Democrats beware – the UK election was actually a terrible night for centrists

Kate Aronoff
Democrats beware – the UK election was actually a terrible night for centrists. TheLabour party’s defeat has been taken as a warning not to stray too far left but the real story has a different lesson for 2020

Britain’s Conservative party won big last on Thursday, and its Labour party –under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn – lost handily, giving Boris Johnson’s Tories their biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher.

Not long after exit poll results came in, pundits across the pond started making bold claims: if Corbyn – what with his leftwing manifesto and socialist politics – could lose so badly against Johnson, surely this spells doom for any allied efforts in the United States, namely the primary candidacies of Bernie Sanders and (to a lesser extent) Elizabeth Warren. Hand either of them the Democratic party’s nomination, they warn, and deliver the country to Trump for another four disastrous years.

This is, to borrow a phrase from our comrades in the UK, bollocks.

Related: Centrists say this is proof Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren can't win. They are wrong | Cas Mudde

There’s plenty of reflection to be done in the coming weeks, months and probably years about why Labour failed to get a victory or even a hung parliament this election – much of it unflattering of Labour and with plenty of lessons for the electoral left stateside.

But what all the finger-wagging about Corbyn and Sanders ignores is that the kind of tepid politics these pundits espouse had an awful night too. The centrist Liberal Democrats – who campaigned harder against Jeremy Corbyn than Boris Johnson – failed to deliver a surge in seats. Its leader, Jo Swinson, lost her own seat after her performance in the general election devolved rapidly. The Lib Dems presented themselves similarly to establishment Democrats across the pond: a respectable third way between the Conservatives and Labour, and effectively a single-issue party committed to staying in the EU by any means necessary. Last spring Nancy Pelosi met with members of Change UK, a collection of Labour MPs who quit the party over opposition to its leftward shift. Two of the three MPs she met with lost their seats last night. The other spent this election season urging marginals – think swing districts, in US-speak – to vote for Johnson.

Let’s also not forget these politicians’ and pundits’ recent record in the US. Democrats lost over 1,000 seats under Obama and handed a rash of state legislatures over to Republican trifectas, neglecting the kind of decentralized, grassroots organizing that fueled his campaign to victory. They lost miserably in 2016 mounting a wildly unpopular candidate committed to maintaining the status quo. And none of them have faced any consequences, continuing to lead the party into what may well be an abyss. Their counterparts elsewhere are losing ground to the far right, or ceding on points like migration. The left may have lost, but the center is hollowing out.

This UK election was ultimately an election about Brexit, and Brexit won. There’s no clean analogue to that in the US

As they were in 2017, Labour’s policies remain highly popular across party affiliation. Six in 10 people support Labour’s policy of free broadband for all, and 64% support renationalizing the country’s railways. A full 56% back a total decarbonization of the UK economy by 2030 and 63% support a Green New Deal to do so, and making considerable public investments in jobs and infrastructure. Similar figures hold in the US, where Sanders enjoys wildly higher favorability ratings than Corbyn. These kinds of policies helped Corbyn to mobilize tens of thousands volunteers to canvass around the country and bring millions into the work of politics, energy (and votes) not likely to disappear any time soon.

This UK election was ultimately an election about Brexit, and Brexit won. There’s no clean analogue to that in the US. If Americans are in fact voting on a single issue, it’s on whether Donald Trump should be president. The two have some things in common, of course. Both votes in 2016 emerged out of some mix of disillusionment, racism, disinformation and frustration with a business as usual that has left working people behind. But the latter is friendlier ground for the Democratic party, an odd bedfellows coalition of what in UK politics would be the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and some more moderate Tories. While Brexit never fit so cleanly within party politics, all members of our messy Democratic coalition are committed to making sure Trump is not the president come this time next year. How that fight gets waged is a different matter.

From Brexit to Catalan separatism, a politics that contests over the bounds of national identity is awkward at best for an internationalist left and poison at worst. And 2016 should have shown that simply fear-mongering about what a monster Donald Trump is or how many crimes he’s committed won’t yield wins for the opposition. Come 2020, will Democrats offer a vision to voters for change and a credible shot at handily beating Trump that can mobilize millions to knock doors and vote, or a Lib Dem-style defense of keeping things mostly as they are, simply subbing out the temporary inconvenience posed by Trump? Only one option has a fighting chance.

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