3 Takeaways for Democrats from U.K.’s Conservative “Landslide” Victory
With the thumping victory of Boris Johnson and the Tories in last week’s election — they added (as of this posting) 48 new seats to achieve a stunning 78-seat majority in Parliament — nerves on this side of the Atlantic immediately began tingling: What does this portend for Democrats in 2020?
While it’s difficult to compare a parliamentary system with our representative system, a review of the campaign itself that Johnson and conservatives waged yields some takeaways for Democrats as they seek to defeat Donald Trump next year.
One: In the U.K. campaign, Johnson honed a simplified, if not simplistic message.
Johnson simplified his message — “Get Brexit Done”: finally, get Britain out of the European Union — and he wielded it like a sledgehammer, literally. In a widely-reported stunt, Johnson drove a road-grader through a Styrofoam wall — getting Brexit done, crashingly. The message resonated with a public exhausted after three-and-a-half years of parliamentary wrangling over implementation since passage of the referendum.
Takeaway for Democrats: Craft a simplified, overarching message — like, say, corruption. So polarized are we Americans now— in the ongoing impeachment process, we see Republicans’ embrace of Trump becoming cult-like — that nuance goes nowhere. Campaign 2020 will be conducted by bludgeon. Trump’s bludgeon against Democrats, we can guess; his repertoire is actually quite small. But Democrats need to craft their own bludgeon, and in messaging, simplified is good; it can also be deep. How about: “Down With Corruption!” — something bigger than policy, to capture the comprehensively corrupt Trump. Just as Boris Johnson did with Brexit, Democrats should exploit the severe Trump-fatigue afflicting more than half the country. “Enough with the lies!” Democrats must remind Americans that corruption and lying are not normal.
Two: In the U.K. campaign, the opposition Labour party was tagged as “radical.”
Since the high-water mark of Tony Blair’s “New Labour,” the party has become more and more extreme, led by an avowed Marxist, Jeremy Corbyn. In this campaign, Corbyn pledged to nationalize a slew of industries and boost spending on social services by boosting taxes on the wealthy to stratospheric heights. Additionally, Corbyn did little to curb the anti-Semitism that crept into Labour discourse flowing from his party’s fierce anti-Israel stance. All of which made Labour an easy target for Johnson, himself an extremist (of the right), to tag his opponent as “radical” and unpatriotic. It worked: Vast numbers of long-time Labour voters, notably the working-class stronghold in the north, forsook Corbyn and voted for Johnson.
Takeaway for Democrats: Mind the “radical” tag. However the Democratic presidential candidates work out their struggle between the progressive and moderate wings, they can do themselves a favor by not handing Trump the tag of “radical” with which to bash them. This will be more difficult for the progressive candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who speak of “big structural change” and “political revolution,” respectively. But to the extent that they can set the context and fill in the details of their visions, over time they can come to seem normal (much like Trump’s outrageousness is now normal to far too many). And moderates can expect to be splashed by the “radical” tag aimed at progressives. Joe Biden, a moderate whose front-runner status is slipping, was early to note the implications of the U.K. election on our own, predicting defeat for a party that “moves so, so far to the left.” (Biden’s problem is sharpening his game.)
Three: In the U.K campaign, the numbers did not add up.
In their campaigns, both Johnson and Corbyn abandoned any adherence to fact and truth and flung about wild promises as well as fantastical numbers — the costs of the schemes they proposed. As many analysts have observed, the British public simply did not buy it — those fantastical numbers — and, again, out of sheer exhaustion, went for the simplistic message.
Takeaway for Democrats: “Get real” and make very sure your numbers add up. Again, the progressive candidates, with their sweeping proposals requiring major tax hikes, need to be very clear how they would pay for them. As the campaign season heats up to bludgeon-level, a candidate cannot throw out a big number without a clear and convincing formula to pay for it. (Elizabeth Warren’s weeks-long delay in explaining her Medicare-for-All plan will not be allowed.) Moderates likewise must convince increasingly skeptical voters of the soundness of their proposals’ cost estimations. By November 2020, voters’ eyes will be crossing from the onslaught of numbers. Democrats must keep those eyes from crossing.
These and other takeaways from the recent election of our closest ally will keep emerging. What we need to understand now is that this game-changing election in the U.K. has, according to The Guardian, “redrawn the map” of British politics for possibly a decade. And for now, Labour is in disarray, decimated, dead. (Johnson, solidly ensconced in 10 Downing, now promises to hew to the middle.) Liberal commentators predict calamity with Johnson’s conservative leadership (also here).
Another four years of Donald Trump is unfathomable to Democrats, and so is the prospect of a sidelined left. To prevent these calamities, Democrats must campaign smart: “Go big” on message (e.g., Trump’s corruption), mind the “radical” tag, “get real” about the costs of campaign proposals. Also, of course, Democrats need to be registering new Democratic voters as fast as they can.
As Shakespeare, immortal Briton, said, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more….”