Simon Tisdall, a foreign affairs commentator for the Guardian, last week wrote that the results of the UK’s general election can be attributed to the Labour Party’s move to a supposedly “radical,” “revolutionary,” socialist left (“How will Labour’s meltdown change tactics of the US and European left?” Dec. 19, page 9).
US Senator Bernie Sanders, the ideologically adjacent Democratic candidate, and his campaign could therefore meet the same fate, and the wider political left across Europe should read the writing on the wall.
Yet Tisdall’s view from the liberal center-left appears to be obstructed by two seemingly invisible elephants in the room: Brexit and Portugal.
This year’s UK general election was the “Brexit election.” It was brought about because the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) voted with the Conservatives to call a Dec. 12 election, before British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s withdrawal deal had passed through parliament and before the latest Brexit deadline of Jan. 31.
While the Conservative Party only gained an extra 1 percent of the total vote, the Labour Party lost 60 seats, most of them in the Midlands and the north, in constituencies that voted heavily in favor of leaving the EU. It lost these seats because it changed its position on Brexit to support a second referendum.
The party changed its successful 2017 position after enormous pressure from the liberal center-left in the party and media to do so.
Labour tried to win leavers and remainers by offering them what they both wanted. The contradiction was too powerful and the offer fell between stools as the other parties feasted on Labour’s marginal seats, especially those it had taken for granted and then ignored under former Labour leaders Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Milliband.
The UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system tends toward a two-party system and often produces brutally disproportionate results.
The Liberal Democrats knew this better than any, yet still ran a campaign of deliberate disinformation aimed largely at Labour constituencies. The party for whom remaining in the EU was its signature policy campaigned to ensure the only party capable of delivering that outcome would not win the election.
The pro-remain SNP capitalized, too, a task made easier by Labour’s support for a “soft Brexit” and its failure to appeal north of the border since 2010.
The Brexit Party, a limited company that is not a registered political party, performed its proxy role of dividing the leave vote to ensure Johnson “got Brexit done.”
This election for Labour, especially how it was conducted in media such as the Guardian, was akin to fighting a hydra. Labour’s failure to correctly assess the scale and determination of its opposition cost it the election.
Labour lost for a number of reasons. Where the content of its manifesto was welcomed by a public tired of being punished for the failure of banks, the quantity was indigestible.
Casually promising to spend an extra ￡58 billion (US$75.2 billion) on Women Against State Pension Inequality pensions outside of the official costings wasted all the hard work of compiling them.
Half of the parliamentary Labour Party continuing their 2015 feud against the leadership and actively briefing against them to media up until election day constituted deliberate wrecking.
Failing to fight back against bias in the media, which a Loughborough University study found was overwhelmingly negative against Labour for the entire six weeks of the election campaign, made the leader and party look weak.
Ultimately, it was not socialism that lost the election, it was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s principled, but naively democratic and consensual leadership. It was because of strategic errors, such as not stamping his control on the party, not clearing out the Blairite fifth column via open selection, and not forcefully rebutting the political weaponization of charges of anti-Semitism leveled at him and the party.
Labour lost this year’s election first in 2017, when Corbyn did not step down for John McDonnell, and it lost a second time when it changed its position on Brexit.
The problem for Labour was not its ideological position; it was its delivery and the deliverer. It was its failure to combat opposition campaigns of disinformation, smears, character assassination and lies.
It was its failure to offer a simple manifesto for Brexit Britain. It was its failure to read a nation tired of voting and uncertainty, and disillusioned with democracy.
In the final analysis, it was old-fashioned political strategic incompetence. Labour fought the campaign it wanted to, not the one it needed to.
“Finding an unabashedly socialist party that enjoys sole power is a big ask in Europe these days,” Tisdall wrote.
He mentioned Italy, France, Germany, Poland and Hungary, all of which have seen Liberal center-left social democratic parties’ voter bases fade away as the far-right enjoys a resurgence.
For some reason he did not mention Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s Socialist Party, which won a majority of seats in October, gaining 22 seats since 2015.
Their slogan? “Better Portugal.”
Costa ran in 2015 on an anti-austerity platform and won power in a minority government after forming the geringonca agreement with the anti-capitalist left and greens.
Had the parliamentary Labour Party united behind Corbyn in 2016 rather than unsuccessfully trying to oust him, Labour could well have entered power in a coalition with the SNP in 2017, and be halfway through its first term now.
It is hard for any socialist party to win when a center-right social democratic cohort within it is doing everything in its power to ensure that it does not win, because it has deemed it too socialist.
Centrist neo-liberal social democratic parties have lost a lot of support across Europe since the 2008 financial crisis, because they internalized and participated in imposing “austerity,” hitting their voters the hardest.
The right keeps winning not because the left is not “working-class” enough, or other euphemisms for racism, but because sense and sensibility centrism constantly punches left to accommodate the right, creating a vacuum the right fills with a violent nationalism.
For centrists in establishment circles the answer to “where have our votes gone?” is most often “we should move to the right.”
Indeed, Tisdall wrote of “the palpable fear in Democrat circles” that the party could forfeit a historic opportunity “by offering radical reform, rather than simply a safe, mainstream replacement for [US President Donald] Trump.”
That is exactly why former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton was chosen and why the Democrats then lost, on low voter turnout.
We see many of the same dynamics in the US right now, including the attempt to smear Sanders as an anti-Semite, demonizing his supporters, failing to provide coverage and smoothing over or absenting his opponents’ mistakes and unpopularity.
In polls before the first 10 Democratic primaries, former US vice president Joe Biden was ahead by varying margins in five of them, Sanders was ahead in two and tied one, and US Senator Elizabeth Warren was ahead in the ninth and 10th.
Biden has a reported national rating of about 30 percent support, while Sanders has 25 percent. Warren falls third on 12 percent, with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg four points behind her.
Tisdall’s caricature of Warren as “left wing” is belied by her Republican origins and her inability to support a simple national single-payer healthcare system, while a core reason Biden is being promoted by the Democratic National Committee is because a big part of that institution believes only an old, white, racist man can beat an old, white, racist man — hence the widely reproduced suggestion that Warren is too weak to win over “white, working-class voters.”
Senior politicians, journalists and commentators projecting what they hope is the case over what might actually be the case is how they ended up surprised by the Trump, Brexit and Johnson results.
The lesson for Sanders and other genuinely left leaders is not that their ideological content is unappealing.
It is that overcooking it, then messing up the delivery, loses elections.
It is that internal subversion cannot be allowed to fester.
It is that a rose by any other name will not succeed if it is not actively led from the top, as well as organically supported from the bottom.
It is that not winning “the right way” does not matter when you do not win at all.
It is that candidates should not overestimate the power of digital campaigning and underestimate the need for connecting with voices on the ground in simple locally meaningful ways.
It is that a strategy for building positive candidate recognition with “low-information” voters is perhaps still more important than one for “high-information” audiences.
It is the need for flexibility to fight the campaign that evolves around you — to put the ball firmly in the opposition’s court.
In the US, it is possible that the impeachment of Trump will be his “Brexit” wedge, used to counteraccuse the Democrats of being undemocratic.
The Democrats need a leader who can speak forcefully, unapologetically and sound like the people they are asking for votes from.
They need someone who when necessary can scowl not sneer, and someone who does not mistake a hostile media for a respectable and trustworthy neutral arbiter — someone who can speak through or around the filters if necessary.
They need someone who offers a simple, but substantive message.
By those criteria, at this moment, Sanders is the closest to a winning candidate Democrats have.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident of Taiwan.
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