The Overstretched Superpower
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Recent elections in Western democracies have been spectacles of popular dissent and political emotion. Not so in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement of a snap election to be held on June 8 has inspired little more than malaise. There will be no primetime debates between May and the opposition, and there will be no marches through the capital, especially in light of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester. Most observers simply assume that the country is headed for a Blue Murder—a sweeping victory for May’s Conservatives at the expense of the Labour Party, which recent polls suggest could lose 56 of its 229 Parliamentary seats.
What is the source of Labour’s poor prospects? The obvious answer is Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader. A longtime activist from Labour’s left flank, Corbyn is widely perceived as incompetent and untrustworthy: his net favorability rating among British voters fell from negative 25 percent to negative 40 percent between August and February. A steep loss in June could force Corbyn to step aside. For his critics, new Labour leadership seems like a silver lining.
Party leaders need to regenerate members’ faith in democracy if they want Labour to return to government.
But the fixation on Corbyn misses a more enduring source of Labour’s weakness. Over the last two decades, many of the voters who make up Labour’s traditional base have lost faith in British democracy. Fewer and fewer affiliate with the party. Of those who do, a growing percentage abstain from voting.
The regeneration of the Labour Party will require more than new leadership. Labour must build trust from the bottom up, reinvesting in local government to restore voters’ faith in the promise of public services.
In the United Kingdom, as across the developed world, support for democracy is in decline. Recent work by the political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa has illustrated a “democratic disconnect,” under which the popular foundations of mature democracies are eroding. Using data from the World Values Survey, Mounk and Foa have shown that more than 15 percent of British citizens under 35 view democracy as a “bad” or “very bad” way to run a country, as compared to less than 10 percent of citizens over 50.
The electoral impact of this democratic disconnect is not uniform. Over the last two decades, British voters’ faith in democracy has eroded asymmetrically. Since 1998, according to data from the British Social Attitudes Survey, the percentage of Labour voters who believe it is “not worth voting” has nearly doubled, from 4.6 percent to 8.8 percent in 2015. Over the same period, the percentage of Conservative voters who do not believe in voting fell from 5.8 percent to just 3.6 percent. The patterns are striking: a number of political scientists, including Ian McAllister and Margit Tavits, have shown that the supporters of winning parties tend to become less politically apathetic, not more so. These results suggest that, through the Labour governments of 1997 to 2010, the opposite trend held. The implication of this imbalance is that the Conservatives must do less campaigning than Labour to mobilize the same number of voters.
Most of May’s domestic policies are unpopular. Only 13 percent of British voters support the spending cuts initiated by her government, and only 21 percent support the private sector’s growing involvement in the National Health Service. Labour’s hallmark social policies, by contrast, command majority support. 71 percent of British voters back an increase in the minimum wage to £10, and 62 percent want to raise tax rates on the wealthiest British citizens. But there’s a catch: voters are withdrawing from electoral politics not only in line with their party affiliations but also according to their social policy preferences. Here, too, the trends tilt in May’s favor. Consider the question of wealth redistribution. From 1998 to 2010, Britons who support redistribution defected from voting at a rate twice as fast as those who do not. Despite the broad opposition to May’s agenda, then, the Conservatives have the upper hand.
There are four main sources of Labour’s democratic demobilization. The first is the decline of the United Kingdom’s unions. For most of the twentieth century, unions played a key role in the mobilization of the left vote, acting as the links between British workers and their political representatives. Unlike other Labour voters, union members have actually become more committed to democratic participation—whereas 13.9 percent of union members believed it was not worth voting in 1998, just 10.3 percent did in 2013. Union membership, however, has fallen drastically over the last few decades. Since 1979, the number of union members has more than halved, dropping from 13.5 million in that year to just over six million today. This means that Labour’s capacity to rally voters has deteriorated significantly.
The second is the weakening of the United Kingdom’s local governments. County and district councils, composed of locally elected officials, have historically played a crucial role in welfare provision, from founding schools to building housing estates. Over the last half century, however, the locus of governance has shifted from local authorities to Westminster. This shift accelerated in the 1980s, when the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher placed limits on council spending, slashed local funding provided by the central government, and permitted the tenants of council-owned housing to buy their homes at steep discounts, eliminating valuable future rents and directing the proceeds of the sales toward London. Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity program cut council spending even further. Since 2010, council funding has fallen by 40 percent: at least 343 libraries have closed, 500 bus routes have been cut or curtailed, and 23 percent of the funding for housing services—including support for the homeless—has vanished.
These cuts have hit the poor the hardest, as councils often provide essential support to low-income citizens. But the United Kingdom’s poor have also historically been its Labour voters. Support for the party that promises “high-quality public services" has waned precisely because it has not been able to deliver such services.
The third source of Labour’s troubles is the decline of intergenerational mobility. According to the polling group Ipsos, over 54 percent of British citizens believe that young people today will have worse lives than the generation that came before them—a record high. The primary intergenerational fault line is property ownership. Whereas many Baby Boomers could afford mortgages in early adulthood, rapid house price inflation since the 1990s means that today’s young people are often priced out of homeownership and pushed out of high-rent cities, earning them the nickname Generation Rent. On the whole, British millennials are on track to earn less across their lifetimes than their parents did.
Labour must build trust from the bottom up.
Some young people have reacted to their economic disenfranchisement with political activism, but many more have responded with apathy. According to data from the British Social Attitudes Survey, the percentage of young people without a party affiliation rose from 14.7 in 1989 to more than 41 percent in 2013. Young British people do not just seem to be losing faith in elections—they appear to be drifting away from party politics altogether.
That has critically damaged Labour’s electoral prospects. According to a recent poll, if the snap election were decided by the preferences of voters under 40, Labour would be the clear winner. Yet many of those voters will stay home on election day, and their abstention will be a decisive factor in May’s likely victory.
The final driver of Labour’s demobilization is the rise of wealth inequality in the United Kingdom. “New” Labour’s break from its working-class base in pursuit of middle-class swing voters in the 1997 election held together a cross-class coalition through three consecutive elections. But as the wealth gap grew, working-class voters felt spurned, and their support for Labour began to wane—a process that the political scientists Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley have documented. Some former Labour voters defected to right-wing alternatives such as UKIP, which offers euroskeptic solutions to working-class decline. Many more, though, defected from democratic participation completely. In 1987, the difference in turnout between the United Kingdom’s poorest and wealthiest income groups was just four percent. In 2010, the difference was 23 percent.
KEEPING THE MOMENTUM
Come June, the temptation for Labour will be to purge its ruling faction and its far-left policies. But that would deepen the party’s intergenerational divide, pushing even more young voters away in the process. Corbyn may lack the oomph to win a general election, but his platform has inspired thousands of young British citizens to join the party and vote him to its leadership.
Labour’s task should not be to pivot away from Corbyn’s grassroots support. It should be to strengthen it. That will require addressing the sources of apathy among Labour’s base.
Voters often complain that they do not know what Labour stands for. The party should start by clarifying how it would support communities and bring back the services that their councils have cut, offering a fresh vision that rejects austerity in favor of extensive local investment. (The promise in Labour’s new manifesto to build 100,000 council houses a year is a decent start.) Next, because some 90 percent of Labour voters do not trust their politicians, the party must bring in a fresh crop of lawmakers with deep roots in their communities. Only by bringing new politicians into its ranks can Labour build confidence in its political project. Third, in the absence of strong unions, the party must develop its local infrastructure. The Brexit vote was won in British tabloids, which peddled mistruths about the costs of EU membership. Labour should develop its own ground game to bust through these myths as the Brexit negotiations proceed.
Poll numbers aside, May’s government is underperforming. Her flagship education reform is flailing. EU diplomats have lambasted her approach to the Brexit negotiations as unrealistic. And as the United Kingdom nears a Brexit deal that would strip the country of its access to the EU’s single market, public approval of May’s leadership will likely fall.
These weaknesses do not guarantee Labour’s strength. To the contrary, a so-called hard Brexit could push even more British voters toward political apathy, as May crafts the country’s future without regard for their consent.
New leadership could help improve Labour’s popular appeal. But the party’s leaders will also need to regenerate members’ faith in democracy if they want to return to government. That process must begin not in Parliament but in the communities where Labour voters have failed to see the fruits of their partisan loyalty.