The lesson for American Democrats is obvious. Heavy government spending is not a political winner when the private sector economy is ailing [bold mine-DL]. Britain voted Conservative in the 1930s, even more so than last week, and Americans seem poised to vote Republican in November.
The results were also disappointing for the Liberal Democrats. Their leader Nick Clegg gave a shining performance in Britain’s first party leaders’ debate April 15, and Lib Dems soared in the polls. But they sank when voters learned more about their platform, which included legalizing illegal immigrants and ditching the pound for the euro, and the party ended up winning fewer seats than in 2005.
Lesson: Flashy political newcomers better have some substance.
British Conservatives must also be disappointed that they failed to get a parliamentary majority. David Cameron worked hard to rebrand his party as modern, tolerant and concerned about the environment. But Conservatives failed to make themselves more attractive than Labor or Lib Dems in many targeted upscale seats.
In contrast, they did capture many Labor seats in modest-income areas. And they might have captured more: 3 percent of Britons voted for the UK Independence Party — votes that if they had gone Conservative would have given the party a solid majority in Parliament.
For American Republicans, there may be a lesson here, that seeking the approval of what David Brooks calls “the educated class” reduces your appeal to what is, in America at least, a larger number of ordinary middle-class people who are worried about government spending and increasingly skeptical of global warming alarmism. These are not people Washington insiders run across very much, but they cast lots of votes. ~Michael Barone
Barone’s misreading of what happened in the British election is undoubtedly superficially satisfying for American conservatives, which is what makes it that much more misleading and potentially dangerous for conservatives and Republicans if they take it seriously. There were several things happening during the final week of the election. In the closing week, Conservatives consolidated their support and increased their lead over both competitors, and it is reasonable to think that many late-deciding Conservative voters came out of the Liberal Democrats’ camp. The bursting of Clegg’s bubble and the increase of the Conservative polling lead are tied together.
The Conservatives picked up more seats this year than they did in 1979, and won 2 millions more votes than they did five years ago. Only those who expected an overwhelming landslide triumph, as Barone seems to expect for Republicans this year, could be truly disappointed in such improvement. The Liberal Democrats improved their percentage of the vote in an election with higher turnout. This did not represent a significant expansion of their voting coalition, but it was nonetheless an expansion that occurred alongside the Conservative surge. Their increased share of the vote was concentrated even more than before, which drives home their argument for electoral reform as much as it points to their weaknesses with the electorate on immigration and Europe.
Barone’s critique of the Liberal Democrats also contradicts itself: the flashy newcomer did have some substance, which Barone acknowledges in the previous sentence. He thinks that substance was a liability, but the substance was obviously there. The Liberals are on the verge of receiving four posts in Cameron’s Cabinet, which is their party’s first presence in government since WWII. Only the excessive expectations that they might finish second in the voting made their later success seem lacking. The lesson here for Republicans and their allies is to stop hyping their chances in the midterms and to begin setting realistic expectations for the fall, or the GOP will see their gains in November ridiculed as disappointing and lackluster.
On spending, Barone has somehow missed that none of the three leaders came clean with the public on the full extent and nature of the spending cuts that would have to be made by the next government. They did not dare risk a backlash from voters that aggressive government-cutting campaign pledges would have caused. It’s as if Barone never saw the widely-reported remarks of the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, saying that the party that implemented the severe austerity measures that would be needed would be out of power for a generation. That doesn’t mean that these austerity measures shouldn’t happen, but that what is good for Britain will not necessarily be good for the governing party (or, in this case, parties). Saying that the British voted for Conservatives in the 1930s is like saying that Americans voted for Democrats in the 1930s: both were the parties out of power at the beginning of the Depression, and both were swept into power for the next decade and a half. Despite an explosion in government spending under New Labour, 52% of British voters supported the two main center-left parties. That does not suggest deep hostility to “heavy government spending.”
Barone floats the possibility that Conservatives could have won over enough of the over 900,000 UKIP voters to put them into a majority on their own. How would Cameron have managed the balancing act of appealing to hard-core Euroskeptics without appearing obsessed with Europe as his three predecessors were perceived as being? Barone and others who have made this argument never say. As it was, Cameron had already dropped out of the EPP alliance in the European Parliament to satisfy his party’s Euroskeptics, a move for which he was constantly and excessively hammered in the press, and he had made clear that he would never support adoption of the euro and would seek a number of opt-outs for Britain from the Lisbon Treaty. Short of pledging to withdraw from the EU, what could Cameron have realistically done to win over UKIP voters?
Appealing to the “educated class,” as Barone puts it, is just one part of the story. There were nineteen marginal Labour constituencies the Conservatives very nearly won, including no less than Ed Balls’ constituency in Yorkshire of all places, and it is unlikely that they could have peeled away that many more Labour voters by returning to the themes that Cameron’s critics on the right insist are obvious winners. Arguably, Cameron made the Conservatives palatable enough in many Labour constituencies that the gains that they made became possible and might not have been possible otherwise.
The mistake that Barone keeps making is that he seems absolutely convinced that most voters are scandalized by large amounts of new government spending when this does not seem to be true at all. It is true among a highly-motivated, energized sub-group of one of the major parties here in the U.S., but most voters and most Americans do not share their intensity or many of their concerns. Having come up with a faulty explanation for what is motivating voter discontent, the rest of Barone’s analysis is marred throughout by the original mistaken assumption. Barone also seems to think that proposing the necessary and right policies for a government deep in debt and achieving electoral success somehow go hand in hand, as if democracies rewarded parties based on merit (as defined by center-right pundits) rather than according to the ups and downs of the economy.
If there is one lesson we have learned from the British election it is that all parties assume that serious fiscal responsibility is a losing proposition and they were all trying to delay the final reckoning that the electorate will deliver on any austerity government. Instinctively, the Republican leadership knows that principle and good policy have essentially no relationship to electoral success, which is why they have treated Paul Ryan’s budget proposal as if it were radioactive waste. As perverse as it seems, kicking out Labour may be the biggest favor British voters have ever done for the party, as they will now have the luxury of opposition to engage in constant rejectionism and demagoguery over the spending cuts that their excesses while in government have made necessary. It will probably work and they might be back in government in five years after they win by default, which is what Republican leaders have been hoping to do for the last year and a half.