Britain’s Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party secured a huge election victory last December, largely by virtue of winning a string of seats from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the latter’s traditional working-class constituencies. Labour as a whole experienced its worst result since 1935.
Rather than lament the electoral collapse of a fellow center-left party, however, Democrats, particularly the party moderates, greeted the crushing defeat of the Labour Party with an almost unseemly glee.
Former vice president Joe Biden predictably led the charge, opportunistically framing Labour’s debacle as a warning of what would befall Democrats if they moved too far to the left. Biden’s self-interested punditry also played to the now prevailing caricature of Boris Johnson as “kind of a physical and emotional clone of the president”—a facile narrative that progressives, indeed the Democratic Party as a whole, would do well to ignore.
It is true that in his robust nationalism, his focus on immigration and crime, and his prioritization of a Brexit that enables the UK Parliament, not the European Union, to control the country’s borders, Boris Johnson does share superficial similarities with Trump. But his promises to increase funding for Britain’s National Health Service, coupled with an expansionary fiscal policy targeting the depressed postindustrial (and historically Labour) regions such as the Midlands and northern England (as opposed to the more affluent south), make Johnson sound more like Bernie Sanders. Indeed, on these issues, he’s further to the left than most Democrats.
The reality is that Johnson’s policy matrix only appears “Trumpian” to the extent that, like the US president, he represents a profound break with the market fundamentalist ideology that has dominated policy-making in the West for the past 40 years (both on the left and the right). Unlike Trump, Johnson diverges in an anti-austerity direction, paying heed to the socially corrosive impact of high levels of economic inequality while seeking to arrest the stagnation of dying communities. That he and his party won seats in areas that have not voted Tory in over half a century might therefore offer some useful lessons to Democrats.
When Donald Trump unexpectedly won in 2016, he did not campaign as a traditional Republican. To capitalize on his political breakthrough in the Rust Belt, Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief domestic policy adviser, pushed the president to raise taxes on the wealthy and embark on a big program of infrastructure reconstruction. The political logic was to consolidate Trump’s gains with those very working class voters who provided him with his margin of victory. We know now that Trump rejected this advice, as the president instead embraced Paul Ryan’s austerity politics, attacking existing health care plans and government social welfare programs, all the while promoting corporate tax “reform” the benefits of which skewed heavily toward the top tier.
On infrastructure, Trump’s delivery has been nonexistent. So far as immigration policy goes, his signature proposal to build a wall has been a case of “sound and fury, signifying nothing” (other than to the children he put in cages). Consequently, in spite of an ostensibly robust economy, which saw continuing positive gains in GDP growth and employment, Trump and his party paid the price in the midterm elections of 2018, one of the biggest congressional wipeouts over the past half-century. Likewise, national election polls in 2020 show Trump trailing most of the leading Democratic challengers; his faux populism apparently not cutting it with the electorate any longer.
Perhaps mindful of the electoral dangers posed by empty rhetorical gestures and broken promises, Johnson is hewing to a different path, so far. In his victory speech last December, he acknowledged that voters in the traditional Labour heartlands merely “lent” their votes to him, and that more needed to be done to consolidate their long-term support.
In fiscal policy terms, Johnson has therefore rejected the Treasury’s prevailing austerity bias. The clipping of HM Treasury’s wings (and the corresponding resignation of Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer) has been caricatured by his opponents in both Parliament and the press as the actions of an insecure, power-hungry prime minister seeking to centralize power. In reality, the move represented a long-overdue move to reduce the Treasury’s stranglehold on economic policy relative to other government departments, paving the way for an expansionary post-Brexit budget. The UK economy will likely need this boost to cope with any potential trade shock stemming from Brexit (as the UK withdraws from the free-trade association with the EU). This month’s budget statement should give a clearer sense of how the government will cope with these impending challenges. Johnson has already backed off his party’s pledge to cut corporate taxes in order to prioritize spending on health care, reverse cuts to many public services over the past decade, and boost infrastructure investment.
On infrastructure, Johnson green-lighted the long-delayed construction of high-speed train line to the Midlands and northern England, a $130 billion venture (and originally a Labour project) that many have derided as a wasteful money pit—but which the prime minister views as a crucial means of regenerating these depressed regions. As a transport concept, the “HS2” benefits might be marginal, although perhaps less so in light of the UK Court of Appeal’s recent decision to ban Heathrow’s third runway. This decision may well enhance the spinoff benefits of the new high-speed rail line, as it potentially diverts more activity to Birmingham and Manchester, in line with the prime minister’s goal to rebalance the British economy. Additionally, the money being committed is not insubstantial: The high-speed rail network represents about 5 percent of annual UK economic output. By contrast, Trump’s promised infrastructure investments thus far haven’t amounted to a hill of beans.
And while Donald Trump has not been shy about spending money for the past few years, his fiscal largesse has been largely skewed to the 1 percent and a bloated military, sustaining an economically inefficient model whereby more and more of GDP gains benefit an ever smaller number of people (who, already having more than they need, have the greatest propensity to save, rather than spend).
This misallocation of fiscal resources provides a powerful line of attack for the Democrats. But they largely remain in thrall to a “deficits are bad” narrative, instead of explaining to American voters that deficits (or “investments”) are economically productive when focused on generating prosperity for all. Too many of the 2020 candidates for the presidency continue to express Clintonesque phobias about expansionary government spending. The most vocal exponent of this deficit fetishism was Pete Buttigieg, who seemed to think that becoming deficit scolds is a path to electoral success for Democrats. Buttigieg has now dropped out and endorsed Biden, who also has a record as a deficit hawk. Both of them might ask themselves: How did that work out for Hillary Clinton?
Democrats should likewise note the British prime minister’s ability to culturally connect with voters in the postindustrial Midlands and northern England, who wanted nothing to do with Jeremy Corbyn’s “woke” identity politics. Historic indifference to their deep, often unstated, misgivings about where the country and its culture were going was often dismissed by Labour as racism, much as Hillary Clinton derided a large chunk of Trump supporters in 2016 as a “basket of deplorables.” That kind of indifference proved costly to both the Democrats and Labour in their respective elections.
Even on immigration (where we see perhaps the biggest echoes of Trump, and where charges of racism have some basis), it should be acknowledged that Johnson’s prioritization of a skills-based immigration policy is not inherently restrictive (in marked contrast to Trump’s personal preferences). Both Canada and Australia, the models for his new immigration policy, have high net immigration rates. Nor is the UK’s English-language requirement racist per se: Canada likewise prioritizes fluency in its two official languages, English and French, on the grounds that it enhances social cohesion, mitigates cultural alienation, and facilitates economic advancement.
The goal seems to be to shift the focus in order to transition Britain from a kind of hourglass economy—low-wage hotel help and high-wage financial consulting—to an economy with highly automated services and a rebuilt manufacturing base.
That’s an aspiration that Democrats should also embrace wholeheartedly, rather than continuing to acquiesce to the phenomenon of offshoring and the corresponding deskilling of the labor force. The coronavirus is beginning to expose the ugly side of globalization, because today Americans rely on overseas production for just about everything, including vital medicines likely needed in the future to combat the epidemic.
Instead of offshoring our expertise, Democrats should take a page from Johnson’s book and encourage the immigration and naturalization of talented and skilled immigrants from all over the world (regardless of race or nationality). Likewise, corporations should not be allowed to use immigrants with inferior rights to undercut US citizen workers and permanent legal residents (such as legal arrangements like H-1B visas, which bind indentured workers to specific employers). All these reforms should be accompanied by a national industrial policy that boosts the ability of disadvantaged Americans of all races and regions to join the industrial workforce.
With his policy actions so far, then, the British prime minister is appealing to a mass of working-class constituencies long alienated by successive governments, both Tory and Labour, that prioritized the European Union’s technocratic market fundamentalism. To put it in US terms, his breach of Labour’s “Red Wall” in the postindustrial Midlands and northern England would be the equivalent of Republicans converting the US Midwest into a permanent GOP regional stronghold (which would almost certainly relegate the Democrats to perpetual minority party status). Rather than simply deriding him, then, Democrats would do well to pay heed to Johnson’s remaking of the British electoral map and obsess less about Corbyn’s perceived electoral failings. While Johnson’s playbook is by no means perfect, some elements of it could provide some useful pointers for Democrats as they seek comparable political success.