Thursday’s British election hit those of us with a more leftist persuasion like a brick. UK’s Labour Party, the most visible and historically successful party advocating Democratic Socialism in a western democracy took a beating. Labour’s total number of seats in the House of Commons will be its lowest since before World War II. American and UK politics often run in tandem thus this election’s lessons must be imparted quickly among the powers that be in this country.
The election campaign was arguably the nastiest in recent British history and from my vantage point nastier than anything I have seen on a macro level in US politics. The winner was Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative (Tory) Party. But the American-born (to two British parents) Johnson isn’t really a traditional conservative at all. He was a fairly liberal mayor of London and has historically combined provocative statements and comedic commentary with a deep understanding of voter psychology. For all of Donald Trump’s naked corruption and clownish behavior, an underlying similarity between the two exists. Both understand nationalism as a driving emotional idea. In Johnson’s case it’s an embrace of English nationalism (this is important- English nationalism is very different than British nationalism) that has reaped dividends.
Johnson rejected the fiscal austerity of one of his predecessors, the mealy-mouthed David Cameron and embraced full-on economic populism. Like Trump, he’s using power to shift resources toward working class areas (Trump’s farm subsidy policies are a direct contradiction of long-standing conservative orthodoxy on the issue, for example) and rejecting the anti-public sector tenants of Thatcherism (like Trump has rejected Reaganomics) to build a strong electoral coalition.
Labour’s epic defeat has several ominous signs for the Democratic Party in the United States. Personality-driven politics, intolerant discourse from the far left, and an unwillingness to understand and engage traditionally Labour-oriented working-class voters led to a historic low point for the party. Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader mixed Democratic Socialism which has been a staple of UK politics since World War II with foreign policy views that aligned more closely with that of Fidel Castro or Leonid Brezhnev than of any recent western leader. An irony exists that Corbyn was a victim of the same personality-driven ideologically-pure politics he for decades advocated, but that is perhaps a story for another day. Corbynism became a cause among the new left from Bernie Sanders supporters to the “squad,” Corbyn represented an ideal many in the US want emulated here.
Ironically enough for a man of such purported conviction on foreign affairs with supporters who demanded 100% fealty by Labour party members, Corbyn lacked any driving instinct or consistency on the most important issue for British voters- Brexit. His moderate position was more about staying as the figurehead atop the Labour Party than any sort of guiding ideological principle. This, from where I sit, is an often untold danger of ideologues gaining power. Instead of pushing for sweeping change, they become comfortable on top and do not want to make the necessary steps to show real leadership.
Corbyn’s tenure saw Labour lose multiple seats that the party hadn’t lost since before World War II. He was unable to regain the ground lost in Scotland by his predecessors ill-advised decision to embrace unionism when Scotland voted on independence in 2014. This led directly to a rapid resurgence of the socialist Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) directly leading most leftists in Scotland out of Labour’s reach. The continued success of the SNP shows Democratic Socialism remains the prevailing ideology in Scotland, but Unionism in this era of English nationalism is not. Corbyn, an avowed socialist who has previously expressed sympathy for Irish Republicanism couldn’t thread the needle here, much to my surprise.
The centrist, neoliberal, Europhile Liberal Democrats were nearly wiped out. The party of fiscal austerity, social liberalism, Europhilia and the mushy middle may prove to be completely irrelevant going forward in British politics. The Liberal Democrats it can be argued, serve little or no purpose as a political party going forward.
The party, which has become a repository for those Europhiles who are former Tories or Centre-left pols disgusted with Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t have a guiding set of principles or a compass to go forward – similar to the political insider class in the US.
The Liberal Democrats resemble the moderate government-worker or lobbyist types in both major American political parties who have completely lost touch with the average voter. Most of these people consistently underestimated Trump’s appeal and similarly most of these types in Britain have been shook badly by Boris Johnson’s victory, beginning with the reaction to exit polling data at 10 BST Thursday, which many believed must have been flawed, but proved accurate.
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have successfully ditched conservatism for populism
What happened is Boris Johnson, much like Donald Trump, abandoned traditional elitist conservatism and reached into the fundamental emotional issues that drive the electorate – in a class-oriented nation where party membership is part of one’s identity like the U.K. Johnson’s feat was even more remarkable than Trump’s but both are similar and produce huge lessons for the Democrats.
Johnson’s electoral juggernaut is historically impressive. He was twice elected as a Tory Mayor of London. His tenure was sandwiched in-between two Labour Mayors, the Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez hugging Ken Livingstone and the liberal cosmopolitan Muslim Sadiq Khan. Despite being a fairly liberal, London-oriented former media member, Johnson won over working class voters who hadn’t voted Conservative in a generation or more outside of London on Thursday. He’s proven to have an uncanny ability to connect with voters who fundamentally distrust Tory politicians. His presence could be transformative in British politics or it might simply be a coalition based around him personally, like with Trump. On this it is too early to tell.
Democrats do not even try and understand the Trump voter, with so many simply writing them off as racists and often insulting whole large regions of the country That the Democrats no longer command the Catholic vote is a stunning reversal of 150 years of American history and can be effectively linked to the open hostility many prominent figures on the left have toward a western religion of any kind.
Similarly, the condescending commentary about those supporting Brexit and Johnson ultimately undermined Labour. Whether those sneers were coming from Corbynites, the media or elitist Europhile LibDems did not matter – the damage much like in the United States had been done. Voters who for generations aligned with left-leaning parties over economics were realigned behind a right-leaning party over identity and pride.
This is an excellent time to pivot back toward Corbyn- his most passionate supporters behave like Jacobin’s in Revolutionary France or like many Bernie Sanders supporters have become in the US. If you agree with them only 98% you are a sellout, a lover of corporatism that has authoritarian instincts or have been bought off by neoliberal politicians. Yet Corbyn himself had no clear position or plan on Brexit. As a result his party was fundamentally mis-positioned, losing the trust of “leave” working class voters in the north, long Labour’s base constituency while failing to win over the Europhiles and left-leaning millennial’s who voted LibDem or stayed home.
Corbyn’s decision to have Labour oppose former Prime Minister Theresa May’s “soft” Brexit (or Brexit-lite as I call it) in the House of Commons exposed his party to an exodus of voters which as noted might prove to be a realignment. Corbyn could have taken Brexit permanently off the table and re-calibrated toward economic socialism. But instead, he gave no clear position or view for his party on Brexit- the defining issue of the day in British politics. He literally escorted tens of thousands of important working class voters out of the Labour Party with his dithering and delaying tactics.
But what about the neoliberal legacy of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton? The centrist internationalism of Barack Obama and David Cameron? The party best representing that very dated and quite frankly elitist worldview the Liberal Democrats. A party whose leader Jo Swinson aided Johnson in his General Election calls and then promptly saw its support vanish over a six week campaign.
Westminster visit, Europhilia and Nationalism
On the surface as an outsider, I oppose Brexit because it in my mind will hurt the British economy and make the nation subservient to the United States economically. However, I sympathized with many Brexiters in 2016 during the vote because I long have felt western Europeans are condescending towards the British based on my own personal observations. I could totally relate to the psychological feelings of Brexiters about the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels thumbing their noses at the British populace.
My visit to Westminster in February made things crystal clear to me. Seeing lots of young people waving European flags was revealing. While I believe many nationalist movements are based around bigotry and narrow-mindedness, I began to understand the surge of English nationalism that day – if young people are more emotionally tied to a multilateral institution dominated by continental bureaucrats (many of whom have shown utter contempt for Britain through the years) than to their own nation, it’s no small wonder we as human beings continue to be more polarized than ever politically.
It also put into perspective for me the difficulty today’s left has communicating with those working class voters that have defected to parties of the right. People on the left, particularly young people and those who follow the likes of Corbyn and Sanders have little tolerance or understanding of what makes non-urban big city voters or older elements of the electorate tick.
The new left looks at western history as a constant struggle between racist whites and oppressed minority groups of color. I can relate to that worldview as a person of color whose family is from a nation that was exploited by British colonists. But to view everything through this prism is myopic and quite frankly unhealthy. It pushes the left away from the majority of the electorate it must win over to govern.
The failure of the left in both the United States and the United Kingdom to absorb the lessons of recent elections and understand the growth of economic populism is the primary reason for continued electoral failings. As someone personally who watches British politics closely and associates closely with the views of the Labour Party, I have come to realize I may not be alive the next time Labour wins a national election. That’s a very difficult pill for me to swallow.