The Republican party is something of an electoral phenomenon. Since the year 2000 it has won the popular vote at major elections just once and yet has held the Presidency for twelve of those years and a Congressional majority for even more. Through archaic laws and a hyper-polarised base they have obtained a firm grip on power that has enabled them to shift the axis of American politics noticeably to the right. Is Britain in danger of going the same way? And if so, what does that mean for our democracy and how can we fight it?

It’s not hard to see why the Republican model would be appealing to the Tories. Republicans are regularly able to push through policies that actively harm their base while still relying on their votes year after year. Take two of Trump’s big policies as an example; both his trade war with China and his plans to repeal Obamacare disproportionately hit older and rural voters the hardest, two heavily Republican demographics, yet their support did not waver in 2020.

One of the reasons they’re able to do this is the polarisation of their voter base. When Donald Trump bragged in 2016 that he could stand on Fifth Avenue and “shoot somebody” and not lose votes, we understood that it was a joke, but it’s also a joke that only works if we all accept that it is entirely plausible.

“Republicans have also not been shy about passing cynical laws”

The extension of traditional conservative talk from radio rhetoric to cable news and the internet has allowed these echo-chambers to dominate the Republican party to an extent not seen before, and it is this level of extremism that is valuable electorally. After all, if you can convince your base that the other side stole their vote, how could they ever vote for them? This radicalisation also exposes one of the flaws of a first past the post electoral system. Just as in America, dedicated voters in key states are far more valuable than a thinly-spread layer of supporters nationwide.

Republicans have also not been shy about passing cynical laws to help tip the electoral balance in their favour. In the 1990s, Paul Weyric, founder of the extremely influential conservative think-tank ‘The Heritage Foundation’, said at a conference: “I don’t want everybody to vote… As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down”, and the pursuit of this goal has ramped up in recent years through restrictive voter ID laws. This has hit BAME communities the hardest, with black voters waiting on average 46% longer to vote than white voters.

Republicans have also engaged in a practice known as Gerrymandering, the redrawing of districts to ensure the maximal number of seats per number of voters. It has been depressingly effective: in 2012 Democrats running for Congress received 1.1 million more votes than Republicans, but sent 33 fewer Representatives to Washington. The UK does have some safeguarding here, with constituency boundaries being drawn by an independent commission and not by the ruling party as is the case in America. However, the Tories’ new push for electoral boundaries to bypass Parliament and instead go straight into effect, as well as misusing the December 2020 electoral roll — a roll which was heavily affected by the Pandemic — as the basis for the redrawing of boundaries has caused concerns that this is another area where the Conservatives may try to put their finger on the scales.

These tactics have allowed the Republican party to move further to the right without diminishing any of its electoral success, as proven by a University of California study in 2018, ranking representatives on their voting record. While Democrats have stayed surprisingly consistent, the Republican Party has shifted noticeably to the right.

So what signs are there that the Conservative party is using similar tactics to the Republicans? In 2021, the Conservatives announced plans to roll out Voter ID laws for the first time in the country’s history. Despite being set to cost the taxpayer £18 million a year, and a mere 33 accusations of electoral fraud out of over 58 million votes in 2019, the Tories plan to go ahead with the bill which will affect those with severe disabilities or from less affluent backgrounds the most — coincidentally two demographics they struggle in.

We’ve also seen a marked shift towards the Republican strategy of playing to certain areas and demographics rather than the whole country. While this certainly isn’t new to British politics (note Liverpool’s ‘managed decline’ under the Thatcher government), it is being taken to new lengths, with government money beginning to head to Tory voters and marginal seats (e.g. Sunak’s prosperous seat getting a levelling up grant), while traditionally Labour areas such as Barnsley, one of the most deprived towns in the UK, are denied. This is on top of the May-era policy of pandering to retirees at the expense of politically apathetic youth. At the 2019 election, the only income bracket (excluding retirees) in which the Conservatives outperformed Labour was in those earning over £100,000, but retirees swung heavily in the Tories’ favour. This continues to be expressed in Tory policy, whether through the staggering decision to increase National Income tax or their continued push to keep house prices high.

“Politicians should also not be afraid to change the way our elections are run”

So, how can we fight the Americanisation of our politics? One of the most important lessons from America is that parties should not confuse centrism with status-quo inaction. Right wing populists feed off the “nothing is being done” rhetoric to stoke anti-institutional sentiment, so instead politicians should present a compelling vision of how they will improve people’s lives. British politicians should look to countries like Portugal, one of the few places on Earth where left-leaning parties are actually enjoying consistent electoral success. Through bold policies such as mass drug decriminalisation, the Socialist Party have both improved the standard of living in Portugal and increased their majority at subsequent elections.

Politicians should also not be afraid to change the way our elections are run. Left wing politics in Britain remains fragmented by a first-past-the-post system and overpowered by other parties’ money. Politicians and voters cannot simply submit to “the way things have always been” and must plan ambitious institutional reform for when they get the reins of power.


Mountain View

Actually, Partygate is good for democracy

My main fear about writing this article was that people would think it was blindly anti-conservative; it is not intended as such, rather a yearning for a Conservative party that offers solutions to modern problems, rather than simply existing to win elections. Every time I read a copy of The Economist, an unapologetically conservative publication, I am struck by how many more ideas there are in those pages than in the current Tory party. It frustrates me that these don’t filter into our mainstream discourse, and if we are to buck this trend of Americanisation, we must start now.