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Could the U.K. election mean an off-ramp from personality politics?


A whole lot about politics today can be traced back to a surprising election result in 2016. That's true if you're talking about the United States, where long shot Republican candidate Donald Trump rode a wave of populist resentment to the White House.


DONALD TRUMP: No longer can we rely on those same people in the media and politics, who will say anything to keep our rigged system in place.

DETROW: It's also true in the United Kingdom, where a few months before Trump won, a very similar wave of populist resentment led voters to defy and surprise that expert class by approving Brexit.


DAVID CAMERON: The British people have voted to leave the European Union. And their will must be respected.

DETROW: That's Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the referendum due to pressure from within his party, then stepped down once it passed. 2016 was one of several moments in recent history where the American and British political atmospheres seemed to run in parallel. Eight years later, populism still swirls in both countries, as well as all over the world. But in the U.K., weeks ahead of another election, there's another major theme. Voters seem sick and tired of the conservatives who have held power for 14 years.


PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: Now, I cannot and will not claim that we have got everything right. No government should. But I am proud of what we have achieved together.

DETROW: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the election in a rain-soaked speech. "Drown & Out" was the headline in the Daily Mirror. To talk about the British election and what it might be able to tell us about America's politics, I talked to Matthew Holehouse. He's the British political correspondent for The Economist. Thank you for joining us.

MATTHEW HOLEHOUSE: Thank you for having me.

DETROW: Let's just start with the timing of this. And, you know, I think some but not all of our listeners might know that in the U.K., the party in power chooses the specific date of the election. Poll after poll after poll showed that the Tories are in a deep hole, and yet Rishi Sunak called an election months sooner than many people thought he would. Why did he do this?

HOLEHOUSE: He really caught his party off guard in the process. I mean, he did not need to go to the polls until January. Most people expected October or, more likely, November. But there were also questions about this flagship migration scheme that would deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda and whether that would be really actually ready over the summer or whether that would become a farce. And it's appeared to many people as well that the prime minister, you know, was running out of steam and that he wanted to sort of regain the momentum.

DETROW: Let's talk about Labour for a moment. It's been out of power for more than a decade. Keir Starmer is leading the party - according to the polls, looks very likely to be the next prime minister. Is Labour running on a platform? Or is the messaging - we're not the Tories; we're not the people you're tired of?

HOLEHOUSE: It's a bit of both. It's a bit of both. So what Labour understand very well is that this is a change election. So the proportion of British respondents who tell pollsters it is time for change at this election is in the 70s. But they've been seeking to flesh out a platform - and there's a big debate in the U.K. actually how well developed it is - for what they call a decade of national renewal, so a big focus on sort of restoring public services but above all, trying to do something about the U.K.'s chronic poor growth.

DETROW: And of course, the party's leadership drifted pretty far to the left in recent years, and it really underachieved the last election. Is this being viewed as kind of at least preliminarily, depending on the results, a win for centrism, or is it, again, more about positioning itself as a change agent this year?

HOLEHOUSE: I think there is a really big story in the U.K. at the moment, which is if you think about the story of the U.K. for the past decade, it has been on a similar trajectory to American politics...

DETROW: Right.

HOLEHOUSE: ...In that we've seen, you know, the rise of polarization, the rise of identity politics on the left and right, often quite radical movements bursting through, often politics seeming to be, you know, post-truth sometimes.


HOLEHOUSE: The trajectory since about 2022 has been that this pan, if you like, has come off the boil. And gradually, we've seen a real sort of cooling in the nature of public debate and much more sort of policy focused style of politics. And this is a bit of a paradox, I think, in that we have seen the passing of this great sort of populist wave at a time when what we think of as all the drivers of populism actually still pumping away - historically high levels of regular migration and also, you know, a big issue with irregular migration, very visible people in small boats crossing the channel. We've had very, very poor wage growth since the financial crisis. We've had double-digit inflation. Trust in the political class is very low. But despite all those factors the - you know, at least a big chunk of the country is turning to somebody who is a very sort of old-fashioned and proudly quite boring kind of leader.

DETROW: Well, what do you think the broader factors were that caused British politics to take the kettle off the boil as you said it? - because, you know, here in the U.S., we have a president who has tried very hard to do that, and yet the overall political system continues to kind of veer into the personality politics, the spectacle of it.

HOLEHOUSE: I think it's an absolutely fascinating question. And, you know, if you go to any sort of university library, you'll find shelves upon shelves of books that explain the rise of populism - very little work explaining how you come down the other side of the hill, as it were. I think there's several factors. One is that, you know, the Conservative Party, whilst, you know, many people would sort of still agree with the values and the policy propositions that it was putting forward when it was under sort of Boris Johnson in the Brexit years, its failure to deliver has been quite catastrophic.

I think the other factor - and I think this is what makes Keir Starmer such a fascinating figure - is that he has been much, much more assiduous and successful in courting those voters, the people who voted for Brexit and the people who liked Boris Johnson, than he is given credit for. So even though he is, you know, by background, you know, a human rights lawyer from a very sort of liberal, fashionable part of North London, his whole political operation for four years has been utterly consistent in winning back the trust of those voters.

And he's not done it by sort of shouting or coming up with very sort of radical policies. It's by a very sort of quiet, sort of small C conservative cultural agenda. So if you look at the Labour Party platform today, it's skeptical of globalization. It really venerates blue-collar work. It talks about respect for the blue-collar worker. It's very tough on crime. And so it's been a very, very patient effort, but he seems to have slowly got people to accept that, you know, as he would see it, he sees the world through their eyes.

DETROW: Is Matthew Holehouse, the British political correspondent for The Economist. Thank you so much.

HOLEHOUSE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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