General election 2019: Does UK hold clues to Trump’s fortunes?

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

  • Published
Wrexham town centreImage source, Alamy

All eyes in this week's UK election will be on constituencies like this one in North Wales, where Labour could lose power for the first time since 1935. Given that the Brexit vote in 2016 was followed by the election of Donald Trump months later, does the populist sentiment driving this change teach us anything about next year's US election?

James Thomas, an ex-Marine who has lived in Wrexham his entire life, stands outside his town's football stadium at half-time and smokes a cigarette.

Although he says his home has hit a bit of a lull, he thinks it has a bright future. Why he feels this way should deeply trouble the Labour Party faithful ahead of Thursday's general election. "When the Conservatives come into power, they'll sort it all out," he says.

The 35-year-old mechanical engineer says both he and his 70-year-old grandfather - lifetime Labour supporters - are planning on voting Tory for the first time this week, and there's one main reason. "The Conservative Party will get Brexit done and get it out of the way, and then we'll move on," he says.

Like 59% of the Wrexham constituency, Thomas voted Leave in the 2016 referendum on British membership in the European Union. He says he did so because he wanted to stem the flow of immigration into the country - and it's also why he's backing Boris Johnson over Labour's Jeremy Corbyn, whom he says "hasn't got a clue".

"I don't want to come across as negative toward the foreign people coming across," he says. "If the foreign people coming across are doctors, then I'm all for that. But if they're coming across and just claiming all the taxes and all that and not working, then we should get rid of them."

Corbyn, he says, is "all for the druggies, all the whiskey heads and all, giving money to the ones on the streets and all that".

"What about us," Thomas asks, "the people who actually work?"

Image source, Getty Images

"Get Brexit Done" is a common refrain for the Conservatives - a slogan plastered on billboards and signs that surround party leader Boris Johnson at the party's campaign events. The force of Johnson's personality, his iconoclastic manner, also has drawn voters like Thomas to the Conservatives, which he says is no longer the party for just the wealthy.

"I tell all my friends that Boris Johnson will do what he says," he continues. "He's exactly the same as Donald Trump. Donald Trump says he's going to do something, he'll do it."

Trump's 2016 supporters in the US said time and time again that his blunt truth-telling, even if it sometimes offended, was one of his most compelling attributes. It suggests the two Anglophone leaders have more in common than just their much-talked-about hair.

Like Johnson, Trump also has an electoral slogan, "Keep America Great," that suggests work still to be done. It is a call to his electoral coalition to once again put him over the top.

Faded glory

There's no doubt Wrexham, a once thriving mining town in the north of Wales, has fallen on hard times. Unemployment is up. Poverty rates are rising. Drug addiction is a growing problem.

Even on a Saturday night, the historic old downtown is largely empty, with people sleeping rough in the darkened alcoves of empty storefronts.

The town still has its charm. The Pontcysyllte aqueduct, an elevated canal completed in 1805, is an engineering marvel. The local university, Wrexham Glyndwr, is expanding. And the town's football club, Wrexham AFC, with its long and storied history, is a source of local pride.

Image source, Alamy

The Red Dragons are the third-oldest professional football team in the world, with achievements that include winning the FA Trophy in 2013 and a stunning upset of defending champions Arsenal in a 1992 FA Cup third-round match.

Like the town, however, the football club is currently struggling. While its stadium, the Racecourse Ground, is the oldest venue that still hosts international matches, it shows all of its 142 years. Many of the once bright-red seats have faded to a pale pink from exposure to the elements. The standing terrace, behind the east goal, is no longer open to the public and appears from a distance to be on the verge of a rusty collapse.

The team itself has dropped out of the league and into the fifth tier of English football, teetering near the relegation zone once again.

In its heyday, the stadium held more than 34,000 to watch a 1957 match against Manchester United. On a blustery afternoon last Saturday, roughly 3,000 die-hard fans watched them take on Solihull Moors.

Two walls cracking

Wrexham's parliamentary constituency is one of dozens held by the Labour Party that voted leave in 2016. Because the Conservative Party is firmly backing leave, while Labour is divided on the issue, these seats are being heavily targeted by the Tories as pick-up opportunities. Recent polling suggests the Conservatives may be on to something.

According to an Economist survey conducted in late November, the Tories have an eye-popping lead over Labour in Wrexham, 44% to 29%.

Victory in places like Wrexham - old, post-industrial towns and constituencies across central and northern UK - could hold the key for a Tory majority in Thursday's election. Much like the Democratic Party's "Blue Wall" of old industrial mid-western states in the US that chose Republican Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, Labour's "Red Wall" shows signs of cracking.

One doesn't have to look hard to see parallels. Like Wrexham, places such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio in the US were once the nation's industrial heartland, where coal mining, steel production and manufacturing provided a stable livelihood. Now much of the region is struggling with economic uncertainty, drug addiction and decaying urban centres.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A former steel plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

In 2016, voter dissatisfaction in the US mid-west, and in large swaths of the central and northern UK, gave rise to an electoral earthquake. First it was the June Brexit referendum, where a narrow majority of UK voters opted to leave the European Union. Five months later, it was Trump's similarly narrow victory.

In one case it was a man who served as the hammer that forged an electoral realignment. In the other it was a single-issue vote. But at the heart of both was a conservative populism centred around trade and immigration. This week's UK general election is a key test to see whether 2016 was a sign of a durable political shift in the UK. And, like the 2016 Brexit vote, there will be many in the US watching carefully to see if British politics once again foreshadows events to come in the US.

Moving on

Even among Wrexham's Labour voters, there are signs of Brexit fatigue - and a desire to put the whole divisive ordeal behind them.

"The country was given the opportunity to vote," says Erfyl Jones, a Wrexham supporter who came to Saturday's Wrexham match from nearby Denbigh. "The people went out to vote. That result should be respected by everybody. We should move on."

On Sunday afternoon, Corbyn finished up a two-day campaign blitz through Wales that included three northern towns. He skipped Wrexham, however, opting to visit constituencies currently held by Conservatives.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Corbyn in north Wales

During his stump speeches, Corbyn barely mentioned Brexit at all, instead attacking the Tories for their post-recession austerity policies and a willingness, he says, to sacrifice the National Health Service in trade negotiations with the US.

It's a reflection of the delicate position Labour finds itself in during these last days of the general election campaign. The party supports leaving the EU, but it wants to renegotiate the terms of the exit and then submit the results to another national vote. It's an attempt to please both the remain and the leave factions within the party, but it could end up satisfying neither.

"Brexit has really divided people," says Lyndsey Lynch, a Labour activist from Holyhead who attended a Corbyn rally in Bangor on Sunday. "Discussion has descended into name-calling, which is really disappointing."

She says the parts of the UK that voted leave did so to disrupt the status quo - a sentiment she understands.

"People have been left behind," she says. "They are feeling the pinch. People are more impoverished. It's very much understandable for them to say we're not having this anymore."

Across the Atlantic, even some Democrats will acknowledge that a similar sentiment - to send a message to the nation's governing class - was a significant reason for Trump's 2016 success. And there have been calls among Democrats to "move on" from Trump, and instead talk about issues - like healthcare, education and the environment - rather than simply campaign against the current White House resident.

With Trump on the ballot in 2020, of course, that will be a challenge. Democrats in Congress are also on the verge of impeaching the president, forcing a Senate trial for only the third time in US history.

And even though Corbyn is focusing on his own slate of issues, Brexit is still unresolved three years later, with whether and how to leave the EU continuing to be a source of anxiety and anger.

A moment of truth

At the Wrexham game on Saturday, Mark Thomas sits in the bleachers with a smile on his face. "We're winning," he says. "That's good news for a change."

A long-time Labour supporter, the lorry driver says he's not planning on voting on Thursday. "I can't see anybody that's going to do any different," he says. "The politicians will do what they want at the end of the day. They're not bothered about people sitting in this ground or any other."

Media caption,
Boris Johnson or Donald Trump: Who's got it worse?

Thomas voted remain, and says he isn't bothering to vote because the only parties firmly behind remain - the Liberal Democrats and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru - have no chance of winning in Wrexham.

If Labour hopes to hold off the Conservatives, it needs voters like Thomas, but he's probably not the only one who has decided to sit this election out. Thomas says the Wrexham voters who chose Leave didn't think things through. He understands, however, why they were confused.

"There's a lot of scaremongering," he says. "If we're going to come out of Europe, oh we're going to be trouble. If we stay in Europe, oh we're in trouble. People don't know what to think."

Beneath the stands, twin brothers Carl and Mark Davis swig beers and give voice to that confusion. While the ex-workers in the now-shuttered steel mill are dedicated Labour supporters, Carl voted Remain, while Mark chose Leave.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Terraces at the Racecourse Ground, home to Wrexham FC, in September

"Vote Tory? I'd rather jump off the Eiffel Tower, if I can still get there," Mark says. "But you have to look out for the working people."

On Thursday, Labour will have to rely on traditional party allegiances like those of the Davis brothers holding strong enough to keep places like Wrexham in its column, despite the tectonic shifts the Brexit referendum vote may be creating in British politics.

Next year in the US, Democrats seek to win back the disaffected voters who switched to Republican in 2016. As many as nine million people who backed Barack Obama also voted for Trump.

Mr Johnson's Conservative Party could be on the verge of creating a new electoral constituency unlike any that came before it. In November 2020, Mr Trump will try to prove that his conservative populism was more than just a one-time blip - but likewise a sign of a governing coalition that can endure.

In the US, the final verdict is 11 months off. In the UK, however, the results will land in just a few days.