DURHAM, England — When I first visited England to cover a British election 20 years ago this month, there were striking similarities between British and American politics.
In Britain, Tony Blair's Labour Party was about to sweep to a landslide victory after 18 years of Conservative Party government, promising a third way between the free-market policies of Margaret Thatcher and the socialist policies of traditional Labour. Voters and politicians seemed filled with exhilaration at the prospect of an articulate, optimistic 44-year-old leader promising an exit from the politics of deadlock.
There were echoes of what was going on across the Atlantic. Bill Clinton was re-elected at age 50 in 1996, promising a third way between Reagan conservatism and dogmatic liberalism. Like Blair's New Labour, Clinton made deep inroads in affluent suburbs in big metropolitan areas even while maintaining traditional party strengths.
Clinton's articulate optimism remained exhilarating even as he was hammering out balanced budget and Medicare reform deals with congressional Republican majorities led by Speaker Newt Gingrich. The American and British economies were surging ahead, led by a booming tech sector. No one had heard of Monica Lewinsky or Osama bin Laden.
Today there are again parallels between the two nations' politics, as interviews with British voters and politicians and frequent iPad updates on American headlines show. But the mood in May 2017 on both sides of the Atlantic is 180 degrees away from that of May 1997. Disillusion and scorn have replaced exhilaration and hope.
New Labour has utterly vanished, just as Hillary Clinton's leftish identity politics replaced her husband's New Democratic appeals to the kind of voters she labeled "deplorable." Labour was narrowly defeated in 2010 by David Cameron's Conservatives.
After the Tories won again decisively (and unexpectedly) in 2015, Labour Party members who sent in ¢3 over the Internet chose left-wing backbencher Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. Cameron resigned after losing the Brexit referendum on leaving the European Union last June, and was replaced, after frantic maneuvering, by Home Secretary Theresa May, who promptly declared, "Brexit means Brexit."
The new political divide in the United States and the United Kingdom is between capital (plus ethnic fringes) and countryside: DC/NY/LA/SF from interior America, London and Scotland from the great bulk of England. Those lines held last year in the victories of Brexit in June and Donald Trump in November.
Now polls show May's Conservatives running about 20 points ahead of Labour, and running about even in Labour's historic working class base in the Midlands and North of England, which voted heavily for Brexit. The party already lost all but one of its seats in Scotland in 2015. The only traditional Labour bloc the London-based Corbyn retains is left-wing intellectuals and immigrants in the capital.
May's appeal to "people who are just about managing" and her continual calls for "strong and stable" government have made her appeal personal and not party-based—like Blair in 1997 or Trump in 2016. On the street in industrial Wolverhampton and Bishop Auckland former Labour supporters told me they're "voting for Theresa May," not the Tories.
There are obvious echoes here with Trump's poaching of traditionally Democratic non-college whites in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Florida, which netted Republicans 100 new electoral votes and the presidency.
The result is that America's Republicans and Britain's Conservatives have more demotic or downscale constituencies than they did under George W. Bush or David Cameron. Trump has foresworn any cuts in Social Security or Medicare entitlements. May has promised to cap utility bills and to target tax cuts toward low earners. So much for the policy thrusts of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
This looks to be a more successful electoral strategy than those of their parties' immediate predecessors, which were aimed more at high-education voters centered in the capital, voters that moved to New Labour and Democrats two decades ago.
Trump's narrow victory and May's impending landslide—the only real question is about its magnitude—suggest these demotic appeals are more effective than Mitt Romney's or David Cameron's. There are many more moveable votes in the countryside than in the capitals.
There may also be a price to pay for these victories. If you believe that entitlements are on a trajectory to squeeze out other public spending or strangle the private sector economy, the Trump and May policies will likely do nothing to stop it—as Clinton and Blair seemed at least open to doing twenty years ago. A reason, perhaps, for the trans-Atlantic glum mood.