The focus of most American commentary on the results of the general election held in the UK last Thursday is likely to be on the potential instability of Theresa May’s now much weakened Conservative Government, and on any impact that instability will have on the UK’s divorce negotiations with the European Union. Much ink is likely to be spent exploring the depth of the damage that the vote did to the political standing of the woman who called it, and to the longer-term ramifications of a minority government now holding onto power only via a working alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party. Come to think of it, it will not only be in the U.S., but in the UK too, that much journalistic ink will also be spent explaining to a hitherto largely ignorant electorate what exactly the DUP is, and what its MPs stand for. Since what they stand for includes climate-denial, opposition to same-sex marriage, and a robust rejection of abortion, the more the British electorate discover about the views of this tiny Ulster-based party, the less likely they are to enjoy their new information.
But the other side of the Tory failure to increase its majority in Parliament last Thursday was the success of the Labour Party – its capacity, under its most radical leadership for at least a generation, to confound its critics, increase its vote, and add 30 seats to its parliamentary tally. Going into the election, all the political chatter in the UK was on how a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn would likely be all but obliterated; so that conservative commentators, both there and here, are left struggling now with why that obliteration did not occur. The New York Times’ Bret Stephens still insists that Corbyn “has done as much to shove the Labour Party to the nasty left as Donald Trump has shoved the Republican Party to the ugly right;” and the more moderate Richard Reeves at Brookings seems to find comfort in the thought that “there is a good chance that this is Corbyn’s high-water mark.” But with Labour actually leading the Conservatives by 6 percentage points in the first major post-election opinion poll, we now need to get our head around the possibility that on the contrary, and as Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal said in Chicago this weekend, “Corbyn’s achievement was part of a global trend towards recognizing that progressive politics are the answer to a lot of the inequality, and a lot of the issues that young people and working families across the globe are facing.”
If that is right, and I am sure that it is, then there are important lessons to be gleaned here for American progressives coping with the world of Donald J. Trump. These four in particular:
· First, that there is a coherent and credible progressive alternative to the austerity politics advocated by U.S. and UK conservatives, one that is ready available and waiting. That alternative is not difficult to find, and it is definitely not nasty. There is nothing nasty about a Labour Party program offering free childcare for all two-year-olds and 12 months maternity leaves for their mothers. There is nothing nasty about committing to the building of 100,000 new starter homes, more funding for the NHS, the abolition of university/college fees, and the provision of maintenance grants for the students going to those universities. There is nothing nasty about higher rates of income tax on the top 5 percent of income earners, and nothing particularly nasty or even radical in advocating what many progressives in the United States also advocate. These include taxation on financial speculation, help for small businesses, the strengthening of trade union and worker-rights, greater infrastructure spending, and a new state-funded national investment bank to help start-up companies and alleviate regional disparities in economic development. You can find many similar proposals in the “Better Off Budget” proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. This is not nasty politics. It is simply sound, sensible, progressive common sense.
· Second, that this progressive common sense is not difficult to sell. Jeremy Corbyn’s modesty, his faith in people and movements, and his unwillingness to tack to every short-term political wind, was supposed to be his greatest weakness; but it didn’t turn out that way. On the contrary, as John Harris put it in The Guardian, “Corbyn shows there’s a new way of doing politics. Straight talking is back.” And it is back, and selling well electorally – “Jeremy Corbyn didn’t win, but he has rewritten all the rules,” as Jonathan Freeland put it – because out there, in the cities, towns and villages of the UK, there are literally thousands of good people hungry for an honest politics and for a fair society. Anyone lucky enough to be in Washington DC as part of the Women’s March on January 21, protesting the Trump presidency and program, knows well enough that there are legions of equivalent people here in the United States as well. In the wake of the UK election, what is now crystal clear is that center-left politicians will not consolidate support among such wonderful people by tacking to the right. If American and British voters want conservative policies, there are plenty of Republicans and Tories to whom they can give their electoral support. What progressive parties have to service are the armies of American and British voters who don’t want conservative policies, and who find austerity programs to be both profoundly unfair and socially divisive. The Corbyn-led party’s pulling of so many former UKIP voters back into the Labour ranks points to this more general truth: design policies that meet people’s needs while promising to reform the institutions that have previously failed to meet those needs, and the route to power is open again.
· The third thing that the increased vote for the Corbyn-led Labour Party reminds us here in the United States is that the future is on our side. The uniquely British part of this general election was the collapse of the UKIP vote – the going back to the main parties of the bulk of the 4 million people who had voted in 2015 for the United Kingdom Independence Party (the one keenest to leave the European Union). Theresa May called this snap election, thinking she could pull all those people back to the Conservative Party now that the Brexit vote was safe for them, but she was wrong. At least two-thirds of all the young voters in this election – those under 25 – voted Labour; and indeed, came out to vote in huge numbers, often angry with themselves for not having done so in the Brexit referendum of a year ago. What Labour took last Thursday was a majority slice of young professionals, and of college/university educated folk – the bulk of whom wanted the UK to remain in the EU. What the Conservatives took was a majority slice of an aging white working class, and of young workers without further/higher education qualifications – all of whom wanted to leave the EU. As election follows election in the UK, the demographics work in the center-left’s favor – just as they do in the United States – as the young replace the old, and as the education level rises. Which is why in both places, it is the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyns of this world who are now sitting astride the gateway to our collective future: galvanizing the young, harnessing the single-issue focused movements, and challenging centrist Democrats and Laborites to move out of the way.
· Finally, this. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party confounded its critics not just because it tapped into the youthful energy of first-time voters who were mad at Brexit. It also tapped into a new electorate because it spoke directly to both their immediate and their long-term needs. As international economic organizations as august as the IMF and OECED have been quietly conceding of late, there is no austerity route to long-term prosperity for all. The route to that prosperity requires greater equality, not greater inequality. It requires the full mobilization of existing skills – not least the skills of increasingly well-educated women – and so needs policies in place that make it easier to combine parenting with full-time employment. And it needs an open and welcoming civic culture, one prepared to harness and share the capacities and aspirations of people from all kinds of different backgrounds, ethnic groupings, religious affiliations and sexual orientations. It needs an end, that is, to nasty politics; and the only really nasty politics currently on show in the UK lie with the DUP and UKIP, and in the U.S. with the alt-right and their ultra-conservative Republican allies. Donald Trump is a huge own goal for the American Right. Brexit (and the calling of this snap general election) is proving similarly disastrous for the British Conservative Party. Buyers’ remorse is growing on both sides of the Atlantic, as conservative politicians, through their own ineptitude, do all they can to give parties of the center-left a route back to power again. It is a route that we now need to take.
Currently, therefore, the biggest problems on the center-left are not those of inadequate programs or poor-quality leaders. There are plenty of fine progressive politicians active in both countries, and there an emerging consensus amongst them about the kinds of policies that can both win them power and take the rest of us to a better, fairer and more prosperous place. All that is entirely to the good. The biggest problems now facing the Center-Left are effectively in-house: the continued presence within the U.S. Democratic Party and the UK Labour Party of both divisions and lack of confidence. Both parties are broad churches, with strong centrist elements in/around leadership roles in each – and there are moments when it sometimes feels as though, for a certain kind of centrist, defeating their own progressive wing is more important than is defeating the party across the aisle. The speed with which certain UK centrists reached out to the media in the wake of the election results – to emphasize over and again that Corbyn did not win, and that they could have won if only they were leading the party – speaks volumes about the depth of division still afflicting the Anglo-American Center-Left. Let us hope that the confidence that U.S. progressives acquired as the Sanders campaign flourished, and that now Corbyn supporters inside the Labour Party suddenly possess, continues to expand. This is no time for progressives to moderate their ambitions. Rather, it is time for centrist Democrats and Blairite Labour MPs to leave leadership to others. For the biggest lesson of all, from the election in the UK last Thursday, is that to the brave go the spoils. It is time, therefore, to continue to be brave.
First posted, with full academic citations, at www.davidcoates.net
The arguments developed here are explored further in David Coates (editor), Reflections on the Future of the Left, to be published in September in the UK by Agenda Publishing and in the U.S. in November by Columbia University Press.