Despite polls going in that showed the race was tight, Boris Johnson and the Tories won a smashing victory in Thursday’s U.K. election. The biggest win for the right since Mrs. Thatcher.
Why they did will be hotly debated—here and there—for some time to come.
Some attribute the outcome to Johnson’s successful mobilization of Brexiteers in both the Conservative and Labour parties. Frustrated after three years of parliamentary inaction following passage of the June 2016 referendum to pull the U.K. out of the EU, they wanted change. But that doesn’t explain everything.
The British elites spent the interregnum between the referendum and the Thursday’s election telling everyone the original result, influenced heavily by disinformation from the pro-Leave side, was a fluke. They predicted confidently a second referendum, if one were held, would show this to be true and end differently.
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They were wrong. Thursday’s election was a referendum on Brexit. Johnson made it one. It passed again, with turnout between 70 and 80 percent in many constituencies, making it hard to argue the first vote was a fluke. The Remainers are a spent political force—and may always have been so.
The outcome, as I wrote here last week, should encourage those who feared the people’s will is eclipsed by a tyranny of experts, elites and bureaucrats. This does not argue for populism—Edmund Burke correctly warned officeholders that sacrificing their judgment to the opinion of the people they represent would betray them—but it is a welcome reminder that votes count for something. The efforts of the political, economic, academic and media elites to put their thumb on the scale to block Brexit finally appear to have been thwarted.
As to the counter-narrative popular today in the United States, that Labour’s radicalism led to the party’s worst showing since the 1930s, it’s not clear that’s so. According to Lord Ashcroft’s post-election poll, 72 percent of those who voted Conservative said the need to “get Brexit done” was their primary reason for voting as they did. Only 25 percent said they were motivated by a desire for “the right leadership.”
This helps explain the tremendous inroads the Tories made in Labour strongholds in the North of England. Johnson breached the “red wall” by tapping into the strong pro-Leave sentiment evident in there during the referendum. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to nationalize broadband, rail and postal services, as well as expand spending on the National Health Service (which the Conservatives also promised, though by not as much), was not enough to keep some of his most loyal voters inside his coalition.
This suggests the lesson for U.S. politicians looking ahead to 2020 is not what the instant analysis suggests. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic frontrunner for his party’s nomination, argued strongly Friday Labour moved too far to the left to be electable. That, he said, argues for a more moderate candidate to be named standard-bearer next year, one who would not abandon the middle, as Corbyn is said to have done.
Perhaps. But Lord Ashcroft found “Labour won more than half the vote among those turning out aged 18-24 (57 percent) and 25-34 (55 percent), with the Conservatives second in both groups. The Conservatives were ahead among those aged 45-54 (with 43 percent), 55-64 (with 49 percent) and 65+ (with 62 percent).” Corbyn’s radical manifesto helped cost him the election—being more popular perhaps with the rich around London than among the nation’s working class—but it was a winner with younger voters.
For Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and the others who want their party’s nomination, it suggests a quandary. Stay to the left to win the nomination with appeals to the activist base, split up among state delegations because “winner take all” contests have been abolished? Or moderate to appeal to older voters, who, surveys tell us, are more likely to vote in the general election?
The answer is not clear, especially since the so-called “superdelegates,” the sober-minded party solons who typically play an outsized role in picking the Democratic nominee, are unable to participate in the first-round balloting at the convention in Milwaukee. All too often, arguments about electability prevail over ideology only when made to experienced pols with cooler heads than those voting first.
Corbyn’s Labour Party was too extreme for modern Britain. He’s stepping down, but not without trying first to lead the post-election autopsy to prevent his message from being discredited. There may be those in Labour who long for the return of the days of Tony Blair, whose constituency, incidentally, went Conservative in the election, but they don’t hold the reins of power. The opposition response to the initiatives coming out of Downing Street will come from the radical left, not the center, giving the prime minister more room to accomplish more than Brexit. And on Thursday, he got the votes to do it.