It’s been said that it’s good to learn from your own mistakes but it’s better—and much safer—to learn from the mistakes of others. So, American progressives, it’s time for the Dutch Uncle talk. Last week, the U.K. held an election and the Labour party ran on the most progressive platform in living memory. Not coincidentally, Labour also suffered the most crushing defeat in living memory. To understand how awful this performance was—and what it means for the Democratic party in the United States—requires a bit of background in U.K. politics.
For the last four years, Conservatives have been a byword for incompetence and infighting—and if there’s one thing the British public dislikes, it’s incompetence. The Conservative party has careened from one disaster to the next, including blowing what should have been an easy election victory in 2017 and having their Brexit deal rejected by the biggest margin in modern parliamentary history.
While the Conservatives’ current leader, Boris Johnson, is no Donald Trump, he’s bad enough. Johnson is famous for many things, including barely being on speaking terms with the truth and having a colorful personal life. Much to the amusement of U.K. voters, he’s notorious for being either unwilling or unable to say how many children he has. Labour could have had an easy victory.
But that’s not what happened. Not only did Labour lose last week’s election, they turned in their worst performance since 1935. Labour activists on the left were quick to offer excuses for all this—none of them, oddly enough, having anything to do with the policies they ran on.
The first excuse was that this election was really all about Brexit. But that doesn’t really add up. Recent polls suggest that a majority of voters now favor remaining in the European Union. Leaving the EU with no deal—something Boris Johnson has pushed for—is even less popular. Labour’s somewhat complicated Brexit position wasn’t very exciting but that was the point. It was an acceptable fudge for most voters.
Another excuse offered by activists is that Labour lost because Jeremy Corbyn is “uniquely unpopular.” In terms of his personality, this is nonsense. Corbyn is about as inoffensive as they come. Nor does he have the checkered personal past that Boris Johnson has.
But the worst thing about this argument is that it infantilizes voters. According to this theory, British voters were offered a choice between a socialist paradise and the grinding horror of Conservative rule but they voted Conservative because they thought Jeremy Corbyn was a meanie. This is Obama’s complaint about the working class clinging to guns and religion on steroids.
Voters in the U.K. knew exactly what they were doing. Corbyn’s unpopularity didn’t stem from his personality, it stemmed from his policies and attitudes. Given the disarray in the Conservative party, Labour’s hard left reasoned that Labour could run on a platform of remaking both the economy and society, including things like forcing companies to give board seats (and stock) to workers, free college tuition, taxes designed to soak the rich, and a Green New Deal. They offered slogans like “It’s time for real change” and “For the many, not for the few.” Is any of this sounding familiar yet?
But, as it turned out, U.K. voters didn’t want a revolution, and the Conservatives, despite their incompetence, were the lesser of two evils. As one member of parliament put it, “People just didn’t trust the economics, the confetti of promises that was thrown at the public without any clear and honest way they were going to be paid for.” Again, is this ringing any bells?
Had Labour simply offered to restore sanity and competence to government, they quite likely would have won. They certainly would have done far better than they did. Now what’s left of the Labour party can look forward to five years of irrelevance as Boris Johnson leads a Conservative government with the largest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s two landslide victories.
Even taking into account the differences between the people and politics of the United Kingdom and the United States, the lesson for American progressives is both manifest and chilling. In the face of chaos and incompetence, voters want a return to sanity and responsible government, not revolution. If Democrats make the 2020 election about who can return a sense of stability and decency to American political life, they’ll have an easy victory. If they make the 2020 election about which party is slightly less frightening, they may very well lose. One of Elizabeth Warren’s slogans is “Dream big, fight hard.” But come November 2020, there will be a thin line between progressives’ big dreams and the nightmare of four more years of Donald Trump.
Progressives need to concentrate on one job: beating Donald Trump. That is hugely consequential, much more so than adopting Medicare for All or instituting a wealth tax. Progressives’ big projects can wait for a few years, but four more years of Donald Trump will do untold damage to our democratic institutions. So forget “Dream big, fight hard.” In the immortal words of Al Davis, “Just win, baby.”