The U.K. Conservative party just lost big. The reason why is a teachable moment for America.

As Americans celebrated their declaration of independence from Britain in 1776, the British people cast their votes in a parliamentary election that dramatically shifted the balance of power in the United Kingdom. We in the U.S. could learn a few political lessons from our former colonial masters.

First, unlike the American presidential campaign, which feels like it began just weeks after the previous one ended, the election campaign in the U.K. started in late May — of this year! That’s when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the general election in a rain-soaked address that served as a useful metaphor for his Conservative Party’s desultory campaign. As an American citizen and a political analyst, I find the idea of a six-week election campaign not just more manageable but blissfully more humane. 

Labour’s triumph was more a result of general antipathy toward the ruling Conservatives.

Second, one reason that the U.K. and other parliamentary democracies can run such short general election campaigns is that their elections, while nominally focused on choosing prime ministers, are, in actuality, votes for parties rather than people. 

The two main parties in the U.K. — Labour and the Conservatives — have relatively well-known political brands. Their nominees run under the banners of largely uniform party platforms. Personality is hardly irrelevant — and several British political analysts told me that Britain’s elections have become increasingly presidential (i.e., American) in their tenor.  Nevertheless, ultimately, political parties are the defining rubric for British voters. Indeed, debates between the major party leaders began only in 2010.

That is especially true this year, as Labour leader and incoming Prime Minister Keir Starmer is, as The New York Times recently noted, “earnest, intense, practical and not brimming with charisma.” His party’s victory wasn’t the result of some great affection for Starmer. As Paul Webster, an editor at The Observer newspaper in the U.K., said to me, voters see Starmer “as pretty wooden; people don’t really know him. His qualities are more that he’s solid, probably trustworthy, worth trying and not a Tory sleazebag.”

Labour’s triumph was more a result of general antipathy toward the ruling Conservatives. While Sunak’s popularity has faded since he took office in October 2022, he also inherited a poisoned chalice. Since the last general election in 2019, Conservative governments have pinballed from one governing crisis to another. Boris Johnson’s handling of Covid was typified by the notorious “partygate” scandal — a series of boozy gatherings in his offices while the country was in pandemic lockdown. Johnson resigned and was succeeded by Liz Truss, whose disastrous and incompetent tenure lasted a mere 49 days

As The Sunday Times recently noted, “since 2016, there have been five prime ministers, seven chancellors, seven foreign secretaries, seven home secretaries and no fewer than nine education secretaries.” The current housing minister, Lee Rowley, is both “the tenth and 13th person to have held the role” in the last eight years.

As Webster pointed out, this race is “not so much a clash of personalities — both candidates are hardly charismatic, both a bit dull and uninspiring — more a cry of pain about a nation perceived to be failing and an incumbent party that’s lost the plot.” 

Which brings us back to that second lesson for Americans: We’re living in a political moment when party affiliation matters more than personality. 

Today, the parties are more homogeneous than at practically any other point in the nation’s history.

That might sound counterintuitive, considering the awesome powers invested in the office of the president. But in the America of 2024, political party — or, more accurately, political tribalism — drives everything. Our two major political parties once had distinct political wings — liberals and moderates on the Democratic side and conservatives and moderates in the GOP.

Today, the parties are more homogeneous than at practically any other point in the nation’s history. In the 1980s, dozens of U.S. senators represented states won by the other party’s presidential nominee. Today, that number is just five, and after November, it could be down to two. 

In short, we’ve become a parliamentary democracy stapled onto an unwieldy, bicameral, constitutional system of government. 

Voting for a Republican officeholder today primarily, though not exclusively, means supporting Donald Trump’s governing agenda. Of course, from a personality standpoint, there’s a big difference between Trump and another GOP candidate for president, but policywise, from immigration and abortion to guns, taxes and climate change, Republicans, particularly at the federal level, are largely on the same page. And, of course, any party that would endorse Donald Trump for president is complicit in his lunacy and criminality. 

Conversely, voting for a Democrat means voting for a political party that near-uniformly supports abortion rights and higher taxes on the rich, backs more stringent gun measures and is pro-immigrant, pro-LGBTQ rights and pro-civil rights. 

No matter who the Democratic president is — be it President Joe Biden or perhaps Vice President Kamala Harris — the legislative and regulatory agenda will largely look the same. To the extent that there is variation among Democratic officeholders, it mostly revolves around issues of foreign policy, which, at least so far in this campaign, have gone largely undiscussed. 

When you vote for anyone with a D or an R next to the name, with few exceptions, you know exactly what you will get. Just like if you’re a Brit, voting for the Tories or Labour — no matter the prime minister, you have a pretty good sense of what you’re getting. 

Americans shouldn’t take advice from the British about the ideal political system. For example, no self-respecting democracy should have a hereditary monarchy. But we could learn from our British cousins that in a system that looks a lot more like a parliamentary democracy, party increasingly trumps personality. U.S. media outlets may obsessively insist on covering campaigns through the lens of individual candidates, but Americans would more likely be better off focusing on the parties those candidates represent.