Friday, May 12, 2017

Realigning Elections and the UK: Thoughts as We Get Ready to Head over the Pond

V.O. Key, author of "A Theory of Critical Elections"
There's an older tradition in the study of American politics that postulates, quite plausibly, that certain elections have enduring consequences for the party system. The idea was first trotted about by V.O. Key, where he argued that there are episodic "critical elections" that rearrange the deck chairs of the party system. In his seminal piece, published in 1955, Key looks at presidential election results in New England to show that the elections of 1896 and 1928 had created an enduring Republican majority in the first case, and established the lasting New Deal/Democratic coalition in the later. Walter Dean Burnham expanded considerably on Key's work, arguing that elections are the pressure values of democracy. Burnham argues that there's a fundamental lag between society needs/wants and the political system's ability to address those needs. Societal pressures mount,pushing against a resisting political system until--snap!--changes occurring in broader society cause an electoral earthquake where the party system is shattered and a new electoral order is established. These elections that reorder the political landscape are called realigning elections. This is also the basis for Stephen Skowronek's theory of the presidency. Regimes are established by reconstructive presidents (who happen to preside over a realigning type election) that persist for a period of time until they lose the support of the public and crumble under the weight of the regime's commitments.

I mention all of this on the eve of my British Politics class' departure for the United Kingdom because it feels very much like we are dropping in on a similar realigning type election. Although we should be cautious of projections and models which aggregate polling data, as demonstrated quite plainly by forecast models universally predicting a hung parliament in 2015 and a Clinton presidential win in 2016, those models today indicate an electoral tsunami washing over the Labour Party. It is quite possible that the Labour Party may be reduced around 150 seats if we believe reports from within the Labour Party and some forecasting models. That would put the Labour Party back to the election of 1935, when it held 154 seats (a big gain from a disastrous 1931 election). The conservatives, on the other hand, would enjoy a majority akin to that won by Tony Blair in 1997 and would have a considerable mandate supporting its hard Brexit position which would pull the UK not only out of the EU, but out of the Common Market (and allow for stricter controls on immigration).

1997 UK General Election Results

Labour is in a tough spot. Part of this has to do with what appears to be the demise of UKIP voters, who are turning to the conservative party now that Brexit is a fait accompli. This helps conservatives shore up their marginal seats while at the same time putting Labour seats at risk where there was a strong Leave vote and a strong second or third place UKIP showing in 2015. I recommend this election analysis by BBC showing the very clear threat to Labour.

In a post-Brexit world, it is unclear how Labour will survive. This is further compounded by the fact party supporters have, against the wishes of the Parliamentary Party, chosen an old school leftist as party leader making it difficult to appeal to centrist and middle class voters. All of this puts Labour in a particularly bad spot, which is precisely why Theresa May chose to call the early election in the first place.

Labour's survival as a major party in a two party system is in doubt. Realigning elections can dramatically alter party systems. The Federalist Party ceased to be a force after the realigning election of 1800 in the US, and the Whigs collapsed in 1860--giving way to the rise of the Republican Party. There is no reason to presume that the Labour Party must remain a relevant and competitive electoral party. The Labour Party took advantage of the Liberal Party's collapse in the early days of the 20th century, and the Liberal Democrats can surely capitalize by pulling moderate and more conservative Labour politicians to their side if they have a respectable showing in this election. Indeed, if Labour persists on retaining Jeremy Corbyn after a dismal showing in June, it is quite possible that we may be witnessing a realigning election of historic portions and enduring consequences. Perhaps Labour's collapse in Scotland was not an isolated incident but merely a harbinger of far worse tidings for the party.

I was in Germany during the 1998 General election and it was an amazing thing to behold. I'm excited that my students and I will be on hand for this potentially game changing election. We'll be campaigning in a marginal constituency while in London, and rest assured, I'll be getting as much election related swag as humanly possible!

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