Trump campaign pollster Tony Fabrizio concluded that the failure to confront the virus and rally the government’s response more effectively was particularly costly. As the British elections suggest, even a modestly better response might have produced enough votes in the handful of U.S. states that decided the election to give an incumbent president a second term.
Trump also may have been unlucky. The presidential campaign was waged during months of the worst of the pandemic, with skyrocketing case numbers and deaths, and enormous shocks to an economy that had been rolling nicely before the virus struck the country — and before vaccines were authorized for use. Were the presidential election being held this year, with vaccinations mounting steadily, the economy bouncing back (last week’s jobs numbers notwithstanding) and venues of all kinds reopening, perhaps voters would be more forgiving — or forgetful — of Trump’s performance during 2020.
That is a speculative conclusion. The former president had more than the coronavirus weighing him down. But the results in Britain showed incumbents of both major parties, including several Labour Party mayors, doing well. Trump might have benefited from that pro-incumbent sentiment, too.
The British elections offered more grist of value to U.S. politicians than just what might have happened to Trump had he decided to take seriously the threats posed by the pandemic rather than contradicting his scientific and medical advisers and minimizing the means to reduce the risk, like the wearing of masks. Both Republicans and Democrats can look to what happened and think about the implications for their parties.
As Republicans debate Trump’s role and what it means to be a conservative, Johnson, like Trump, is rewriting the rules of what conservatism means.
Like Trump, Johnson has shown a disregard for the kind of conservatism that has stamped his party and the U.S. Republican Party for a generation. As Trump was no Ronald Reagan, Johnson is no Margaret Thatcher.
Neither Trump nor Johnson has felt bound by the ideological structures or consistencies of their party’s histories. In their own ways, both have followed their own instincts, and Johnson has demonstrated a penchant for survival in the face of repeated obstacles that has repeatedly frustrated his opponents, in and out of the Conservative Party.
Johnson is an interesting case, neither traditional Tory nor purely Trumpian. Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian, said Johnson has “governed as a social democrat . . . willing to tax and spend big.” The prime minister is not a climate denier. To the contrary, when President Biden announced in January that the United States would reverse a decision by Trump and rejoin the Paris climate accord, Johnson tweeted that the decision was “hugely positive news.”
But like Trump, he found a connection with disaffected working-class voters. He got behind the Brexit referendum — cynically his critics would say — that has resulted in Britain leaving the European Union. Traditional Labour strongholds in northern England strongly supported the referendum, and the Tories won over many of those areas in 2019. That was a key to Johnson’s success in the 2019 elections, as Labour support in those areas crumbled, and it became the most symbolically important result last week in the Hartlepool parliamentary election.
The British results have roiled the Labour Party anew. After its defeat in 2019, Jeremy Corbyn, a left-wing politician, resigned as party leader. He was replaced by the more moderate Keir Starmer. But to date, Starmer has had no more success than Corbyn in rejuvenating the party and now is under fire and trying to maneuver to safer ground.
Labour’s problem with working-class voters echoes the problems Democrats have had with those voters in the United States over many years. The divisions between urbanites — well-educated, more diverse and more socially liberal — and those who live in smaller communities now shape politics in both countries. In both places, the politics of resentment, the feeling of being left behind and disrespected, has played to the disadvantage of the parties — Labour and the Democrats — that for years championed themselves as protectors of the working class.
Biden, with roots in working-class Pennsylvania, was able to overcome Trump’s support among that constituency, at least enough to win the presidency. In office, his agenda has been aimed at the promotion of economic policies designed to benefit working- and middle-class families. He has done a better job than either Corbyn or Starmer in harmonizing the differences between the Democrat left and center-left.
Meanwhile, Republicans, who see working-class support as a key element of a new coalition, have yet to find an economic message for those voters that is distinct from the tax-cutting, anti-spending doctrine of the past. The coming battle over how to pay for infrastructure spending is one indication, as Biden calls for raising taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans and Republicans resist making any changes to their 2017 tax bill that rewarded those two groups in particular.
But the British results in the working-class constituency election were a reminder that cultural and economic issues resonate in what was once Labour territory and that urban elites have difficulty connecting in those places. Republicans are counting on cultural issues to help pave the way to victories in the 2022 midterm elections, one reason they have seized on immigration and the southern U.S. border. Democrats should take notice.
In a polarized environment, American politics plays at the margins, with neither party holding a clear advantage. One British election, particularly one focused primarily on local races, doesn’t provide all the answers as to what the future holds. But it’s clear from the post-election rumbling, this one caught people’s attention on both sides of the Atlantic.