Even before the final results of Thursday’s general election in the United Kingdom came in, some moderate Democrats were drawing lessons for the United States in 2020. “Boris Johnson is winning in a walk,” Joe Biden told the attendees at a fund-raiser in San Francisco on Thursday night, referring to the Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader. “Look what happens when the Labour Party moves so, so far to the left.” On Friday, Michael Bloomberg tweeted, “Jeremy Corbyn’s catastrophic showing in the U.K. is a clear warning: We need a Democratic nominee who can defeat Donald Trump by running a campaign that appeals to Americans across our divides.”
These self-serving instant analyses weren’t entirely disingenuous. In terms of parliamentary seats, which is ultimately what counts, the Labour Party suffered its worst outcome since 1935. This disastrous result certainly represented a sweeping repudiation of Corbyn, the left-wing leader of the Party. Public anger about the Brexit stalemate—a uniquely British imbroglio that Johnson ruthlessly exploited—also played a key role in the result. Another complicating factor is that Labour’s progressive economic proposals actually polled pretty well. (Arguably, they forced Johnson to dilute the Conservatives’ traditional commitment to fiscal austerity.) In any case, all of these things make it trickier than it might seem to make transatlantic comparisons.
Several Labour Party veterans whom I spoke with on Friday insisted that the lousy result for Labour came down to Corbyn’s political persona proving anathema to the Party’s traditional working-class base—and there are some opinion-poll data that bear this out. In a survey carried out after the vote, Opinium Research asked people who had defected from Labour to the Conservatives what the main factors in their vote had been. Forty-five per cent identified the Party’s leadership—i.e., Corbyn—and thirty-one per cent pointed to its wishy-washy Brexit policy, which avoided taking any firm stance; although Corbyn eventually endorsed a second referendum on whether to leave the European Union or remain, he said he wouldn’t take a stance either way on that vote.
In a column for the Independent, Anna Turley, a Labour politician who lost her parliamentary seat in Redcar, an industrial seaside town in the northeast of England, put the blame squarely on Corbyn. In canvassing her constituency, she recalled, “for every time Brexit was raised on the doorsteps, the leadership was raised four more—even by those sticking with us. There was visceral anger from lifelong Labour voters who felt they couldn’t vote for the party they had supported all their lives because of ‘that man at the top.’ ”
Although he is sometimes compared to Bernie Sanders, Corbyn is a very English figure: a sincere but dour ideologue who has spent most of his political life as a fixture of left-wing protest movements. He had been a regular columnist for the Morning Star, a newspaper of the far left that has historical ties to the Communist Party of Great Britain, from where he expressed support for leftist liberation movements in the developing world and criticized American imperialism. In 2015, shortly after he took over as Labour’s leader, he refused to sing the national anthem—“God Save the Queen”—during a memorial service for the Battle of Britain, the air war, in 1940, in which the Royal Air Force fought off Hitler’s marauding Luftwaffe. Acts like this were unlikely to go down well in the former mining villages and steel towns that flipped to the Tories on Thursday.
As the national-anthem example indicates, Corbyn isn’t a very skilled politician—or, alternatively, he is a man of such high principle that he refuses to trim his positions at all to win votes. It is tempting to regard him as left-wing puritan, but some of his gestures just seem daft and self-defeating. A couple of weeks ago, during an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, Corbyn repeatedly declined to issue a direct apology to Britain’s Jewish community for the Labour Party’s mishandling of allegations and instances of anti-Semitism in the Party, even though he had issued such an apology previously. Rather than just repeating it and moving on, he doggedly stuck his ground, thus insuring that the next day’s headlines were mostly about anti-Semitism instead of Labour’s policies or his attacks on Johnson.
If Corbyn is sui generis, so is the Brexit morass. In Turley’s piece for the Independent, she writes that her constituents were also angry about “the paralysis in politics” since the 2016 Brexit vote. For more than three years, the House of Commons successfully frustrated efforts by the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, and her successor, Johnson, to get a Brexit bill passed, but it couldn’t come up with an alternative. Johnson and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, sensed the intense public frustration and built their entire election campaign around the slogan “Get Brexit Done.”
Like Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” Johnson’s slogan was simple, catchy, and misleading. In January, the new Parliament will most likely pass Johnson’s Brexit-withdrawal bill, but it will take at least another year of negotiations with Brussels for his government to reach a final exit agreement from the European Union, and probably a good deal longer. Johnson didn’t linger on this during the campaign, of course. (He claims that he can get a final agreement by the end of 2020.) Instead, he hammered his time-for-action message relentlessly, including in the much discussed campaign ad that parodied a scene from the romantic comedy “Love Actually,” from 2003. The final shot showed Johnson in a cobbled street, saying, “Enough. Enough. Let’s get this done.” Like the infamous “Labour Isn’t Working” campaign poster that helped Margaret Thatcher to get elected, in 1979, this ad was fiendishly effective. But, again, it highlighted a situation that is unique to Britain, and which won’t have any bearing on the U.S. election.
Of course, that won’t stop people from identifying links for their own purposes. On Friday, Al From, the founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, named names, drawing a direct line from the type of politics that Corbyn represents to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “Jeremy Corbyn has a lot more despicable characteristics than either of them,” From told the Guardian. “But I do think that they represent an ideology that is going to be hard for a lot of American swing voters to accept, and that’s a danger.”
Setting aside From’s personal attack on Corbyn, an important question is whether Britain’s voters did actually reject the elements that Labour’s policy platform shares with those that Warren and Sanders are putting forward, which include substantial increases in government programs and public investment financed by higher taxes on the rich. When the pollster YouGov asked British voters, last month, about the proposals contained in Labour’s election manifesto, it found that most of them were pretty popular—and the most popular of all was raising the tax rate to fifty per cent for income above a hundred and twenty-three thousand pounds. Almost two-thirds of respondents expressed support for this proposal, and just one in five said that they were opposed to it.
Even some of Labour’s more radical proposals received majority support. Fifty-six per cent of respondents said they favored placing Britain’s railways, which were privatized in the nineteen-nineties, back under public ownership. Fifty-four per cent said they favored forcing corporations to overhaul their governance structures and insure that a third of their board members were workers’ representatives.
Of course, polling numbers like these shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted at face value. Voters often say that they support individual policies of progressive and left-wing parties, but history suggests that getting the public to elect such parties to government requires a plausible, persuasive leader and a favorable environment. With Corbyn and Brexit, the Labour Party had neither. In drawing lessons from what happened on Thursday, these things shouldn’t be forgotten.