David Cameron and his Conservatives just confounded the pollsters by winning an impressive upset victory in Britain’s general election. The results caught both pundits and pollsters by surprise and gave Cameron a solid if not comfortable majority in a race that could provide a preview of America’s next presidential election.
Observers were shocked because Labour got so badly mauled in the campaign that its golden boy candidate; Ed Miliband, resigned and fled the country to New York. More tellingly, the centrist Liberal Democrats—Cameron’s partners in a shaky coalition government—were decimated.
Naturally, many Americans are wondering if this contest could provide a glimpse of what the next presidential election might look like. Possibly, but we must remember that American and British voters behave in very different ways during times of economic downturn like the one both nations are facing.
In times of economic trouble, the British usually lean right and vote Conservative. Americans, on the other hand, usually lean left in such times and vote Democratic. For example, the British elected Conservative governments during the Great Depression of the 1930s, while Americans elected a solid Democratic majority.
The reverse is also true; the British are more likely to turn to Labour and its social experiments in times of prosperity, while Americans are more likely to vote for Republicans and fiscal austerity when times are good. A prime example of this was the 1990s when Brits went for Tony Blair and his “New Labour” in a big way while Americans were electing a Republican majority to Congress.
There are also some issues in the United Kingdom that the U.S. does not have, such as Scottish Independence and the European Union; those discussions appear to have had a deeper impact than was originally thought. Yet the main issue in the election was apparently the economy, which is what will determine the 2016 presidential contest.
What We Can Learn from the British Election
Despite the differences, there are still a few important lessons Americans can learn from the recent British election, including:
- Fear works. Much of the Conservatives’ success was based on the British public’s fear that Miliband’s Labour would return to old-school welfare and unionist policies that would scare business out of the country and halt economic growth. Most people apparently think that some economic growth (which is what Britain has under Cameron) is better than no economic growth. Expect Republicans to employ similar scare tactics in 2016, particularly if Democrats tilt left and run somebody like Bernie Sanders.
- At the end of the day, people vote with their pocketbooks. One reason why Cameron did so well was that Britain is enjoying a modest economic recovery. Like America’s recovery, it is concentrated in small areas of the country (mostly the South of England) and enjoyed by the rich, but it is better than no recovery. If the limited recovery in the U.S. continues, it could help Democrats in 2016, particularly if Obama can figure out how to take credit for it. This also indicates that cultural issues like gay marriage will probably get put on the back burner for the next election. Voters angry at job loss, income inequality and falling salaries are not likely to listen to rhetoric about homosexuality or abortion.
- Centrism is dead. Despite all the talk of the need for political moderation and compromise in politics, the middle lost big in Britain. The moderate Liberal Democrats lost most of their seats in the election. Meanwhile, the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party, or “Ukip,” won four million votes, and the far-left Greens accumulated one million votes. Fortunately, under Britain’s winner take all election system, the Greens and Ukip were each only able to win one seat in Parliament. The Scottish Nationalists were able to win almost all of the seats in Scotland and trounced Labour there.
- If this trend continues, American politics could get more polarized next year, particularly if a left wing equivalent of the Tea Party develops around figures like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. That could be a real problem in the House of Representatives, which has de facto proportional representation due to gerrymandered districts.
- In proportional representation, any party that accumulates a certain percentage of the vote receives a seat. The House has a similar system because the districts from which it is elected are drawn to include large majorities from each party. Expect to see the Republicans move more to the right and Democrats more to the left in 2016 with the Far Left adopting many of the Tea Party’s successful tactics of polarization.
- We are also likely to see more single issue candidates and groups, the American equivalent of Ukip and Scottish Independence in U.S. elections. The big difference is that these groups will be movements inside parties; such as the Tea Party, rather than parties. Issues these individuals could play on include immigration, Obamacare, health insurance, unions, the minimum wage and trade.
- The polls are often wrong. Britain’s pollsters had predicted that no party would win a majority in Parliament or that Miliband could squeak into a win. Instead, Cameron won a respectable majority. The results in Britain indicate that modern polling methods are often wrong and are nowhere near as reliable or as accurate as we thought. That should teach us to pay less attention to polls and more attention to economic conditions when predicting election victories.
The British election does not provide an accurate forecast for 2016, but it certainly shows us what voters are thinking about. If the United Kingdom’s experience is repeated here, expect to see more political polarization and some surprises at the American polls next year.