The creeping Americanisation of British politics is a favourite topic among those in Westminster and fans of the West Wing and the darker, uglier House of Cards. From televised debates to the importing of US political advisers, British politicos have frequently looked across the pond for ideas and inspiration.
It seems logical, therefore, that advisers on all sides will be analysing the Republican Party’s victory on Tuesday night in the midterm elections. After eight years, the Republicans finally wrestled control of the Senate. In fact, the party enjoyed a far more comfortable night than initially expected, easing to victories in Georgia and North Carolina among others.
Following President Obama’s re-election, it was argued that that the campaign gave key insights for the General Election next year. Namely, that with an economy on the road to recovery, voters trusted the keys of the car with the Obama administration, rather than risk the uncertainty of handing them back to the Republicans in the form of Mitt Romney. Midterms, unlike a presidential election, are not fully reflective because of the low voter engagement. Turnout on Tuesday was only 36.6 per cent.
That isn’t to say we can’t take anything away from the midterms this week. But a pinch of salt is needed. What, then, did we learn?
Above all else, and in line with other presidents facing midterm elections in their second term, these elections were a litmus test on Obama’s popularity. A general rule is that presidents in their second term suffer in the midterms. Sadly for Democrats, the 44th president is no longer the campaign ‘must have’. In fact, he has become the ‘must not have’. Low approval ratings and a base that is frustrated he has not been able to push through reform aimed at dealing with the issue of illegal immigration, should worry both Labour and the Conservatives.
Ed Miliband needs to look no further that the latest poll showing he is more unpopular than Nick Clegg. The Democrats employed the best strategy they had in order to minimise the Obama drag by keeping him out of sight. Labour does not have that luxury. The party may argue it has a policy platform that will tackle the cost of living crisis and reform broken markets, but if the electorate does not think Miliband is up to the job then there is a problem. The politics of image, so famously moulded and perfected in the US, is arguably the greatest risk Labour faces in 2015.
For Prime Minister David Cameron, it is a more mixed picture. On the one hand, Tuesday night showed voters are more than prepared to punish a party and its leader if they feel they are performing badly. This should give Cameron some encouragement because poll after poll shows the British public consider Cameron most up to the job of being Prime Minister.
However, a closer look at Obama’s problem on Tuesday should keep Tory strategists awake. The Democrats struggled to motivate their base and the Democrats were struck badly by a key section of the base feeling disillusioned at the president’s lack of progress on immigration reform.
Why should this worry Cameron? Firstly, there have been rumblings at the local party level that Cameron has seriously damaged his standing by expending so much political capital on endeavours like legalising gay marriage. Then there are those who feel Cameron has not done enough to address the immigration question, and now support UKIP. Cameron may be popular at large, but he needs to shore up his standing with activists and the thousands of party members who will be knocking on countless doors from now to Election Day.
It’s the economy (again) stupid
Obama and the Democrats had an effective narrative going into 2012, “don’t turn back now”; while unemployment was falling fast and economic growth was beginning to return. The success of this messaging has even made an appearance at Prime Ministers Question Time and is a favourite line among Conservative strategists to discredit Labour’s economic record, as the Democrats did to the Republicans.
An ABC News exit-poll on Tuesday showed that seven out of 10 American voters feel the American economy is in bad shape. This in an economy which grew at 3.5% in the third quarter, faster than expected. Despite this upturn in growth, large sections of the American public are still not seeing the economic benefits trickle through to them. Similar to the UK, wage growth remains sluggish. This problem created difficulties to the Democrats.
One of the reasons American voters have felt disenfranchised with Washington has been the hyper-partisan bickering and political gridlock that has engulfed Congress since 2010. The American public has put this blame squarely on both sides of the aisle, with equal dissatisfaction for Democrats and Republicans. But it has become obvious that after the wave election of Tuesday, the incumbent Democrats and President Obama took the brunt of the blame from voters on the dysfunction of Washington.
One of the main worries for the Conservative Party, outside of UKIP, is seeing a voteless recovery. A record number of people in employment and strong economic growth this year has not so far transferred into greater support. People are seeing the macroeconomic picture improve, but this is not being fully felt on the ground and in town centres across the country. The same problem in the US saw the electorate lose faith in Obama administration.
Labour can take two encouraging signs from this. First, the cost of living and personal circumstances in the economy are a key factor in which way people vote. Second, voters were prepared to vote for the Republican Party, largely because they had lost faith in the Obama administration, rather than a renewed sense of optimism attached to the Grand Old Party. A national exit poll found 60% of Americans are dissatisfied or angry with the Republican leaders in Congress. Miliband may also be unpopular with voters, but they may just be willing to vote for change, if their own life circumstances aren’t looking much better come May 2015.
On election night in the US, Republicans and Democrats were already discussing how to move forward under the new working conditions in Washington – divided government. Consensus from the past four years would tell us that it could be another two years of political dysfunction. But there are signs politicians are waking up to the idea of compromise and other parties in the UK and Europe should take notice.
President Obama and Republican leaders have already spoken numerous times in the past 48 hours on areas they seem to have some agreement. Primarily, this appears to be on issues related to expanding US trade agreements (primarily TPP and TTIP) and on corporate tax reform. Some Republicans have already spoken about a legislative agenda focused on tax cuts. Now in a position to potentially deliver tax reductions as part of a broader economic plan to boost the US economy, Cameron should take note.
The tax cuts that Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have unveiled recently have whipped up enthusiasm among the Conservative ranks. Seeing the Republican Party embark on a similar strategy over the next six months could see the right wing of the Conservative party begin to salivate about tax cuts Cameron doesn’t favour, or cannot deliver here in the UK. There is also the stress of UKIP on numerous backbenchers.
Both Labour and the Conservatives will see pitfalls and opportunities in Tuesday’s results. From now until May 7 we will be hearing comparisons about whether 2015 will be similar to the 2012 Obama re-election campaign, or like Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential victory. However, both Obama and Reagan only had to focus on the party opposite them, whereas Cameron and Miliband face a much more complex political landscape next year.
Photo credit: Number 10