British election provides ominous signs for the left and center in American politics

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.  

Corbynism Failed 

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. 

Centrism Failed 

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.

8 comments

  1. SPOT ON!! There is a reason I always say that Democrats will lose, and their lack of understanding working-class voters is one of them. I also think that another reason is the explosion of “champagne socialists” in America. Yes, there are those on the left who advocate socialist economic issues, but have no understanding of the struggle of the working class. Their approach is almost like identity politics of class (ah…idea for an article), which tries to undo some economic injustice they they see themselves a part of. Basically, it is the economic equivalent of “white guilt”.

    The only thing I might slightly differ on is the Catholic vote, in America at least. Fifty years ago, Catholics were synonymous with blue collar. I don’t think that is the case in the US anymore. In Britain, it might be different but I don’t know. Still, if we look at the most working-class Catholic constituency, West Belfast, we see economic socialism still alive. While Sinn Fein’s totals have reduced, the Profit Before People party had an impressive showing.

    Like

    1. Oh…I meant People Before Profit! Lol

      Like

  2. The Left has to change its interactions with the working class (do not equate AFT as representing the entire working class).
    Working class people aren’t stupid, they understand that the Left despises them and continues to characterize them with scorn–or as Peter S. said–smelly Wal-Mart voters. Get anything fixed at your house or for your car and the worker is often a supporter of Trump. Not so much for Trump, but because he represents a class of people openly despised and called trash by the Left. People will vote for Trump out of sheer frustration at the continued characterization of them in negative terms. We need to recognize that most people are good people and by noting this rather than castigating them the Left will do better. As it is people fight back to bullying which is what seems to be the case since the election. It would also help to admit the intelligence services and yes, even Hunter Biden have not been fair and square. We can’t have it one way for the Left and the other way for the Right. I am amazed that few seem to remember that the intelligence services were once open to scrutiny by the Left (Cointelpro). Taking the facts that fit one’s narrative isn’t new but it’s not gone unrealized.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great points and like you I am really stunned still that the left or at least the establishment left seems to now be great fans of the CIA and FBI. They don’t see any longer the danger of the CIA destabilizing governments abroad and interfering in domestic politics & governance all over the place. It’s a very odd turn that seemed to happen during the Obama years as the mainstream of the left got very comfortable with power and with American imperialism in general.

      Like

      1. I might disagree here as well. I think the most working-class voters are also hawks on foreign policy. I am certainly that way. This mostly comes from working-class families making up the overwhelming majority of the military. This is where I feel that there is an lack of understanding of working-class culture by many progressives.

        Like

  3. I remember Al Gore coming to Orlando after the 2000 election and going there to march in his favor. All the while the SPEAKING FEES. Our past officials get so much $$ in speaking fees here and abroad that things have been undermined. Think while HRC (who I supported ) was Sec.State BC should have stopped getting paid to speak abroad.

    Like

  4. Kim makes great points and it’s just sad how the left now acts like the CIA/FBI is untouchable. They are owed some special consideration, especially those who put their lives on the line, but how quickly have we forgotten WMDs and warrant-less wiretaps?

    Like

  5. […] After the recent election in the United Kingdom, the expected reaction from American political pundits (who are amateurs at British politics, at best), gave us an he extremely predictive response to the election. That response; Sanders is Corbyn, Trump is Johnson, Johnson won, therefore Sanders can’t beat Trump. Of course, this is an absolutely ridiculous assertion. But why is this ridiculous? Yes, there are some things that can be transferable to the 202 Presidential Election. However, there are some fundamental differences between the two elections that, actually, can be a positive for Sanders in 2020. As our Kartik Krishnaiyer wrote after the election, Corbyn’s defeat was not only a repudiation of the far left in his mind, but also of the mushy …. […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: