The UK Elections or: How the Democrats Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Socialism

The Labour Party’s surprise showing is a teachable moment for those of us across the pond.

Kate Aronoff June 9, 2017

For better and for worse, politics is based primarily on giving people things—chief among them, hope. Labour delivered. (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Here is a brief and whol­ly incom­plete list of things includ­ed in the man­i­festo that Britain’s Labour Par­ty ran on to rip the Tories’ over­all Par­lia­men­tary major­i­ty out from under them:

"In 2017, it’s socialism or barbarism and the British people just made their choice. Now the Democrats have to make theirs."
  • Nation­al­ize the British rail system;
  • Bring elec­tric util­i­ties under pub­lic ownership;
  • Make cor­po­ra­tions and the rich pay more in taxes;
  • Ban frack­ing;
  • Abol­ish tuition fees;
  • Tran­si­tion to using 60 per­cent low-car­bon fuels by 2030.

This list goes on, and includes sev­er­al more pro­pos­als that have long been con­sid­ered third rail issues for Amer­i­can politi­cians afraid of offend­ing both their donors and some fic­tion­al con­stituen­cy of small busi­ness own­ers and peo­ple who eat at Pan­era Bread. Social­ist ideas pro­pelled the Labour Par­ty from a belea­guered force that just months ago was los­ing safe Labour seats in a by-elec­tion to one that pulled off what might be the British left’s biggest polit­i­cal upset in a gen­er­a­tion or more. As a state­ment from a par­ty spokesman put it, It looks like the Tories have been pun­ished for tak­ing the British peo­ple for granted.”

Democ­rats can either take that mes­sage to heart — and stop tak­ing the Amer­i­can peo­ple for grant­ed — or with­er into irrelevancy.

Already there are pun­dits on this side of the pond attempt­ing to explain away what hap­pened. Zack Beauchamp at Vox chalked up the upset main­ly to There­sa May’s incom­pe­tence on the cam­paign trail and — sec­on­dar­i­ly — to Jere­my Corbyn’s skill on it. There’s also some rea­son to believe that Corbyn’s ideas may have ener­gized new vot­ers,” he admits, but adds, We can’t be sure that this the­o­ry is true: We’ll need a lot more data and fine-grained analy­sis to be cer­tain about this kind of result.”

There’s no dis­put­ing that May helped run her own elec­toral chances into the ground, float­ing dystopi­an-sound­ing cuts like the so-called demen­tia tax.” It’s also true that Cor­byn is a gift­ed cam­paign­er with a mas­sive base of sup­port in Britain. Espe­cial­ly for Amer­i­cans, though, the take­away from yesterday’s elec­tion results in the UK shouldn’t be that Corbyn’s rous­ing speech­es and mum-knit sweaters, alone, are what brought Labour back from what could have become its death bed. If that were the case, then what hap­pened there could nev­er hap­pen here.

But it’s not the case at all. It wasn’t sim­ply a cult of per­son­al­i­ty that brought May down, but also the nuts-and-bolts of grass­roots pol­i­tics and the pop­u­lar­i­ty of redis­trib­u­tive poli­cies. For one, there was a small army of peo­ple who worked very hard — going door-to-door, man­ning phone bank­ing ses­sions around the clock, set­ting up Tin­der bots — to almost com­plete­ly turn around what was pre­dict­ed to be an elec­toral anni­hi­la­tion for Labour when May called for the snap elec­tion on April 18. Momen­tum, formed out of the grass­roots cam­paign that got Cor­byn elect­ed as Labour’s leader in 2015, has worked for the last two years to build both local chap­ters and issue-based cam­paigns, and to fend off attacks from Labour’s right.

Cru­cial­ly, these hordes of orga­niz­ers and vol­un­teers were help­ing run a cam­paign premised on a vision for a fair­er and more demo­c­ra­t­ic Britain: Where every­one is enti­tled to health­care and edu­ca­tion, where util­i­ty CEOs don’t get to deter­mine whether you have heat for the month, where water isn’t poi­soned to line the pock­ets of a hand­ful of exec­u­tives, where the world the next gen­er­a­tion inher­its isn’t defined by cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe. For bet­ter and for worse, pol­i­tics is based pri­mar­i­ly on giv­ing peo­ple things — chief among them, hope. Labour delivered.

Democ­rats, con­verse­ly, have spent the last sev­er­al decades fil­ing egal­i­tar­i­an poli­cies down to means and focus group-test­ed shells of them­selves: Free edu­ca­tion—but only to those with­in cer­tain income brack­ets. Free health­care—but only for the elder­ly, dis­abled and very poor. Relat­ed­ly, the same par­ty has spent the last sev­er­al decades shed­ding poor and work­ing class vot­ers while tak­ing vot­ers of col­or for grant­ed, direct­ing its poli­cies and pro­pos­als toward an imag­i­nary center.

It’s been near­ly a year since Clin­ton stal­warts like Car­ol Brown­er posi­tioned them­selves as the Democ­rats’ voice of rea­son when strik­ing down Sanders sur­ro­gates’ pro­pos­als to ban frack­ing and embrace sin­gle-pay­er health­care at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty plat­form draft­ing com­mit­tee last sum­mer. In a state­ment on the meet­ings, which came on the heels of Brex­it, Sanders wrote that, It is imper­a­tive that this plat­form be not only the most pro­gres­sive in the his­to­ry of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but includes a set of poli­cies that will be fought for and imple­ment­ed by Demo­c­ra­t­ic elect­ed officials.”

Hillary Clinton’s his­toric defeat should have been a wake-up call that Sanders was right. Hyper-focus­ing on small­er and small­er chunks of the elec­torate, appor­tion­ing pub­lic goods out to small­er and small­er groups of peo­ple, is a los­ing strat­e­gy. If Novem­ber 8th couldn’t make that case to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment then June 8th should.

Social­ist ideas are pop­u­lar and can win. Poli­cies long con­sid­ered rad­i­cal are now pop­u­lar, and may well be the only chance we have to beat back the Trumpian right. Six­ty-six per­cent of Amer­i­cans sup­port rais­ing the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage to above $10 an hour. Six­ty-one believe the rich pay too lit­tle come tax sea­son. Fifty-eight per­cent believe in uni­ver­sal health­care. Sev­en­ty-two per­cent agree that the Unit­ed States should take aggres­sive” action to curb cli­mate change. That’s why Sanders man­aged to stir up 13 mil­lion votes for demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism and why he — arguably — would have won — and did among the same demo­graph­ics (mil­len­ni­als, main­ly) that helped car­ry Labour up from expect­ed defeat yesterday.

In 2017, it’s social­ism or bar­barism and the British peo­ple just made their choice. Now the Democ­rats have to make theirs. 

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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