When the exit polls for Britain’s general election dropped after polling stations closed Thursday, it was immediately apparent that the day would be an absolute rout for the Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn. And when the vote tallies trickled in, the polls were right: the Conservative Party picked up 66 seats, giving them a large House of Commons majority, while Labour lost 42 seats.
Immediately, U.S. commentators began making comparisons with their own forthcoming 2020 elections. At surface level, because Corbyn was a leader with radical, far-left politics running against an incumbent prime minister, Boris Johnson, often unfavorably likened to President Donald Trump, people began to link Corbyn with Democratic candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
“One lesson from the U.K.: if the Democrats don’t stop their hard-left slide, they’ll suffer the same fate as Labour,” wrote a pundit and an immigrant from the United Kingdom (he became an American citizen in 2016), Andrew Sullivan. “If they don’t move off their support for mass immigration, they’re toast. Ditto the wokeness. Left Twitter is not reality.”
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But this comparison — and the many others like it from American prognosticators with little grounding in the intricacies of British politics — is based on faulty assumptions. There are actually enormous differences between Corbyn and the left-wing candidates in the Democratic Party that make such a conclusion both intellectually lazy and dishonest to draw.
First of all, Corbyn is a true radical within the British left in ways that Sanders and Warren are assuredly not within the broad Democratic mainstream. Whatever you think of the proposals, some of Corbyn’s policies — as laid out in his manifesto — were almost jaw-droppingly radical, and included both a four-day working week and nationalizing all of Britain’s prestigious boarding and day schools that cater to the nation’s wealthy. (In the U.K., we confusingly refer to elementary and secondary schools that charge tuition as “public schools,” whereas in America they are known as “private schools.”)
By contrast, what Sanders and Warren are suggesting — including public health care, minimum wage increases, free tuition at government-funded universities, etc. — are all broadly popular among Democrats and would fit relatively comfortably in the British center-left (and, indeed, the center-left of most developed countries like Canada).
On top of that, Corbyn had some personal flaws as a leaderthat make him more comparable with Donald Trump — if anyone — than Sanders or Warren. He was stubborn and surly, defensive under questioning and he would often strike out rhetorically against the media — which encouraged his followers to do the same. He also had his own rabid media cheerleaders in publications that are the U.K.-left equivalent of Breitbart or The Daily Caller in terms of both influence and journalistic quality.
Even more troubling was his apparent inability to deal with the scandal of anti-Semitism within his party as it was going on, suppressing internal complaints and brushing off pressure from the press on the matter as “media bias” instead of addressing the problem squarely and fairly. It is difficult to imagine either Sanders or Warren dealing with an issue like that with as little grace.
On top of all that, the U.K. election was uniquely twisted by the issue of Brexit. The Conservatives under Boris Johnson had a clear line on the matter — “Get Brexit Done” — and however dumb that may be (Brexit is going to mean years and years of complex and frustrating negotiations no matter what slogan Johnson barked at voters), it was a simple message that resounded with an electorate sick and tired of the issue after more than three years of public chaos.
Corbyn and Labour, on the other hand, had no such simple message. Placed in the impossible position of desperately trying to hold on in constituencies that voted to leave the E.U. in 2016 while also appealing the constituencies that voted solidly to remain, Labour fudged its message so badly that few voters could even tell what that was.
They could have taken a courageous stand one way or the other — actually oppose Johnson on the issue, even if it might mean alienating some small minority of their voters — but Corbyn and Labour chose to try to have it both ways, and the strategy backfired.
There is nothing equivalent to Brexit in American politics; polling suggests most Democrats are united on the party’s key issues. Ultimately, the U.K. election wasn’t a resounding rejection of the left, its policies or even its stance on Brexit; it was a resounding rejection of Jeremy Corbyn, personally. He had a 21 percent favorability rating in November; the latest polls in the U.S. have Warren at 41 percent, Sanders at 42 percent and Trump himself at 45 percent.
Thus, Corbyn’s loss bears few real lessons for the Democratic Party (other than that American pundits will find any reason to claim that they know best). It was a character failure, pure and simple; the right moment and the wrong leader.
Nicky Woolf launched the New Statesman America, a sister publication to the U.K.’s “New Statesman” magazine. He is a former reporter for the Guardian US.