Our cousins across the pond have gone to the polls in an historic election. Candidates have stood together on stage in a quaint ritual, hearing the results, wearing their little ribbon like a prize cow. Salt of the earth voters in the East Riding of the Upper Cramlington Marches have been interviewed for their thoughts, expressed in their defining patois. And as the totals are tallied in this UK election, American commentators have declared the winner: Joe Biden.
Ask anyone, at least any American pundit, and you’ll hear that British voters rejected Labour because it had campaigned too far to the left. Extrapolating from that ill-informed datapoint, they conclude that Trump will win next year unless Democrats in the US choose a candidate with no identifiable policy positions other than not being Trump. In other words, Democrats have to stop hoping for nice things and settle into the mostly-benign embrace of Uncle Handsy.
This conventional wisdom was best summarized in a Tweet from Yascha Mounk at The Atlantic:
Nobody took the lessons of Britain’s election more to heart than the Honorable Senator from MBNA, who explained, with his usual eloquence:
Look what happens when the Labour Party moves so, so far to the left. It comes up with ideas that are not able to be contained within a rational basis quickly. You’re also going to see people saying, ‘My God, Boris Johnson, who is kind of a physical and emotional clone of the president, is able to win.’
American pundits have concluded that Johnson = Trump and Corbyn = Sanders or Warren. This is a blindingly stupid simplification, informed mostly by the neurotic terror of Democrats so unaccustomed to winning that they are negotiating against themselves. Whatever lessons Americans may glean from this British election, they are neither so simple nor so clear as the TV soundbites.
Comparisons between the party leaders in Britain and the US start out awkward, then turn absurd. What hobbled Corbyn was not socialism but incompetence. Jeremy Corbyn is less a Sanders or a Warren then a sallow cutout of Marianne Williamson in an ill-fitting suit.
If this foreign election must be placed in a US context then British voters are best seen as having faced down a choice between two disastrous candidates, both incoherent and unreliable, both sporting suspect ties to the Russians, and neither offering an alternative to Brexit. Voters chose the marginally less frightening option, the more competent of the two appalling goofballs.
Voters did not repudiate socialism. The UK is not the US. British voters faced two leading parties both battling to seize the leftist mantle, with the Tories going so far as to back a £10 minimum wage and a massive spending binge. The Tories built their campaign plan on a massive race to the left.
Many of Labour’s new economic plans seemed catastrophically bizarre, including the re-nationalization of large swathes of the country’s industry. Their “left” agenda was mostly a rehash of the mid-20th century, with proposals aimed squarely at the needs of a working class that no longer exists. Where the party drifted into truly ground-breaking territory, as with proposals for a universal basic income, they hedged and dodged. Conservatives responded to this muddled economic appeal by emphasizing Labour’s anti-Semitic threat while endorsing a massive minimum wage hike, a £33 billion boost in NHS spending, a massive medical staffing increase, and backing off corporate tax breaks.
Going further, the Tories are promising to reach net-zero carbon-emissions by 2050, go on a £100 billion infrastructure spending binge, raise teachers’ salaries, and dramatically stiffen environmental protections. Which party lurched left in this election? Which part of this agenda makes the Tories the British equivalent of America’s Republicans?
Think voters were choosing between Brexit or Remain? Think again. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn refused to take a position, defeating an effort to press Labour to endorse a Remain position in the election. Like many old-line Labour socialists, Corbyn was ambivalent toward the EU from the beginning. He actually voted against joining the EC in 1975, opposed the Maastrict Treaty, opposed the Lisbon Treaty, and backed an earlier Conservative Brexit proposal in 2011.
Is immigration the issue that gave Tories the edge? Tories certainly leveraged racial fears to frighten voters, but good luck finding a meaningful distinction between Labour and the Tories on immigration beyond tone. Corbyn refused to endorse a continuation of freedom of movement with the EU after Brexit. Labour’s immigration policy retains the limitations of the Tory plan, with an emphasis on attracting skilled labor to fill vacancies, but retaining tight immigration controls.
Voters did not endorse “racism” in voting Tory, as their alternative was a Labour Party riven with increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. Hostility toward Jews fomented by Labour had reached such a pitch that the Archbishop of Canterbury was forced to make a statement on the subject. As former London Mayor and Labour MP Ken Livingstone explained after the election, “The Jewish vote wasn’t very helpful.”
If we’re going search for lessons for Americans in the UK election, it would make sense to dig a little deeper into Corbyn’s Jewish problem, and his wider “eccentricity.” You can’t understand why a British public largely opposed to Brexit would support the Tories without recognizing that Corbyn is just a kindly old nutter.
Similar to how Trump has inspired a wave of white nationalist violence in the US, Corbyn has unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism within Labour, under the very shallow cover of pro-Palestinian politics. Corbyn’s deeply troubling ties to terrorist groups and anti-Semites, paired with his constantly moving and maddeningly ambiguous stances on Brexit, doomed Labour in this election.
Corbyn has a long history of supporting terrorists going back to his days of attending IRA funerals. He is more than merely “critical” of Israel. He’s established deep, long-standing ties to Mideast terror groups, referring to Hamas and Hezbollah as friends. Corbyn attended a wreath-laying ceremony for Palestine terrorists in Tunisia. The site included the graves of the Black September terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Asked to explain the image, he issued a muddled, evasive series of whataboutism tweets and has never clearly stated why he was there and who he was meeting.
Some of Corbyn’s other “friends” include prominent Holocaust denier, Paul Eisen. Corbyn has lied about his relationship to Eisen and the depth of his ties to Eisen’s organization. Corbyn is probably not personally, expressly anti-Semitic, but many around him are. Like American Republicans who keep finding themselves “unfairly” tied to the white nationalists standing in photos with them, his lack of sensitivity to these issues is telling and consequential. Thanks to Corbyn, Labour wasn’t able to make this election a clear choice between progress and bigotry. Thanks to Corbyn, Labour wasn’t able to make this election a clear choice between Brexit and Remain. Thanks to Corbyn, Labour wasn’t able to deliver a stark contrast between a predatory, kleptocratic capitalism and an emerging, technocratic, post-Marxist socialism. But the problems with his leadership were beyond just these issues.
He also opposes NATO, calling it a “military Frankenstein” and an “engine for the delivery of oil to the oil companies.” He consistently repeated Kremlin talking points on Ukraine and Crimea, blaming NATO for Russia’s invasion.
Corbyn helped fan the original conspiracy theory tying vaccines to autism. He supports homeopathic medicine, backing a Parliamentary motion endorsing its use in formal health policy. It’s tough to find a discredited concept, practice or conspiracy theory on the left to which he has no ties. Corbyn is doctrinaire, erratic and entranced by obscure ideas like a cat playing with Christmas tree ornaments. Meanwhile, he has none of the foundational political instincts necessary to run an organization of any real size or to campaign effectively.
All these criticisms aside, it should noted that if the UK operated under a system of proportional representation like those on the continent instead of using single-member parliamentary districts, we’d be discussing the Tories’ embarrassing defeat, having gained only a single point in the polls over their similarly miserable 2017 result. They’d be forced to find a coalition partner, and with the LibDems and Labour combining to equal the Tories’ parliamentary power, that coalition might be out of reach. Conservatives are no more popular than they were before, they just got lucky with the geographic distribution of their support.
Apart from the geographic glitches that gave Conservatives their win, comparisons to US politics just don’t hold water. Efforts to make Johnson a proxy for Trump and to make Corbyn represent Warren or Sanders are pure imagination. There isn’t a Republican alive who could win an election in Britain outside Northern Ireland. And Corbyn probably couldn’t win a national election anywhere in the western world. The only corollary between this UK election and our dilemma is the atmosphere of dark, carnival mayhem, the panicked realization that there are no adults coming to save us from ourselves. Our ideologies don’t map to each other, but we share an experience of greatness gone to rubbish, a hollow, mournful feeling of squandered potential that foreshadows a reckoning.
Our limey friends did the best they could with their miserable options. Their choice tells us nothing about what they might have done if given a chance to elect a competent leader from the right, left, center, up, down or in between, or how we might respond to the same opportunity.