Labour’s crushing defeat in the British general election ignited instant debate among Democrats in the US, with 2020 election frontrunner Joe Biden framing it as a warning to the party against moving too far left.
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While the Conservative prime minister, Boris Johnson, is often compared to Donald Trump, some also see parallels between the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a 70-year-old socialist, and left-wing senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, aged 78 and 70 respectively.
Speaking at a campaign fundraiser in San Francisco, Biden, the former vice-president, said: “Look what happens when the Labour party moves so, so far to the left. It comes up with ideas that are not able to be contained within a rational basis quickly.
“You’re also going to see people saying, my God, Boris Johnson, who is kind of a physical and emotional clone of the president, is able to win.”
Others cautioned against over-extrapolation, noting the deep policy and structural differences between US and British politics. Corbyn was wrestling with Brexit’s defining role at the ballot and lingering allegations of antisemitism that helped lead to his party’s massive defeat. Many US commentators pointed out that even Johnson is to the left of most American politicians on issues such as healthcare and the climate crisis.
Waleed Shahid, communications director for the leftist Justice Democrats, wrote on Twitter: “Many of the “radical” policies of Sanders + Warren are already in place in the UK. Boris is basically left of Bernie on health care! I do think leftists (& liberals!) can overestimate tactics like canvassing when there’s a rightwing press hellbent on destroying the opposition.”
But Biden’s view was endorsed by Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, who handpicked Bill Clinton to lead the party’s 1990s revival from the centre ground. “It seems to me that the lesson from Great Britain is if you go off the rails to the left too far, people aren’t going to be willing to have you go back on the track,” he said.
The defeat of Corbyn, particularly in traditional Labour working-class areas, demonstrates that choosing Sanders or Warren to take on Trump in 2020 would be folly, From added.
“I think they represent that danger. Jeremy Corbyn has a lot more despicable characteristics than either of them, but I do think that they represent an ideology that is going to be hard for a lot of American swing voters to accept, and that’s a danger.
“It’s important for the Democrats to make sure that this election is a referendum on President Trump because if it’s a referendum on Trump, he’ll go down, and not allow him or circumstances – like our choice of Democratic candidate – to make it a contest where it’s basically as much of a referendum on the Democratic candidate as it is on Trump.”
From was among several US commentators who drew a distinction between Twitter talk and reality, mimicking a debate playing out in Britain.
“The Twitter world gave a picture that was a lot different from the real political world. That’s a big problem in our case. Rank-and-file Democrats are a lot less liberal, a lot more worried about things like political correctness. I gather that a lot of young people in the Labour party thought they were going to really do well because of what they read on Twitter. It turns out that everybody who votes doesn’t fly on Twitter.”
Another centrist Democratic contender, former congressman John Delaney, described Johnson’s victory as a “wake-up call” for the party.
“Johnson proved that mainstream voters will not embrace an extreme economic plan that will cause upheaval, just because they are not fans of the conservative leader,” he said.
A struggle between the moderate and progressive wings of the party is well under way in the Democratic primary. The latter took away very different lessons from overnight events in Britain.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a grassroots organization that has endorsed Warren, said: “The biggest lesson from the UK is that when running against someone with a brash personality like Trump, we need someone confident in their worldview to fight strength with strength.”
“Elizabeth Warren confidently led the field on impeachment and popular ideas like a wealth tax to fund other popular ideas like universal childcare and student debt relief. She has clearly made fighting systemic corruption and putting the government on the side of everyday people instead of powerful corporate interests at the centerpiece of her campaign – a theme that resonates with Democrats, independents and Republicans.”
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Glenn Greenwald, a journalist at the Intercept, tweeted: “How come Corbyn’s defeat in Brexit-complicating UK proves the left can’t win in US, but the stunning victory by Argentina’s leftist Fernandez/Kirchner ticket doesn’t show undiluted leftism is necessary to win? Maybe people are manipulating inapplicable results for their own ends?”
He added: “If you’re going to exploit foreign election outcomes to try to bolster your own ideological preferences in the US, try not to be so glaringly selective in how you do it. The left is winning in many places; you need to grapple with those victories, too.”
Neil Sroka, spokesman for the progressive group Democracy for America, pointed out that US politicians would probably use the British results to bolster their own argument.
He said: “Number one, everybody overnight becomes a comparative politics expert. Number two, anyone who says that there are direct lessons about what’s going to happen in the 2020 US election based on what happened in 2019 has an agenda that they’re trying to sell you.
“It makes sense that Joe Biden wants to try to make that argument. I don’t think it will be very effective here in the United States writ large. It shouldn’t be convincing to anyone who actually knows anything about electoral politics in the United States and electoral politics in the United Kingdom.”
And Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior adviser to Clinton, observed: “Johnson overwhelmingly won the Commons. Trump cannot win the House back and it is very likely the Democrats will increase their majority and I think very likely the Democrats will pick up Senate seats and possibly win the Senate.
“If Trump hangs on, it will be nothing like a Boris Johnson Tory triumph that we’ve just seen and so the Democratic party is not going to suffer the kind of internal and external collapse that the Labour party has.”