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Why Do Parties Last Longer in Britain?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What’s striking about British politics is the infrequency of changes in government from one party to another. This is less true in the United States. Why the difference?

A striking thing about British politics is the infrequency of changes in government from one party to another. In the last 30 years, since the victory of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in May 1979, there has been only one change of government, the victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour party in May 1997. We’ve only had one period of 30 years with only one change of party control over the executive in the United States in the last century, the period from 1921 to 1953. Otherwise, there has been no such period in either Britain or America since the mid-19th century.

In contrast, the United States has had four changes of government since 1979: in the presidential elections of 1980, 1992, 2000, and 2008, just as we had changes at eight-year intervals in 1952, 1960, and 1968.

Why have there been so few changes of government in Britain these last 30 years?

We’ve only had one period of 30 years with only one change of party control of the executive in the United States in the last century, the period from 1921 to 1953.

One reason is that the transformative policy changes initiated by Thatcher’s Conservatives have been widely accepted—just as Thatcher and her party have left alone one transformative change effected by the post-World War II Labour government, the National Health Service. Thatcher’s policies were ratified by her party’s electoral victories in 1983, 1987, and, after she was ousted from Number 10 Downing Street, 1992.

Blair’s New Labour essentially accepted most of Thatcher’s changes and campaigned in 1997 on a platform of not raising taxes. And Labour has not raised taxes substantially until the economic crisis hit in 2008. Labour’s victory in 2001 was virtually a carbon copy of its victory in 1997; in 2005 it slumped just a bit but still received a robust parliamentary majority. That was the first time in its more than 100-year history that Labour won three elections in a row (although it won popular votes pluralities in 1945, 1950, and 1951, it won fewer seats in the House of Commons than the Conservatives in that third election).

For the most part, the Thatcher policies and the Blair modifications have been perceived as successful—in vivid contrast to the records of both Labour and Conservative governments elected between 1964 and 1979. In those circumstances British voters may well have been wise to keep the ruling party in.

Another reason for the infrequent party turnovers has been the failure of opposition parties to adapt to circumstances. Instead, they have responded to initial crushing defeats by indulging their true believers, their left and right wings. In 1983, Labour leader Michael Foot, a distinguished intellectual, ran on a party manifesto that appealed to the atavistic socialism of the left wing of the party and that was labeled “the longest suicide note in history.” In 1987, Labour leader Neil Kinnock skinned back only a little (it was his speech about being the first in his family to rise above the working class that inspired Joe Biden’s plagiarism in 1987).

One reason for the infrequent party turnovers has been the failure of opposition parties to adapt to circumstances. Instead, they have responded to initial crushing defeats by indulging their true believers.

In 1992, with John Major having replaced Thatcher, Kinnock and Labour seemed on the verge of victory. But a late campaign rally raising the specter of left-wing socialism and the attacks of The Sun, Britain’s largest-circulation tabloid, enabled Major’s Conservatives to eke out a narrow victory. Some Conservatives started crowing that they could never lose.

Then two things happened. In September 1992, Britain was forced to go off the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, a Common Market currency agreement, which resulted in vastly rising interest rates—a disaster for the recently increasing number of homeowners with adjustable rate mortgages. The Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence vanished, while their reputation for nastiness remained.

The other was the successful New Labour project led by a small group around Blair, Gordon Brown, and Peter Mandelson. Mandelson said that it would have been a disaster if an unreformed Labour had won the 1992 election before he, Blair, and Brown modernized the party. And they profited by the unforeseen death of Labour party leader John Smith in 1994. Brown yielded to Blair, who was quickly elected party leader at age 41. He and Brown continued in uneasy partnership in the opposition for three years, with Labour enjoying wide leads in polls all the time, and in the ten years in which Blair served as Prime Minister and Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer—a job that seems to combine the powers of the American Treasury Secretary and Director of the Office of Management and Budget. It was an uneasy, increasingly bitter alliance. Mandelson, always a Blair rather than a Brown disciple, was twice forced out of cabinet office by what seem to this pair of American eyes very minor scandals; he spent several years as the trade minister of the European Union and, after Brown became prime minister in 2007, was summoned back to London and given a seat in the House of Lords and a cabinet position that has made him the de facto prime minister. Mandelson’s progress reminds me of Winston Churchill’s description of Arthur Balfour during the political crisis in December 1916 when Herbert Henry Asquith was ousted as Prime Minister and replaced by David Lloyd George: “He passed from one Cabinet to the other, from the Prime Minister who was his champion to the Prime Minister who had been his most severe critic, like a powerful graceful cat walking delicately and unsoiled across a rather muddy street.”

One negative consequence of the infrequency of shifts in party control in Britain is that the governing party in its later years in the majority grows tired, stale, corrupt, and fractious.

If Labour in opposition pursued the will o’ the wisp of socialism, Conservatives in opposition flayed each other over the ouster of Margaret Thatcher by the “wets” in November 1990 and vied in their devotion to conservative causes such as immigration restriction, traditional moral values, and opposition to the European Union—positions not necessarily unpopular with most voters, but of low priority to most of them and seemingly out of touch with the Cool Britannia of the post-Diana years. Conservative party leader William Hague veered from traditionalism to modernism in the run-up to the 2001 election; his successor as leader, Iain Duncan Smith, had some intelligent things to say about how the welfare state hurt its intended beneficiaries, but was forced out of the leadership in a few years; Michael Howard, the leader in the 2005 election, could not efface his reputation as a hard-edged Home Secretary in the Major government.

David Cameron’s election as party leader in fall 2005 finally put aside the 1990s intraparty fights. Cameron, photographed riding his bicycle in London and surveying endangered species in the Arctic, embraced environmentalism and the slogan, “Go Green, Vote Blue.” (The Conservative color in Britain is blue, the Labour color red, as it should properly be.) The Conservatives have been leading in polls by wide margins, with good but not assured prospects (not assured because the current districting works heavily against them) of winning a majority in the House of Commons this year.

It seems to take British opposition parties a long time to adapt—a lot longer than American opposition parties. The British electoral system plays a role here. General elections occur only once every four or five years, unless a party has such a small majority that it is forced to go back to the polls, which hasn’t happened since 1974. By-elections in vacant parliamentary seats occur frequently, and the party in power tends to do poorly in them (except for Labour from 1997 to 2006). But if anything this discourages rather than encourages the opposition’s attempts to adapt and refashion its policies and appeal.

My experience in interviewing British voters is that they often employ tactical voting and are very aware of the signals it sends to the governing party.

My own view is that opposition victories in by-elections, together with the low job ratings that incumbent prime ministers and parties in power tend to get in polls (again, Labour 1997–2006 is an exception), are one means British voters use to confine the power, theoretically total, of the majority party to enact its policies into law. My experience in interviewing British voters is that they often employ tactical voting and are very aware of the signals it sends to the governing party.

Nor does the opportunity to seek local, regional, or EU office give opposition parties much chance to come up with alternative policies. The one exception: the office of mayor of London, created in 1999. But its only two holders so far—the left Labourite Ken Livingstone, elected over Blair’s opposition, and the colorful and perhaps eccentric Conservative Boris Johnson—have not become alternative national party leaders. Opposition parties typically do well in EU elections, which British voters and political insiders consider of little consequence; local offices tend to be decided on local issues, and in any case Parliament and the executive exert so much control over local government that it seldom if ever produces policy initiatives like the welfare and crime control initiatives that ultimately swept the United States in the 1990s.

There are two obvious negative consequences of the infrequency of shifts in party control in Britain. One is that the governing party in its later years in the majority grows tired, stale, corrupt, and fractious—as anyone familiar with the later Major years or the current Brown years knows. Of course this happens in America too, after even shorter periods in power, as denizens of Capitol Hill in 1994 or 2006 could easily observe.

The other consequence is that if an opposition party does win, its leaders typically have little if any experience holding executive office. This was true of New Labour: Blair and Brown had both first been elected to the Commons in 1983, and never were part of a majority. It will be true, or largely true, of a Cameron government if Conservatives win this year. Cameron was first elected to the Commons in 2001, his shadow Chancellor George Osborne in 2005. Hague, slated to be Foreign Secretary, did serve as a minister for Wales in the Major government and Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor in the Major government, may get a lesser cabinet position, but these are rule-proving exceptions. In the United States, in contrast, with changes of government every eight years (or 12 years, as in 1993), each party has cadres of policy experts available for high positions in the executive branch.

But it may be beside the point to tote up the advantages and disadvantages of infrequent changes of power. Voters in Britain and America can change the pattern any time they want to.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Barone specializes in analyzing elections and districts. He’s recently reviewed “A Keystone Election” in Pennsylvania, discussed the correlations between “Delayed Childbearing and Voting Behavior,” noted “An Immigration Tipping Point” in America’s decline in foreign-born population, and explored “Republicans and Democrats: A Tale of Two Bases.” Barone also thinks the “GOP Should Push Education and Pro-Family Tax Reform” and that President Obama’s presidency is based on two “Mistaken Assumptions.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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