The United Kingdom election returns had hardly begun coming in when conventional wisdom started to form. A day later, it solidified. The elections demonstrated the renewed vitality of hard Left, progressive politics in the English-speaking world.
Even if Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn had not exactly won, he had shown how the Left could win. He had road-tested the kind of politics Americans had seen at work last year in the Bernie Sanders campaign. And he had proven that style of politics would prevail—if not this year, then surely in the near future.
There is a certain truth to this narrative. British Prime Minister Teresa May made a grave miscalculation, lost her majority in Parliament, denied herself another three secure years in power, and will probably be gone as prime minister by late summer. But a closer analysis of the election exposes significant flaws in the conventional narrative. American conservatives should indeed study the British election closely. They should not, however, be disheartened by it. It offers them valuable lessons on how to remain in power, and how to use the power they hold.
Conservatives Are Still a Majority, for One
To begin with, it’s important to understand that while the British Conservative Party (the “Tories”) lost their majority in Parliament, they still remain in office and will likely continue to govern the nation. Before the election, they held an absolute majority in Parliament, of 331 seats out of 650. They lost 13 seats, dropping to 318, some eight votes shy of a majority.
But within a few hours, they began forming a coalition with a traditional ally, the “Democratic Unionists” (DUP) of Northern Ireland. That party won ten seats. The Tory-DUP alliance would thus control a majority of 328 of the 650 seats. To be sure, that majority is slender, and could suffer attrition as members of Parliament (MPs) died or left office. But a majority it nonetheless is. And it would permit May to retain her prime ministership and the Tory Party to rule.
Furthermore, Labour’s “success” should not be overblown. It remained well behind the Tories both in numbers of parliamentary seats (262 versus 318), and in the popular vote (roughly 40 percent to 42 percent). The Tories’ share of the popular vote actually climbed by more than 5 percent, although the Labour share increased by nearly 10 percent. Although Labour picked up a substantial net gain of 32 seats, its gains came at the expense, not so much of the Tories, as of smaller third parties, especially the Scottish Nationalists, who lost a net of 19 seats (of a previous 35) in all.
Even without further analysis, these results hardly suggest a massive rejection of the Conservatives. Rather, they indicate that Britain may be returning to something more like a two-party system, with smaller regional or special interest parties giving way to bigger parties that have broader, national appeal.
Labour also seemed to have made gains because Nigel Farage’s party, the “UKIP,” had disappeared. UKIP existed to promote Brexit. With that achieved, the party basically folded its tent. Forecasters had mistakenly predicted that UKIP voters would migrate to the Tories. But many did not, voting for Labour instead. That is crucial: it suggests that many pro-Brexit, nationalistic voters voted for Labour for economic reasons, given that Britain’s exit from the European Union seemed assured.
Here, then, is one important lesson for American conservatives: Do not count on retaining the loyalty of working-class voters in places like western Pennsylvania—places that gave Donald Trump the necessary margin for victory—without rewarding them on the “bread and butter” issues. In particular, American conservatives should be very wary of cutting health-care programs severely.
Labour made extremely effective use of the charge that May and her Tories were starving Britain’s national health-care system of funds. That charge resonated with aging working-class Britons who may well have supported UKIP or Brexit. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the Labour Party, under leaders like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, had snubbed and stiffed those voters. In that respect, they resembled our own aloof and arrogant Obamas and Clintons. But under Corbyn, Labour began to court these neglected, “deplorable” voters again with, it appears, a fair measure of success. Conservatives: Be sure that the Democrats have grasped that piece of Labour’s strategy, and beware of it.
Don’t Deeply Disrupt Welfare Programs
British conservatives had absorbed that lesson even before the election, and they should pay even more attention to it in the aftermath. May was depicted as a “Red Tory” in large part because of her views on social welfare. She or her Tory successors will probably blush an even deeper red now. Voters who favor nationalist causes, like Brexit or Making America Great Again, value a robust nation-state, not only because it guards its borders jealously and protects its native working class from low-wage foreign-born competition, but also because its health care and social security programs shelter them from the worst ravages of (what Edward Luttwak calls) turbo-capitalism.
A turn to the center on social welfare issues would be very good for conservativism both in Britain and in this country. In Britain, it would mean the Tory Party would break even further with the economic policies of Thatcherism and continue its return to an older and deeper conservative tradition. That is the tradition associated with post-War Tory prime ministers like Harold Macmillan and, in the nineteenth century, Benjamin Disraeli.
In those periods, the Tories aspired to be—and in fact were—genuinely the party of the nation as a whole, rather than (like Labour) of one particular class. Their leadership consciously sought to combine the dynamism, innovation, and risk-taking of capitalism with substantial protections for those most vulnerable to the dislocations and deprivations that unfettered capitalism inevitably causes.
In my opinion, that is the true and natural habitat of conservatism in any advanced modern society. And it is the kind that comes naturally to President Trump. To an extent almost wholly unrecognized by commentators, with the notable exception of Conrad Black, both Trump and his followers are moderates. Trump appears to recognize not only the political necessity of protecting core social programs, but also the social imperative for doing so. The “deplorables” are an essential part of the national community, and the nation needs to give them their due.
Finally, a word about the Ulster MPs on whom the Tories depend. These are not the anti-Catholic bigots of the past, even a past as recent as the 1980s. Their leader, Arlene Foster, is a young Protestant woman who has earned the praise of the UK’s Catholic Herald, for her openness to Roman Catholics and her party’s staunchly pro-life values. It is not altogether unimaginable that Foster could play a leading role in the next UK cabinet, or perhaps even become prime minister.
The Tories’ dependence on her party for remaining in power gives Foster extraordinary leverage. It may even be that the Britain that emerges from this election, while taking a more “progressive” tack in economics, will steer in a more “conservative” direction on social and cultural issues. It’s not a bad combination for American conservatives to espouse.