Republicans might be bummed at the sorry and divided state of their party. The party is beset by infighting, the fusionism Reagan was forged seems shattered and the Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress are bolstered by formerly Republicans leaving the party in droves. But the UK’s recent local elections and a by – election (what we call a special election) show the GOP is far from a demographically or economically doomed party despite recent defeats.
But, first, onto what happened in the local UK elections last week. It was not a good night for Labour. The party lost ground in local elections across the country. Like in the US, the party out of power in the UK usually gains seats in midterms or off year elections in the UK. But the Tories and PM Boris Johnson gained about 235 local seats out of about 4,500 while Labour lost 326 seats and smaller parties while the Greens gained seats,
Perhaps worse for Labour, the party was utterly crushed in a by – election in Hartlepool. The seat was one they had held for almost a century and they had won by nine points in 2019 (though their candidate only netted 37 percent that election while multiple right – wing candidates took over 50 percent). However, the loss was by a massive 23 point margin, outpacing expectations.
Needless to say, this is not where Labour wants to be. Labour has been out of power for over 11 years and is riddled by divisions. They face a popular incumbent who executed a successful rollout of a vaccine and unlike the US, independence from government does not run deep. So good luck to Labour in the short – term.
The same thing can sort of be applied to the US. However, because of the differences in the way the countries operate a successful vaccine rollout from the Biden administration won’t be greeted the same way. Rather, as is being seen in the US currently, the fight will shift to the local level with the blame being risen to the top in the upcoming midterms.
Beyond Labour’s short – term political dilemma, the party has been a mess for a while. They used to be able to rely on the same dynamic among the right but not so anymore. Labour is split between leftist Corbyn supporters and New Labour Centrists (think Bernie Sanders vs. Peter Buttigieg). Both wings loathe each other and what they represent. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, is a figurehead, and has struggled to heal the divide.
The same dynamic could apply here in the US though so far Democrats have been remarkably loyal to the Biden agenda. But, under the surface, divisions between Democrats are starting to emerge around energy, taxes and social policies. The party showed remarkable unity on responding to COVID, but spitting out money is easy. Having an agenda after that which appeals to so many different constituencies is harder.
Admittedly, Labour has a deeper structural issue than Democrats. Structural issues can play a massive hidden role in elections and Labour has one. The U.K. uses the first-past-the-post system like the U.S., so voters are incentivized to form two large parties on the left and right to maximize their chances of winning. During the 20th century, that resulted in the Tories on the right, Labour on the left, and the Liberal Democrats as a sort of centrist third option that never did all that well. Since then, the divided right we saw around 2010 with the Tories and UKIP/Brexit Parties has merged while the left is divided.
Here, in the states, while we have smaller parties, they have far fewer chances to win actual seats in legislatures and Congress. But, at the margins, they siphon votes which causes major headaches for the party in power. Just ask Democrats how they feel about Jill Stein circa 2016.
Back to the UK, the rise and fall of UKIP and Brexit were huge headaches for the Tories. But, it also was a huge headache for and still is. But, in the UK, it also won over a lot of formerly Labour voters in old towns and small cities. So did Trump for the GOP. Indeed, the GOP has been winning over formerly white, working class Democrats for well over two decades.
Johnson and Trump share a lot of similarities in this vein. Trump downplayed hard – right economic orthodoxy in 2016 and even again in 2020 (despite signing historic tax cuts). Johnson has done the same. The result was winning over a lot of socially conservative but fiscally moderate to liberal voters to their sides. Hartepoole is the perfect example of this in which Labour was only able to hold the seat for an additional two years due to a divided right.
Another structural factor Labour has is the influence regional parties have. In the US, regional parties and power largely is connected with either the Democrats or GOP. But, in the UK, local parties like the SNP in Scotland, or the Greens in Southern England, or local parties in Scotland and Wales, lock Labour out of gaining seats in friendly territory.
Without even considering Scotland, it’s very difficult to imagine Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens all sustaining themselves in England without giving the Tories a massive advantage. Some sort of electoral alliance between the three where they don’t all contest all the seats would go a long way towards fixing this (the Liberal and National Parties do this in Australia, as do the CDU and the CSU in Germany), but the Labour and Lib Dem party faithful hate this idea. Labour can often squeeze the vote of the other left-of-center parties during general elections but that strategy still leaves many votes on the table.
But, like we have seen shifts in the US along these lines, the opportunity for Labour to exploit the changing urban /rural divide is growing. As such, while the Tories seem to be close to the height of their power due to this shift, over time it will give Labour the opportunity to flip the script. Just as Democrats held their majorities through a tenuous alliance between urban and rural from 1992 – 2018 Labour is in the midst of the same cycle.
So what is the good news out of all this for the GOP? Well, the first is Democrats tenuous majorities in Congress still rely on a number of rural seats like MT and WV. Democrats are also increasingly relying on more and more suburban, urban and educated voters swinging over to them to offset their rural losses.
Unlike Labour, which is likely to see this shift grow due to where the party is electorally (Tories at the zenith of power), the same cannot be said for Democrats. Democrats growth in urban/suburban areas seems to have maxed out in 2018 while minimizing rural losses. But, in 2020, the expansion actually contracted and the GOP saw gains in both urban and rural areas (however, Trump’s gains among white men from 2016 actually contracted costing him reelection).
In essence, the GOP still has room to grow in rural areas and seats while Democrats have nowhere to go but further down. Meanwhile, whereas Labour has almost exponential growth potential in highly educated, socially changing seats, the same cannot be said for Democrats who literally control almost all of the 50 most highly educated seats in the US (by percentage of college educated individuals in the districts).
Need evidence of this. Well, just look at what happened in TX – 6 where a seat which is becoming more suburban and highly educated, long Republican, went from voting by three points for Trump in 2020 to having its voters give Republican candidates in the primary 61 percent of the vote to Democrats 37 percent, indicating Democrats don’t just have a ceiling but their floor is, well, massive. The same cannot be said for Labour.
If you are the GOP, reading these tea leaves from the UK, combined with a growing divide among Democrats, redistricting on the horizon, changing demographic hardly dooming your party, should make you smile.