Two American Takes on the UK Elections

Within the Big Tent that is Politico, there are two very different takes today on the UK elections from people associated in this country with the Democratic Party.

Even if you agree with Jim Messina’s analysis (or that of his new buddy Mick Jagger) in every particular, you have to marvel a bit at how it fits his business needs here back home. He paints his British client David Cameron as the compleat centrist, and spends a good part of his time assailing the Republican Party for failing to follow the Tories’ example:

If the message the GOP takes away from Cameron’s win is mainly about the renewed power of [the] right, they will fail in 2016, I believe. The truth is that British politics is skewed much further left than ours. Cameron personally led the fight to legalize gay marriage, made addressing climate change a top priority, and defended generous British humanitarian aid worldwide even as he was attacked for it. During the campaign, his manifesto called for a dramatic expansion of child care for working families, new apprenticeships for young people and eliminating taxes on workers at the minimum wage. Much of his agenda aligns very well with the modern Democratic Party platform.

Plus Cameron had Messina’s advice, which he does not go to much trouble to contextualize, much less minimize, as I am sure his firm’s marketing director was relieved to find.

Meanwhile, at Politico Magazine, Stan Greenberg, who worked for Labour as he always does, win or lose, had a less self-serving take that also represented a warning for center-left parties everywhere: nationalist appeals may be bad for actual nations, but they are good for late-election politics:

Just two months earlier in Israel, the world watched Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu savor his surprisingly large victory over his enemies in their national elections this past March. “Against all odds, we have scored a major victory for the nationalist camp headed by Likud,” he declared. In the final weekend, the last polls that could be legally reported showed Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Zionist Camp held a 4-seat lead—and with Netanyahu’s Likud Party falling short of a majority. How could the Israeli pollsters have gotten it so wrong?

What changed those elections at the very end—and, in turn, embarrassed the pollsters—was the willingness of right-wing parties to play the nationalist card, with all the attendant risks.

Stan’s take on Israel is familiar by now, because it’s become the CW. That could ultimately be true with his parallel analysis of how Cameron used a cynical, Bibi-like nationalist appeal to mess up Labour’s coalition while minimizing the UKIP vote:

[Cameron] [f]ully embracing the nationalist strategy set off three huge political tremors that showed up when British voters went to the polls.

First, the nationalist polarization produced a strong counter-intense reaction in Scotland and Scottish voter turnout surged. Turnout was five points higher than in the United Kingdom and reached 81 percent in the jurisdiction where the head of the Scottish Labour Party lost his seat.

Second, the Liberal Democrats collapsed in reaction. When the governing coalition was running on the economy, it was plausibly getting about 25 seats in the polling estimates. But when the Tories make the election about the SNP and the Scottish threat, the Tories “achieved their majority by murdering” their partner in government, as Andrew Rawnsley put it in the Observer. The Liberal Democrats held on to only eight of their 57 seats. And one after the next, the defeated leaders pointed at the “disastrous legacy of a highly divisive campaign” and put the country at “a very perilous point” where “grievances and fear combined to drive our different communities apart.”

And third, the introduction of the nationalist issue changed the electoral calculations for the anti-immigrant, pro-English UK Independence Party that got a stunning 13 percent of the vote, even though they won only one seat. These mostly working class voters had defected from both parties, and the Tories failed to win them back with the argument that the economic recovery was really good. The threat of the Scottish nationalists, however, led many of the Conservative-leaning UKIP voters to switch back in the seats the Conservatives won votes from Labour.

I’m not entirely objective here, since I have long revered Stan Greenberg, and am not particularly impressed by Jim Messina’s opportunism. But I’m pretty sure Brits who view Cameron’s alleged “centrist” positioning as simple accommodations of public opinion, and watched the late Tory ads warning of a Labour government dependent on the socialist Scots, would agree with Stan’s analysis.

Moreover, nobody thinks Republicans are going to take Messina’s advice, which in turn seems to be a detox treatment not for Republicans but for himself, to give him a chance for Democratic clients.

Who would you trust?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.