Labour’s loss should tell Democrats not to tack too far to the left
As the post-mortems for the British Labour Party’s stunning defeat keep arriving, the most frequent explanation for its poor performance is its lack of a clear Brexit policy. Jeremy Corbyn’s personality, incompetence and anti-Semitism all are seen as lesser reasons for his failure to attract more voters. No doubt Brexit was a factor, but it hardly was the primary cause for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s victory and Corbyn’s disastrous showing as Labour leader.
It is true that Labour’s support for a second referendum gave some hope to Britain’s so-called “Remainers,” and might have alienated some number of traditional Labour voters who wanted out of Europe once and for all. Nevertheless, Corbyn had never vocally opposed Brexit, and it was widely known that he personally favored Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU). Everyone understood that Corbyn’s wishy-washiness on the Brexit question derived from his cynical calculation that he might capture some voters who opposed a break with the EU but had little faith in the solidly pro-Europe Liberal Democrats having any real influence in a post-election Westminster.
If Brexit does not fully explain Corbyn’s defeat, neither does his supposed incompetence. After all, it was only 20 months ago that he gave Theresa May a run for her money. The 2017 election Labour’s manifesto was quite radical, calling for, among other things, renationalizing the railways, the Royal Mail and energy companies. It also promised 30 hours’ free child care. Nevertheless, Labour gained 20 seats and received its highest share of the vote since 2001. When voters went to the polls this month, they knew exactly who Jeremy Corbyn was, yet this time they turned away from him.
Anti-Semitism also was not a major factor in Corbyn’s defeat. The issue had received considerable attention in Britain, especially after Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote a scathing op-ed in the London Times urging voters to keep away from a man who was known to cavort with Hamas, who had supported other terrorist groups (including the IRA) and had done far too little to quell the cancer of anti-Semitism that was eating away at the heart of the Labour Party. Britain’s tiny Jewish community long has had little influence in the country’s elections, however, apart from returning pro-Israel philo-Semitic candidates from constituencies in Northwest London, the most famous of whom was Margaret Thatcher, M.P. from heavily Jewish Finchley. Its vote, therefore, made little difference to the final outcome.
The reason that Corbyn and Labour did so much more poorly in 2019 is straightforward: The party tacked even further to the left than it had in 2017. The 2019 manifesto not only incorporated all of Labour’s previous promises, but also promised a massive spending spree that included, among other things, funding for a million “climate jobs” in every region; “kick-starting” a Green Industrial Revolution to tackle the climate emergency by shifting to renewable energy, investing in rail and electric cars; and providing additional spending on international climate finance.
Labour also promised construction of 150,000 public housing units within five years, at a cost of £75 billion; an immediate 5 percent pay raise for government workers, with above-inflation increases in following years; a minimum wage increase to £10 an hour; and partial nationalization of British Telecom to provide free broadband for everyone. The party proposed to fund its increases in part by increasing deficit spending, in part by increasing inheritance taxes, taxing private school fees, and by introducing a tax on second homes, as well as by radically increasing deficit spending.
All of these proposals certainly underscored Labour’s claim that “our manifesto is the most radical … plan in modern times.” As Corbyn wrote in his introduction to the manifesto: “Some people say this is the Brexit election. But it’s also the climate election, the investment election, the NHS election, the living standards election, the education election, the poverty election, the fair taxes election. Above all, it’s the change election.” It was change that the majority of the electorate was not prepared to swallow.
It is noteworthy that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted her support for Corbyn just before Britain’s election day. Corbyn was espousing an agenda that in many respects parallels her own Green New Deal. That alone should give Democrats pause. As they flail about for a candidate to face off against President Trump, they should recognize that Corbyn’s crushing defeat had as much, if not more, to do with policies that are akin to those of the Democratic Party’s far left than it did with Brexit.
If Democrats are to have any hope of beating Trump, they had better find a candidate who resembles Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair far more than Jeremy Corbyn — not only in terms of personality, but equally if not more importantly, in terms of the policies and vision that he or she can offer to the American people.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.