London — We Americans may have declared our independence from Britain in 1776, but there are still similar rhythms in British and American politics. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan both came to power amid the ruins of the 1970s and restored their nations’ economies and spirits in the 1980s. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair both developed “third-way” politics that transformed unelectable left parties into center-left political colossi in the 1990s.
So it’s not unreasonable to look for lessons for America’s politicians in the British election last Thursday. As I write, the outcome is unclear. Conservatives just missed getting a majority of seats in the House of Commons but appear headed for a deal with the third-party Liberal Democrats that will install Conservative leader David Cameron in No. 10 Downing Street.
One thing in common between the two countries is the contempt expressed for all politicians. In Britian, the contempt was sparked this year by parliamentary-expense-account scandals. “Best of a bad lot” was a phrase I heard on sidewalks and polling stations in Watford, Birmingham, and Hammersmith.
Not coincidentally, the results were disappointing for all three major parties, in ways that provide cautionary tales for our Democrats and Republicans.
The biggest loser, of course, was Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Labor party, which has drifted away from Tony Blair’s “New Labor” policies and stands for big government in a time of economic distress. Labor won 415 seats in 1997 and is now reduced to 258 (out of 650).
Brown managed to rally his party’s ancient base in factory towns and its more recent base among ethnic minorities and immigrants. But the middle-income suburban seats Blair won are almost all gone, and without them the party has no hope of a majority. In southern England and the Midlands, the majority and more prosperous part of the country, Conservatives won 224 parliamentary seats and Labor only 87.
The lesson for American Democrats is obvious. Heavy government spending is not a political winner when the private-sector economy is ailing. 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.