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February 20, 2014 10:51 AM The Price of British Moderation

By Ed Kilgore

In view of the prevailing assumption that “polarization” is a bad thing for American politics, and not at least partially a reflection of a country divided over what its challenges are and what to do about them, it’s interesting to take a look at a country which has succeeded to some extent in keeping the median voter front and center. At The Monkey Cage, British political scientist Rob Ford shows that there’s a downside to a center-dominated political culture:

Across the pond here in Britain, the political trends have run in the opposite direction from those in America since the early 1990s, when the traditional governing parties in Britain — the Conservatives and Labor — elected relatively moderate leaders. The British have been governed for 20 years by pragmatic parties, focused on the center and happy to steal each other’s ideas. Has this made for a contented electorate? Not at all. Turnout in British elections has slumped since this convergence began, as the figure below shows, leading to debate about a crisis in British democracy. Between 1992 and 2001, nearly one in five British voters stopped showing up on polling day, and most have not returned. Trust in politicians and satisfaction with politics have also fallen. Party identification and party memberships have collapsed to their lowest levels in modern history. Growing numbers of voters now either ignore politics entirely, or express their hostility to the mainstream parties by backing the radical new entrant, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). After 20 years of rising polarization, America’s voters hate their politicians. Yet, after 20 years of steady moderation, Britain’s voters seem to hate their politicians too….

Ford suggests the decline in the famously toxic class basis of British politics may have come at the expense of enthusiasm among working-class voters:

America’s supposed golden age of deal-making moderates, the 1930s-1960s, came about in part due to the willingness of Southern conservative Democrats to adopt moderate economic positions to defend segregation. As Jeff Stonecash argues in an earlier post, current American polarization partly reflects the re-organization of Southern racial and class conflicts back into politics. In Britain, the longstanding conflict is over class alone, and the recent dynamic has operated in the opposite direction. After a series of election defeats, the traditionally working-class Labor party refocused on winning the middle class, and the class conflict which had defined British politics was no longer a central source of party competition. This made perfect strategic sense for Labour, and delivered three successive election victories under Tony Blair. But it came at a price. Turnout slumped, and the share of voters saying they saw no difference between the parties shot up. Such voter dissatisfaction is highest among working class voters…and has recently risen to all-time highs in these groups, as the voters hit hardest by unemployment, declining real wages and government austerity policies find they have no voice in mainstream politics.

Interestingly, Ford suggests centralized moderate parties have prevented anything like the Tea Party Movement from exercising power in the UK, but at the expense of channeling older white reactionary voters into more extreme vehicles for their views:

In both countries, we find a significant section of the electorate-older, white and socially conservative-adopting a “stop the world I want to get off” attitude. These voters are unhappy with the changes of recent decades on issues like immigration, gay rights and race, as well as more recent flashpoints like “Obamacare” in the U.S. and the European Union in Britain. In America, this new political movement has been organized into mainstream party conflict in the form of the Tea Party revolt within the Republican party. In Britain, where party politics is more centrally controlled, the rebels have decamped to a new party, UKIP, which has made a lot of noise but at present lacks representation in the British Parliament. While in America the political establishment has no choice but to reckon with the Tea Party, which now has many supporters in Congress, in Britain politicians are tempted to ignore the UKIP revolt, as the new party has little prospect of winning many seats. Yet ignoring a revolt backed by one voter in ten, including large swaths of Labor’s traditional white working-class base, risks legitimating UKIP’s core argument that the political parties ignore British voters.

Finally, Ford notes that the current atmosphere has not been good for the UK’s centrist “third-party,” even though the Lib Dems are a close reflection of the kind of socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and “internationalist” option Beltway elites seem to crave in this country:

[V]oters have not rewarded Britain’s centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, for exercising a moderating influence in government. The party’s support has collapsed since it joined the right wing Conservatives in a Coalition government: around 60% of Lib Dems switched away from the party during its first year in government, and the party has had little success trying to woo centrists from the other parties. They now face an electoral bloodbath.

All food for thought given the reflexive tendency to think all our system needs is a little more wheeling and dealing and a third option.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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