- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 13, 2009



Instant analysts in America often misread British politics, primarily because we use our own, different political culture to explain theirs. The ruling Labor Party has just suffered a severe double defeat in elections for local county councils and the European Parliament. Drawing on our own personality-driven politics, pundits concentrate on Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The beleaguered Mr. Brown is indeed fighting for his political life, but the British political system remains driven by party far more than personality. Mr. Brown is very unpopular among voters and activists, but so was his predecessor, Tony Blair, during his last years in office.

Likewise, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remained in charge throughout the 1980s even though personally unpopular, a direct reflection of her domineering style. Americans often compared Mrs. Thatcher to her contemporary and friend, President Reagan; a more apt analogous figure would have been President Johnson. Mr. Brown is in trouble because he is losing control of the Labor structure.

To be sure, British politics in recent decades have become notably more “presidential,” with the party leader playing a much more defined individual role in the media. The two Harolds among relatively recent prime ministers - Tory Harold Macmillan in the 1950s and Laborite Harold Wilson in the 1960s - dramatically projected different, very distinctive public images. Yet they primarily were creatures of party organization.

A basic lesson of this election is that in organizational effectiveness, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats clearly have caught up with Labor. During the Blair years, Labor rightly was credited with an exceptionally effective party structure, particularly in exploiting computer technologies.

In this dimension, there are persuasive parallels with Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s swift ascent to the White House. In historical terms, Sen. George McGovern’s extraordinary organization was vital to his very surprising capture of the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. In that pre-Internet era, direct mail was crucial.

Finally, because the United States has two dominant parties, we too easily dismiss third parties elsewhere. Various British parties did well in voting for the Europe seats. The Liberal Democrats were the big winners in local government. Long maligned as marginal, this party since the 1970s has steadily gained support. A Labor or Conservative coalition with the Lib-Dems has emerged as a real possibility.

One key to their success has been the general decline of class voting in Britain, another dimension very different from U.S. culture. Another important factor is sustained commitment to community service, which in turn has translated into an expanding base of support in local governments.

More than in the United States, there is a sharp distinction between local and national government. British politicians generally spend a career at one level or the other. The long-term growth of Liberal Democratic support at both levels, however, indicates this divide may be breaking down.

In the wake of Labor’s defeat, Richard Reeves, director of the London think tank Demos, has written in the Financial Times that the time may be right for basic realignment in British party politics. His article draws persuasive parallels with the way a new Labor Party replaced the Liberals as principal rival to the Conservatives early in the 20th century.

British voters are upset about the economy, financial misbehavior by bankers and members of Parliament, and past support of George W. Bush administration foreign policies, among other things. These reflect U.S. voter concerns. Party structures and dynamics, however, are very different.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan/Palgrave).

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