Political conservatives are at war with themselves as they try to implement a policy championed by their nationalist, anti-immigrant wing. The consensus is that their unloved, error-prone party leader is on borrowed time.
On the other side, there is energy and passion, fueled by strong support from young people drawn to an aging career legislator. Once dismissed as an ideologue stuck in a 1970s-era socialist utopia, he is now regarded by many as the country’s most likely next leader.
British politics don’t completely parallel those in the United States. But there have been a lot of similarities in recent years. Britain has taken the nationalist wave roiling the Western world to a logical extreme, and in the process may have opened the way to a very different future.
Britain’s narrow vote in June 2016 to leave the European Union was a reflection of the same sentiment that put Donald Trump over the top six months later. Trump praised the “Brexit” vote, and some of its most ardent backers returned the favor.
Both countries witnessed the surprise emergence of a leftwing politician: Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. And in both countries, the main conservative party has been spinning its wheels despite having a lock on power.
Prime Minister Theresa May is no Donald Trump. She is more likely to be the victim of political theater than the perpetrator of it. She is an experienced legislator and Cabinet member who opposed leaving the European Union. But after David Cameron, who called the EU referendum, resigned, she pursued the prime minister’s job, declaring she would negotiate the best exit deal possible.
Then she made a colossal mistake. May calculated that she could strengthen her majority in Parliament – and her claim to speak for the whole country during Brexit negotiations – by calling nationwide elections in June.
As it turned out, Labor only looked dead, and May’s Tories lost their majority. The Conservatives now need the votes of a socially conservative party from Northern Ireland just to stay in power. (The UK Independence Party, which pushed hard for Brexit, tanked in the voting.)
In the wake of the election, polls found May’s approval rating in Trump’s neighborhood – the mid-30s. Negotiations with the EU over terms of Britain’s exit have made little progress, a reflection in part of May’s inability to reconcile officials who want a “softer” exit and closer relations with Europe, and those who want a clean break. Cabinet infighting is vicious. May’s foreign secretary, the ebullient Boris Johnson, is widely thought to be maneuvering to replace her. One insider widely quoted in British media described a “stench of death” around her government. Instead of marching toward a radiant post-EU future, Britain is slouching toward the exits, grumbling and snarling along the way.
And Corbyn? After being roundly criticized for a poor effort to promote remaining in the EU, Corbyn has caught fire. While Labor still ended up with fewer votes than the Tories in the election, it gained 30 seats in parliament. Polls indicate Corbyn is personally more popular than May.
The enthusiasm and momentum on Labor’s side is palpable. Labor has long been battered by accusations that it would ruin the economy by massively raising taxes and redistributing wealth. The Economist recently declared Corbyn to be Britain’s “most likely next prime minister,” even while fretting about how radical his policies would be. Depending on the answer, it said, a Corbyn government might be no worse for business than a bungled Brexit.
Younger people voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. And although it’s unlikely Labor could reverse the decision, they have flocked to Corbyn. His image as an average guy who rides a bicycle, gardens and makes jam is part of it. So is the clever use of social media – here is one compilation of the best Corbyn memes. In June, more than 60 percent of voters under 40 chose Labor; 23 percent chose the Conservatives. The younger you were, the more likely you were to vote Labor.
The equivalent gap in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was narrower. Hillary Clinton led 55-37 percent among those between the ages of 18 and 29 and 50-42 percent among those between 30 and 44.
British and U.S. politics have a way of tracking each other. Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, pulling Britain to the right, the year before Americans elected Ronald Reagan. Less than two years after Bill Clinton won the presidency by moving Democrats to the center, Tony Blair became Labor leader and implemented a new, centrist agenda. He went on to serve a decade as prime minister.
Is Britain’s experience this time anything more than a curiosity for Americans? Hard to say — particularly after the surprises of the last two years. The Tories, like Labor before them, may only appear dead. The youth vote may turn out to be a passing phenomenon.
But the side that wants it more often wins. For now, the energy appears to be on the left.