The Right and Wrong Lessons from Corbyn and Labour’s Defeat

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a rally at Pier Head in Liverpool, England, Saturday Sept. 22, 2018, ahead of the party's annual conference in the city. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)
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Here are some observations from an outsider about Labour’s crushing defeat in Britain’s election. There are some lessons here for the American left and liberals in the upcoming American elections.

The Brexit Factor: Labour lost — leave aside the margin for a moment — because leftwing parties cannot deal with secession crises. Leftwing parties base their appeal on class conflict (however ill defined); secession crises create conflicting cleavages around national identity. Those cleavages split Labour’s constituencies and pretty much insured the party’s defeat.

The only way leftwing parties can prevail or even do OK during secession crises is if the opposition is corrupt (which is how Spain’s Socialists supplanted the People’s Party earlier this year during the Catalonian secession crisis) or incompetent (which is how Jeremy Corbyn and Labour almost defeated Theresa May and the Tories in June 2017). Otherwise they are cooked.

And in this election, Labour faced two secession crises: Brexit and Scotland (where the SNP, a leftwing party, has replaced Labour as Scotland’s main party). And Labour didn’t face an incompetent leader. On the contrary, Boris Johnson showed mastery in getting a Brexit deal through Parliament this fall and in fashioning a campaign meant to attract Labour’s working class constituents. (And spare me the analyses that Labour should have become unequivocally pro-remain. That certainly didn’t help the Liberal Democrats and Jo Swinson, who couldn’t even win her own seat.)

The Corbyn Factor: But if you want to look at the extent of Labour’s loss, you do have to look at Corbyn’s role. Corbyn was a backbencher who was thrust into the leadership almost by default and chance in 2015. He is a child of the upper middle class and did not represent a traditional working class district. He was an old-time anti-imperialist from the ‘70s. (In the U.S., the equivalent would have gone back to the ‘60s.) Preoccupied with foreign relations, deeply suspicious of the U.S. and his own countries’ adventures and sympathetic to any challenges to their power, whether from the IRA, Cuba, Venezuela, or Russia.

Corbyn was clearly unable to quell the anti-Semitism among some of the fringe elements that came into Labour after 2015 when the party gained 500,000 members. But he was not an anti-Semite; he was pro-Palestinian, and deeply opposed (as am I) to Israel’s occupation and also sympathetic to its foes, including Hamas. It was not that these stances were wrong — although certainly open to question as regards, say, Venezuela — but that they bespoke a mindset that was not really in line with a 21st century electorate. He was an anachronism. I think that contributed to the widespread view that he was not prime minister material. (Corbyn is sometimes compared to Bernie Sanders who is also an anti-war leftist who ran on that platform in the 70s, but Sanders matured politically as mayor of Burlington and as a congressman. When he ran in 2016, he was faulted for confining his foreign policy statements to his vote on the Iraq War.)

The Leftwing Factor: Some of the commentators are blaming Labour’s defeat on its “hard left” positions. I think you have to draw a very careful distinction here — one that is relevant to America’s upcoming election. Under Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell, Labour forthrightly challenged the Tory’s austerity policies under former Prime Minister David Cameron. That stand proved enormously popular and contributed to Corbyn’s near win in 2017. In this election, Boris Johnson moved to the center to embrace Labour’s anti-austerity stance. Johnson favored increased not decreased funding for Britain’s National Health Service and promised tax cuts for the middle and lower ends of the income ladder not the top. That was testimony to Labour’s success in turning Britain against austerity and budget balancing and privatization.

Corbyn and Labour might have gone too far in some of their spending proposals and some of their plans for nationalization, but from what I read, and the polls I’ve seen, these stances did not hurt Labour’s chance and may have helped in some cases. What probably hurt Labour were the extreme stances taken on immigration (open borders), British nationality (Britain should apologize and pay reparations for its colonial past), and the Green New Deal by the younger leftists who had come into the party over the last four years and joined Momentum, Labour’s main activist group. They spoke of eliminating any bars on who was a citizen and who could vote in national elections; they warned of imminent planetary disaster and proposed steps that were widely seen as threatening the country’s standard of living. Say what you want about these proposals, but they reflected — to invert Labour’s slogan — the passions of the few, not the many and were bound to marginalize the party.

The UK’s future: I read predictions (along the same lines as in the US) that Johnson now has a chance to remake the Tories into a working class party and to keep Labour out of power well through the next decade. Maybe he will be able to do so. Johnson is a far abler politician than Donald Trump, and he also knows something of his country’s political history and has been consciously mimicking Benjamin Disraeli’s “One Nation” conservatism that sought to unite the working class and aristocracy against the uppity bourgeoisie. But to transform the Tories and keep Labour at bay, Johnson will have to accomplish a trade deal with the European Union (which is no mean task) and prevent a downturn in the British economy as its trade with the EU inevitably shrinks either absolutely or proportionately. And he will have to convince his upper class and business constituencies to abandon their dreams of a deregulated Singapore on the Thames. If Johnson turns his back on his working class vote, and if the country suffers a downturn, Labour can still call on a quarter of the workforce that belongs to unions and that when the cleavages are economic, will — absent the party’s takeover by neo-Trotskyites — come back to the Labour Party. Johnson’s Tories could suffer the fate of Canada’s Conservatives who were rudely ousted in 2015. Labour is not finished even if Jeremy Corbyn is.

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