british elections

What the U.K. Election Does (and Doesn’t) Teach Democrats

A man who is not Bernie Sanders. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

A small island nation governed by a constitutional monarchy — where voters consider the concept of government mail delivery borderline communistic, and socialized medicine common sense — held an election on Thursday. And in a shocking turn of events, the outcome vindicated every American political commentator’s proposed strategy for defeating Donald Trump in 2020.

The (lamentable) triumph of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party proved that the Democrats must disavow “wokeness” and “mass immigration” — and take a clear, unapologetic stand in favor of cosmopolitan values — or else we are going to get four more years of Trump. But the U.K.’s election also demonstrated that Democrats can’t win back white working-class voters in postindustrial regions by embracing a radical economic message, and also, that Democrats must embrace a radical economic message to win back white working-class voters in postindustrial regions. What’s more, Thursday’s election (in a foreign country with a very different political system than our own, and an all-consuming national controversy with no neat parallel to any of America’s) made one thing abundantly clear: The center-left must accommodate the preferences of economically moderate suburbanites if it hopes to compete in national elections, and, as a corollary, accommodating the preferences of economically moderate suburbanites will doom the center-left to electoral irrelevance.

All strained kidding aside, the impulse to derive portable lessons from the British election is both understandable and potentially productive. In hindsight, the outcome of the Brexit referendum did, in fact, provide some relevant insights into America’s 2016 election. In both cases, the heightened salience of immigration and questions of national identity accelerated a preexisting realignment among white voters along the lines of education and population density: White working-class voters in rural areas moved right, while white college-educated voters in inner-ring suburbs moved left.

Thus, for all the critical distinctions between the American and British political environments, there are many genuine parallels. And since our two nations share a language, cultural heritage, and (to a degree) media, political factions in both countries have exerted a reciprocal influence on each other. So, scouring the Corbyn campaign’s autopsy report for insights into the Democrats’ predicament is a useful exercise. But doing it right requires keeping a watchful eye on one’s own motivated reasoning, and giving as much attention to the disparities between the British and American contexts as the overlaps.

Fortunately, as a left-liberal polemicist with a deep sympathy for Corbynism — who visited London for three days 13 years ago — I am uniquely well-positioned to adjudicate this matter with utmost competence and impartiality. Here are my four takeaways:

1) Bernie Sanders is not Jeremy Corbyn.

In both Britain and the United States, we’ve witnessed over the past four years the transformation of a longtime left-wing gadfly into a nationally renowned political leader who boasts outsize support among the nation’s youth. In both cases, this leader had deep reservoirs of opposition within his own party, a style of oratory that is audaciously unpretentious, and a conflictual relationship with the mainstream media.

It’s understandable, then, that many moderate Democrats see Corbyn’s defeat as proof of Bernie Sanders’s unelectability. But this conclusion is dubious for several reasons.

Although Corbyn and Sanders are similar figures in many respects — and have an avowed affinity for each other’s projects — they are also very different politicians, both ideologically and personally. Sanders’s political vision is less radical than Corbyn’s, particularly on foreign policy. The Vermont senator is a supporter of NATO and a liberal Zionist. Corbyn has called for the abolition of NATO, and evinced more sympathy for anti-Zionism. Sanders supported America’s bombing of Kosovo in 1999, Corbyn opposed it. Meanwhile, at least until recently, Corbyn’s economic views were markedly more socialist than Sanders’s.

But the most relevant distinctions are personal. Before becoming leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn had represented a roughly 70,000-person district in London, which has voted for Labour candidates in every election since 1937. Before his present campaign, meanwhile, Sanders had not only won statewide elections in a largely rural constituency that voted for Ronald Reagan twice, but outperformed the state’s partisan lean while doing so. Which is to say, Sanders has demonstrated a capacity to win votes outside of historically left-wing urban areas, while Corbyn never did.

This distinction is reflected in each politician’s contemporary popularity. Although Sanders’s approval rating is much lower now than it was three years ago, only 2.6 percent more Americans disapprove of the socialist senator than approve of him, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling average. For Corbyn, the analogous figure is 40 percent. In other words, Sanders is more than 15 times as popular as his British comrade. Any analysis that frames Corbyn’s failure as an indictment of Sanders’s project must not elide this fact if it wishes to be taken seriously.

Especially since the available evidence suggests that Labour suffered much more from nominating a personally unpopular leader than adopting an ideologically left-wing platform. In fact, some surveys indicate the latter was more electoral asset than liability.

2) A robustly progressive economic message is no panacea for winning back white working-class voters (at least in the near term).

That said, Thursday’s results cast doubt on a core aspect of the Bernie left’s theory of change. One fundamental challenge facing contemporary socialists (and social democrats) has been the decline of class-based voting throughout much of the developed world. The American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson offers this excellent summary of the predicament:

Four kinds of fragmentation have vexed the parties of the European left over the past 20 years, as they’ve vexed the Democratic Party in the United States as well. The first stems from the growing presence in those parties of urban upper-middle-class professionals, who are often at odds on cultural questions, broadly defined, with the parties’ more traditional and patriarchal working classes. The second is no stranger to the United States but is only now impacting Europe with the diminution (not sudden, but perceived as such) of many nations’ relative racial and religious homogeneity—defections from the left due to racism and nativism. The shift last night of England’s North from Labour to the Tories summoned memories of George Wallace’s surprising successes in Northern states in the Democratic primaries of 1964, heralding the end of the New Deal coalition and the subsequent electoral victories of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The third fragmentation results from geographic divergence—with minorities and the culturally liberal young and professionals clustering in cities with large service sectors, while formerly industrial and rural areas, increasingly poor and elderly, experience both the reality and the sense of abandonment.

Underlying all three of these fragmentations is the de-linking of class interests: As globalization and financialization (the latter particularly pronounced in the U.K. and U.S.) have undermined the egalitarian achievements of the postwar era, parties of the center-left have been stretched ideologically, often to the breaking point. The ’90s saw Britain’s New Labour under Tony Blair, America’s Democrats under Bill Clinton, and Germany’s Social Democrats under Gerhard Schröder all move to globalize and deregulate their economies, to the benefit of those nations’ banking and corporate sectors and the detriment of their working-class voters. The collapse of 2008 and the hugely unequal recovery that followed has led to battles between the center-left and a more militant left in virtually every industrialized nation.

Socialists in the U.S. and U.K. contend that realigning the bulk of white workers with the left is a precondition for arresting neoliberal capitalism’s descent into neo-feudalism (if not eco-fascism): Only a unified, militant working-class can muster the objective political and economic strength necessary to bring our oligarchic overlords to heel. But in an era of climate crisis and global capitalism, socialist values have never been more irreconcilable with the politics of immigration restriction and nationalism. And the left’s existing base of young, overeducated, and underemployed urbanites is as cosmopolitan, anti-racist, and feminist as any socialists have ever assembled. Thus, the great hope of the left in Britain and the U.S. is that it is possible for a culturally and racially progressive left-wing party to win back white, non-college-educated voters who’ve turned right — or dropped out of the electorate — by offering them a credible vision for broad-based prosperity and economic democracy.

This year’s U.K. election did not offer ideal conditions for testing the viability of this project. The uncontrolled variables were legion. Disentangling the electorate’s exhaustion with Brexit, antipathy for Corbyn, and alarm over Labour’s alleged anti-Semitism from its response to the most radically egalitarian economic platform that the Anglosphere has seen in generations (if ever) is impossible. But suffice it to say, embracing a robustly social democratic agenda was not only insufficient to repolarize politics along class lines or avert a landslide defeat, but also inadequate to even slow the pace of class de-alignment.

As the Financial Times reports:

In seats with high shares of people in low-skilled jobs, the Conservative vote share increased by an average of six percentage points and the Labour share fell by 14 points. In seats with the lowest share of low-skilled jobs, the Tory vote share fell by four points and Labour’s fell by seven. The swing of working class areas from Labour to Conservative had the strongest statistical association of any explored by the FT.

If Corbyn’s radical economic message failed to prevent white working-class voters (or at least white working-class areas) from turning right, it also failed to bring politically disaffected ones to the voting booth:

Turnout also appears to have helped the Conservatives. The ruling party fared best relative to Labour and the Liberal Democrats where turnout fell compared with 2017, and worse where turnout rose. This suggests that in many battleground constituencies, most of the voters who stayed at home this time were Labour supporters, thereby lowering the bar to success for the Tories.

None of this tells us anything dispositive about the left’s theory of change. Sanders is not Corbyn. Many of Labour’s most radical policies are popular, and polls suggest opposition to its policies was not a primary contributor to its defeat. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats — Britain’s socially liberal, economically moderate party — did approximately nothing to vindicate the centrist vision for beating back right-wing nationalism.

Nevertheless, the left remains bereft of compelling evidence that the median white working-class swing voter (or nonvoter) can be won to its cause through economic appeals alone — at least in the immediate term. (Here in the United States, nominating economic populists unencumbered by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s allergy to class-warfare rhetoric and radical reforms like Medicare for All did not reliably fix what was “the matter with Kansas” in 2018.)

In the long run, if the left can find a way to build and sustain patient organizing and institution building in the working-class communities that are currently rejecting it, the moral arc of history may yet bend towards the final victory of the proletariat. But in the near term, the operative assumption must be that Sanders (and/or Warren) can only marginally increase their party’s performance in its erstwhile Rust Belt strongholds. Which means that defeating Trump next year will likely require the Democratic nominee to build on the party’s 2018 gains in suburban areas. I do not believe that this means the Democratic Party must moderate on economic issues; I think it is plausible to cultivate a cross-class coalition for social democractic reform (a.k.a., the 99 percent). But some socialists may disagree.

3) Political geography matters, and it is important for liberal urbanites to grapple with that fact.

If Thursday night’s results have challenging implications for the Marxist left, they have much the same for some liberal Remainers. Before and after Thursday’s election, the latter insisted that Corbyn’s decisive mistake was failing to take a clear stance against Brexit. This view has superficial plausibility — who respects a wishy-washy triangulator who tries to have it both ways? Brexit is an objectively awful idea, which was sold to the public on false premises. About half the country opposed it and was looking for a standard-bearer. This was always going to be a Brexit election, whether Corbyn liked it or not. In refusing to accept that, he failed to offer a clear alternative to the Tory’s vision on the most salient issue of the day.

But while this is logically sound, it’s empirically dubious. Yes, half the country opposed Brexit. But the United Kingdom, like the United States, lacks proportional representation. For this reason, its legislative map systematically underrepresents urban voters: Since Remainers are more heavily concentrated in dense urban areas, they run up the score in a relatively small number of districts, while Leave voters efficiently space their influence across a relatively large number of them. Roughly two-thirds of all parliamentary constituencies voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. Corbyn probably would have been better off taking a clearer position on Brexit — namely, a clear pro-Brexit one. (Notably, this might not have actually required abandoning Remain in practice. Given the Scottish National Party’s inexorable rise, Labour could not realistically form a government without entering into coalition with the SNP. And the price of that coalition may have been a second referendum.)

Remainers’ failure to grapple with the electoral implications of their underrepresentation has relevance for our own nation’s politics. To take one (imperfect) example, many progressive urbanites insisted that impeaching Trump would prove politically prudent, despite evidence the idea was unpopular among swing voters in battleground states and districts. For the moment, there are few signs that impeachment has inspired a significant backlash; but just as few that it has damaged Trump politically, or served as an effective deterrent against future abuses of power.

Impeachment might still have been the best of the Democrats’ bad options for checking the power of a lawless president. And while it has not succeeded in driving down Trump’s approval rating, it is possible that the process has helped to keep the president’s favorability from rising in tandem with monthly job growth. What’s more, if Democrats had conducted impeachment as progressives had wished, its political benefits might have been clearer. My concern is less with the decision to lobby for impeachment than with the tenor of some of that lobbying. In many instances, such advocacy implied that the objective righteousness of the cause — the fact that the president committed egregious, well-documented abuses of office — would matter more politically than low-information voters’ avowed opposition to impeachment. And that strikes me as a dangerous mode of reasoning. As Brexit has made clear, having the facts on your side counts for little in this world. We are operating in a fragmented and toxic media environment, and decaying civil society. Fox News comports itself as Trump’s Pravda, and the mainstream media still wants to be a fair and balanced referee. This does not mean that Democrats should forfeit all hope of persuading swing voters on issues of national import. But it does mean that responsible political action requires acknowledging the limits of our electoral clout and media influence, and soberly weighing the risks and benefits of bucking swing voters’ stated intuitions.

4) The U.S. is a more diverse and pro-immigration country than the U.K.

Some have argued that the overrepresentation of rural-dwelling, white, non-college voters in both the U.S. and the U.K. requires center-left parties in both countries to embrace a more restrictionist position on immigration. I reject this view. But even if one took that reading of the British election, there would be little basis for presuming its applicability to the U.S.

A YouGov poll taken last year found 63 percent of Britons saying immigration levels to their country have been too high over the past decade (beneath that top-line number the pollster did uncover more nuanced and pro-immigrant sentiments). A recent Gallup poll of Americans, meanwhile, found only 35 percent saying that existing immigration levels should be decreased. One potential reason for this disparity: Roughly 61 percent of Americans are non-Hispanic white; in Britain that figure is about 87 percent.

In 2016, the Democratic Party campaigned on an emphatically pro-immigration message and won the popular vote easily, while coming just 80,000 votes short of an Electoral College majority. Last year, the party won a large House majority after (briefly) shutting down the government in the name of aiding the undocumented. To compensate for the underrepresentation of urban liberals in the Electoral College and Senate, there is a strong case for Democrats to put less rhetorical emphasis on immigration in 2020 than it did in 2016. But there is little evidence that abandoning the party’s commitment to a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented or high levels of legal immigration would be electorally wise, let alone necessary.

This is obviously not a comprehensive catalogue of the U.K. election’s potential lessons. And looking over the list, I see that some of my takeaways bear a disconcerting resemblance to views I held before Thursday’s returns. None of us are free from motivated reasoning. And everyone’s impressions merit interrogation. So take the above as prompts for counterarguments. I am certain of little beyond the need for progressives on both sides of the Atlantic to entertain uncertainty itself. Now more than ever, opponents of rightwing nationalism must resist the temptation to project the clarity of our moral convictions onto empirical questions of political reality. If we don’t seek an unblinkered view of the world as it is, we’ll have little hope of ever seeing it as it should be.

What the U.K. Election Does (and Doesn’t) Teach Democrats