This article first appeared in the Mail on Sunday
“They take our votes for granted and think we were born yesterday.” So said a former Labour voter last month in the North East of England, reflecting on what had become of the party he once regarded as his own. While Labour had once been for “normal working people, who pay for their house, pay for their car,” it was now mostly for “young people and students, and the unemployed” – that or “middle-class radicals,” and “people in London who go on marches to get rid of Brexit.”
Such views, which emerged in the research for Diagnosis of Defeat, my new report on where Labour stands with the voters following its worst defeat since 1935, tell us even more about the party’s predicament than the election result itself. While senior Labour figures and the party’s own official inquiry claim the outcome was all about Brexit, the truth is that their problems go much deeper. While many did vote to get Brexit done, more serious still was the principle that when it came to the referendum result – but not just that – Labour no longer listened to them. The party had become too left-wing, could not be trusted with the money, and seemed to have adopted values far removed from their own sensible, practical outlook on life. Many described Labour’s manifesto, with its wild spending promises and expensive irrelevancies like free broadband, as “pie in the sky.”
It is Labour members, now pondering the choice of leadership candidates, who will decide which direction to take their party. Meanwhile, in America, a similar drama is being played out. Labour’s recent history should serve as a cautionary tale for their allies in the US Democratic Party as they shape up for their battle with Donald Trump in November’s presidential election. The parallels are not exact, but close enough for the Democrats to beware of enacting a transatlantic sequel to the Corbyn story.
First and most obvious is the choice of candidate. Following his victory in this week’s New Hampshire primary, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination is Bernie Sanders, a septuagenarian socialist who has often been compared to his North London comrade. Both spent long careers in politics fighting for unfashionably left-wing causes and, as many saw it, siding with their respective countries’ opponents in matters of foreign policy, before bursting to prominence and winning a devoted following among like-minded (but usually much younger) admirers. Moderates, meanwhile, are reluctant to put people of their ideological ilk at the head of government – and, in the case of 78-year-old Sanders, wonder if he is personally up to the rigours of office.
Second is the question of competence. One of the many complaints about Labour was that they were simply not ready for government, as attested by multiple gaffes from bungling spokespeople, hopeless division, and a policy on the central issue of the day (renegotiate Brexit and hold a second referendum in which they may or may not campaign against the new deal they had just secured) which voters found scarcely credible. The fiasco of last week’s Iowa caucus – with results delayed after an app used to tabulate the votes malfunctioned – may be of a completely different kind, but the effect is the same: if the Democrats can’t run their own candidate selection process properly, voters may ask, how can they run the country? As the President himself tweeted, “The only person that can claim a very big victory in Iowa last night is ‘Trump’.”
Third is the matter of priorities. In Britain, many Leave voters – along with many remainers who wanted to get it done and move on – were exasperated that their Labour MPs voted against Brexit at every turn. They seemed more absorbed with parliamentary games and partisan advantage than acting on their constituents’ wishes. Here the American analogue is the Democrats’ failed impeachment of the President. Even many reluctant Trump voters saw this as part of a “witch hunt” waged against him from day one, just as they did the Mueller investigation, which his opponents hoped would prove that his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election. For three years, Democrats in Washington have often seemed intent on bringing down the man, rather than working on anything that would improve the lives of Americans.
This is closely connected to the question of values. Former Labour voters often told us that their erstwhile party had embraced a politically correct or “woke” culture and seemed to disapprove of people who didn’t share it, or its liberal positions on things like immigration. Here there is a striking comparison with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 description of Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables” which, not at all surprisingly, the voters in question still remember. And as with Trump, so with Brexit: the opponents of both failed to understand why a reasonable person would vote for either, and gave the impression of believing those who had done so to be backward or bigoted.
Finally, there are the promises. Voters in Britain did not believe Labour’s manifesto pledges would ever come to pass – or that if they did, the cost would be much more debt and much higher taxes. Similarly, Americans know that policies like free college and free universal healthcare are not free at all, and they will be the ones to pay. Cautious, moderate voters will not easily be persuaded to vote for a big tax hike, even if it means tolerating four more years of Trumpian antics.
The Democrats can avoid such a fate. They have still to choose their candidate and define their policy programme, and they may yet convince enough Americans that they are on their side and have their interests at heart. But if they choose the same path as Labour and suffer the same fate, they can’t say they didn’t see it coming.