As much as the London mayoral election was heralded as a sign of impending doom for Gordon Brown, yesterday’s UK by-election (an election between major polls in a small area) result in Crewe will certainly now overshadow it. The crushing defeat of Labour saw a massive 17.6 percent swing away from Labour toward the Tories, much more than had been predicted by any pollster I know of. It’s safe to say the Tories expected to win, but they probably never dreamed they would win by this much.
This morning the Conservatives are basking in their triumph with some aggressive and confident talk from Tory leader David Cameron, who is heralding this victory as “the end of New Labour.” If a 17.6 percent swing were to be replicated in the next general election, it would be enough to hand over the government to the Tories.
Cameron may be indulging in a bit of overconfidence. After all, this election was more about working class voters punishing Brown for his recent abolition of the 10 percent tax rate than it was about their wholehearted embrace of the Tories. The district of Crewe and Nantwich has been solid Labour territory for decades, and while they may have wanted to send a message of dissatisfaction with Gordon Brown in this by-election, that doesn’t necessarily mean such working class voters would want to hand the government over to the Tories in a general election. The message to Labour from the working class may just be “don’t take us for granted.”
But at the same time, this Crewe by-election may just reflect the “sea change” Cameron is going on about this morning. New Labour - the governing philosophy devised by Brown and Tony Blair in the early ‘90s that pulled the party toward the centre and abandoned much of its socialist worker-friendly ideology – may have run out of steam. Is it possible that all along, the philosophy behind New Labour required a personality like Tony Blair to sell it? Or has New Labour’s governing philosophy become so indiscernible from the Tory platform that voters increasingly can’t see the difference? Labour’s attempts to tar the Conservative candidate in Crewe as a ‘Tory toff in a top hat’ may have backfired miserably not because class warfare doesn’t work anymore, but because Labour’s claim to be representing the concerns of working class voters rang hollow for the voters of Crewe as the struggle with home foreclosures, rising petrol prices and stagnant wages.
Interestingly, one can see direct parallels to what’s going on in the UK in the US presidential election across the pond. Blair modelled much of his 1997 campaign on what Bill Clinton had done with the “New Democrats,” a similar ‘pulling to the centre’ of the Democratic Party led by the Brookings Institute. New Labour and the New Democrats rose together, and now they could be falling together as well. One only needs to look at Hillary Clinton’s now inevitable defeat in the Democratic presidential primary. The New Democrat philosophy doesn’t seem to have the same resonance with voters as it used to. The movement was largely formed by Democrats who were frustrated by the left wing of their party persistently objecting to free trade agreements. Yet in this presidential campaign, NAFTA has been a dirty word, and one of the biggest problems for the Hillary campaign has been that voters don’t believe her when she says she opposed it all along while her husband championed it.
The times, they are a-changin’
The key difference is that in the US, there is a popular and well-positioned person to take the mantle from the Brookings institute crowd. The ‘philosophy’ around Barack Obama and his advisors is often described as ‘post-partisan,’ a new model of looking at politics that eschews traditional alignments and divisions and approaches issues with a more logical non-biased approach. Of course this could all just be rhetoric, and as of yet it’s hard to discern what this new philosophy guiding the Democratic party would be.
But at least it’s there. In the UK, there is no person and no governing philosophy to take the reigns from the Blair-Brown New Labour regime that has ruled the party for a dozen years. If Labour were to dump Brown as their leader, there’s no obvious person to take his place. And UK politics has entered such a rut that there seems to be little in the way of new ideas being generated by any party. Voters aren’t happy with Gordon Brown and Labour, but they don’t much care for Cameron and the Tories either. And the Liberal Democrats don’t seem likely to hop out of their perpetual third party status any time soon. Clearly, one of these parties needs a Barack Obama, and fast.
Incidentally, Hillary Clinton remains incredibly popular among Brits. In fact in an informal poll conducted at the beginning of the primaries, the UK was the only European country that preferred that Clinton win the Democratic primary race. Anecdotally I can confirm this. I haven’t met a single British person who wants Obama to win. This can probably be explained by the fact that they don’t know Obama and they yearn for a return to the Clinton years, when Anglo-American relations were at their most sunny. But perhaps if they look at it in this light, that Democratic voters are tired of the New Democrats in the same way that Labour voters are tired of New Labour, the impending Obama victory might make more sense to them.