What the U.S. Left Can Learn From the Labour Party’s Epic Loss

Liberal pundits say the lesson is that Democrats shouldn’t move left. They’re wrong.

David Adler December 13, 2019

We can't ignore the lessons from Jeremy Corbyn's defeat. (Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

The sim­i­lar­i­ties are impos­si­ble to ignore. Both are aging Boomers with long resumes in the strug­gle for social jus­tice. Both have cam­paigned on plat­forms of left pop­ulism that take aim at the rich and pow­er­ful. And both have helped spark social move­ments led by activists 50 years their junior. Yes, Jere­my Cor­byn and Bernie Sanders share much in common.

Labour’s policies were their strongest pull—even, or especially, their most socialist ones.

So, as we sur­vey the rub­ble of the Labour Party’s epic defeat, which saw the largest Con­ser­v­a­tive land­slide since Mar­garet Thatch­er, it’s not unfair to ask: What went wrong? What can the the U.S. Left — and the Sanders cam­paign more specif­i­cal­ly — learn from Corbyn’s loss? And, as the hot takes flood in from Amer­i­can pun­dits with lit­tle under­stand­ing of the British polit­i­cal sys­tem, it is equal­ly impor­tant to ask: What should we not learn from this defeat, as well?

There are three key areas where learn­ing will be essen­tial, and contested:

Staving off char­ac­ter assassination

I knew from my time can­vass­ing for Labour in the UK as well as from read­ing the polls: Jere­my Cor­byn was the most unpop­u­lar oppo­si­tion leader in British history.

Pun­dits will point to indi­vid­ual traits to explain his unpop­u­lar­i­ty, rang­ing from his per­son­al­i­ty (a hip­pie! with no charis­ma!) to his poli­cies (he’s a Com­mie!) to his polit­i­cal allies (he cavorts with ter­ror­ists!) to his base of sup­port­ers (they’re anti-Semi­tes, the lot of them).

But speak with many of the Labour sup­port­ers who hit the doors in this elec­tion, and they will tell you that hatred of Cor­byn was far more amor­phous, more inef­fa­ble, more atmos­pher­ic than this. If you were to ask a giv­en vot­er why they hat­ed Jere­my Cor­byn — and I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask many such vot­ers — they were liable to say: I just do.”

The elec­toral costs of such unpop­u­lar­i­ty were extreme. Accord­ing to one post-elec­tion poll, 43% of respon­dents vot­ed against Labour because of the party’s lead­er­ship, com­pared to just 17% for its stance on Brex­it and 12% for its eco­nom­ic policies. 

What could have pro­duced such an atmos­phere of con­tempt? The short answer: a sus­tained cam­paign of char­ac­ter assas­si­na­tion in near every UK tabloid, main­stream news­pa­per and oth­er­wise respectable pub­li­ca­tion against Jere­my Corbyn.

The case of anti-Semi­tism is an instruc­tive one. Most British vot­ers now believe that Cor­byn is an anti-Semi­te, but few can point to an exam­ple of his anti-Semi­tism. Why, then, do they believe it? Because the claim was assert­ed, over and over, in the papers. If Cor­byn weren’t anti-Semit­ic, vot­ers were right to ask, why would so many sto­ries get writ­ten about it so many months in a row? The prophe­cy was self-fulfilling.

Sup­port­ers of Bernie Sanders com­plain about his absence from main­stream report­ing. CNN and MSNBC are liable to throw Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and even Eliz­a­beth War­ren onto their chy­ron, but ignore Sanders, despite his con­sis­tent polling near the top of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic field.

But Sanders sup­port­ers appear unpre­pared for the next phase of this process, when he moves back into frame but straight into the crosshairs. It’s been said before but bears repeat­ing: We have seen only a frac­tion of the sto­ries that the press will use to bring down Bernie Sanders.

The U.S. Left needs to pre­pare for this, dili­gent­ly and cre­ative­ly. The Cor­byn camp was far too quick to the bunker: It’s a con­spir­a­cy by the bil­lion­aire media.” That may have been true. But the U.S. Left will need a much more proac­tive strat­e­gy for com­bat­ting such destruc­tive sto­ries and pre­sent­ing an alter­na­tive vision of Sanders’ pro­gres­sive personality.

Sun­light is indeed the best dis­in­fec­tant — only a full-throat­ed chal­lenge to mount­ing con­tro­ver­sy can kill it off. And that chal­lenge may require pro­gres­sive can­di­dates to go on all avail­able media out­lets — includ­ing Fox News — and do it themselves.

Main­tain­ing the coalition

The Labour Par­ty elec­toral coali­tion is strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to that of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, in both its gen­er­al com­po­si­tion and its direc­tion of trav­el: work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties with low lev­els of edu­ca­tion and, increas­ing­ly, wealth­i­er city-dwellers with high lev­els of education.

It’s a coali­tion that fell to pieces in Thursday’s elec­tion. The Tory land­slide was a work­ing class wave: the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty broke through tra­di­tion­al Labour-vot­ing work­ing-class regions, for­mer­ly known as the Red Wall,’ to win scores of new seats.

How did Boris John­son — an Eton-edu­cat­ed, sil­ver-spooned, elite-obsessed Tory — man­age to make such gains against a Labour Par­ty explic­it­ly com­mit­ted to the cause of the work­ing class?

The short answer is Brex­it. The ques­tion of Euro­pean Union mem­ber­ship — or more accu­rate­ly, of whether or not the British gov­ern­ment would go ahead with the ref­er­en­dum deci­sion to leave the EU — cut straight through the Labour coalition.

If the Labour Par­ty had embraced Brex­it and served as its par­lia­men­tary hand­maid­en, the Lib­er­al Democ­rats were wait­ing in the wings to claim the urban mid­dle class­es as their own.

If the Labour Par­ty moved to stymie Brex­it, how­ev­er, they would risk los­ing their Leave con­stituen­cies to a Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty that promised to deliv­er Brex­it faith­ful­ly. The Labour Par­ty ulti­mate­ly took the lat­ter risk, and lost pre­dictably as a result.

The good news for Democ­rats is, of course, that the Unit­ed States has no Brex­it. Nor is the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty threat­ened by an adja­cent chal­lenger like the Lib­er­al Democrats.

But Amer­i­cans do have an issue that close­ly resem­bles Brex­it: the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump.

Many pun­dits will com­pare Boris John­son and Trump, in style as in hair­cut. But the Brex­it-Trump com­par­i­son is by far the more rel­e­vant. A vote for Trump, like a vote for Brex­it, was meant to send a shock to the sys­tem and a mid­dle fin­ger to its polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment. That is why Trump vot­ers, like Brex­it ones, rarely care for the imme­di­ate con­se­quences of their vote choice: the vote was all that mattered.

If pro­gres­sives are search­ing for lessons, then, impeach­ment may be a good place to start: a polit­i­cal strat­e­gy that could ulti­mate­ly turn out to be both myopic and fruitless.

Like call­ing for a People’s Vote, impeach­ing Pres­i­dent Trump could be seen as dis­re­spect­ful to the rebel vote of the 2016 elec­tion, and could deep­en the sense of dis­con­tent that gave rise to Trump in the first place. To keep its coali­tion togeth­er, Democ­rats will need to find a path to détente between its com­pet­ing demo­graph­ics. Impeach­ment alone is unlike­ly to be the answer.

Spin, not socialism

Final­ly, the S‑word.

The com­men­tari­at is already swarm­ing with takes about the per­il of far-left poli­cies. Social­ism, the argu­ment goes, was Corbyn’s Achilles heel. And it is like­ly to be much worse in the Unit­ed States, where the S‑word is wield­ed with much greater psy­cho­log­i­cal pow­er and his­tor­i­cal weight.

The prob­lem with this argu­ment is that it’s wrong. Labour’s poli­cies were their strongest pull — even, or espe­cial­ly, their most social­ist ones: the nation­al­iza­tion of indus­try. A recent poll found 84% of respon­dents sup­port­ed nation­al­iz­ing the water indus­try. In anoth­er, 77% sup­port­ed the same for ener­gy and 76% for rail.

The issue was that, in the end, it didn’t real­ly mat­ter. The raft of poli­cies that the Labour Par­ty ush­ered into its man­i­festo — the stuff of a pro­gres­sive wonk’s dreams, and the hard work of so many bril­liant and cre­ative young pol­i­cy thinkers in the UK — sim­ply did not bring peo­ple to the polls in their favor.

Sim­ply put, social­ism was not too strong an ide­ol­o­gy, but too weak an elec­toral strategy.

No, spin still seems to dom­i­nate our pol­i­tics: dirty, rot­ten spin. John­son ran an out­right cor­rupt cam­paign, dis­sem­i­nat­ing lies, shirk­ing account­abil­i­ty and bank­ing on the like­li­hood that peo­ple wouldn’t care. It turns out that 43.6% of them didn’t — choos­ing to sup­port the Tories anyway.

The lessons from this par­tic­u­lar elec­toral injus­tice are vexed. But one is clear: Plans and poli­cies do not deliv­er majori­ties — even if their details deter­mine how you then gov­ern. To win, then, pro­gres­sive Democ­rats must get off of the page and into the street, with a mes­sage that is as sim­ple as it is emo­tion­al­ly powerful.

Lib­er­al pun­dits are going to stop at noth­ing to swing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty back toward the cen­ter — and Corbyn’s loss will be pow­er­ful ammu­ni­tion. Pro­gres­sives can­not sweep it under the rug. The lessons are there, if we are will­ing to learn them. But in this moment of despair, those of us on the Left must keep repeat­ing to our­selves, over and over: We can win, and we must.

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