In 2015, having lost a disastrous election with Edward Miliband as its leader, the UK Labour Party was in total disarray and held a leadership election. To the surprise of everyone, the contest saw an aging backbench radical named Jeremy Corbyn win by a landslide over more polished and media savvy frontrunners Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, and Liz Kendall.
But on Thursday, Corbyn’s reign could reach its summit with the latest snap general election triggered by a hung parliament and the failure to resolve Brexit under Conservative prime ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
While nothing can be ruled out until the votes are counted, at the moment Corbyn looks to be guiding Labour to a tremendous defeat, one that could raise chatter about the viability of a far-left candidate here in the United States.
The response to Corbyn’s rise from the contrarian lone wolf who voted against his party habitually to his stint as the actual leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition has been polarizing, to say the least.
Corbyn’s policies have been consistent since his youth: He is against social spending cuts and privatization of government services, while calling for taxing the rich and supporting strong unions in the public and private sectors. On defense and foreign policy he has been vociferously anti-war, anti-Israel, and for nuclear disarmament—leading many American observers to look at him as the British version of Senator Bernie Sanders.
Robert Borosage argued in The Nation that Corbyn and Sanders effectively are the left-wing fun house mirror images of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher or Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
And while Corbyn’s detractors are many, he also has attracted a loyal following among young voters leading to a rousing ovation at the 2017 Glastonbury music festival before tens of thousands of revelers. Prior to that year’s snap election called by May only weeks earlier, Corbyn had campaigned hard and turned what looked like a sure disaster into a gain of 30 seats.
What Borosage and his fellow Corbynistas and Berniecrats forget, however, is that while Reagan and Thatcher were elected in elections in 1980 and 1979 respectively, they did have robust left-wing opponents during their reelection efforts, and the results were not pretty for the Left.
In 1984 the Democrats nominated Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, two dyed-in-the-wool, union-supporting, pro-choice liberals, while Labour was led by the elderly socialist Michael Foote (who, by the way, physically resembles Sanders) in the 1983 election. Foote’s campaign cost Labour 60 seats and his platform was called “the longest suicide note in history.”
The next year Reagan won an astonishing victory sweeping 49 states (minus only the District of Columbia and Mondale’s home state of Minnesota) and the largest Electoral College victory since 1936.
What Today’s Vote Will Bring
The reason is not complicated: Boris Johnson has continued to club Corbyn over the head for vacillating on his Brexit stance, including not answering on whether he would support the eventual Brexit deal that his Labour government would put before the referendum that EU Remain activists call the “People’s Vote.
In the past, Corbyn was a staunch Eurosceptic who opposed the UK’s entry into the Eurozone. But, in the leader debates when Johnson posed the question, Corbyn refused to say whether he personally would campaign for his own negotiated agreement, or would favor scrapping Brexit altogether and staying in the EU.
This has infuriated the Labour working-class voters in northern towns that are the traditional firewall of the party, and it’s reflected in the polling.
The most lucrative swing voters are Conservatives who voted Remain in the 2016 EU Referendum and Labour voters who chose Leave. In a November poll by the Lord Ashcroft agency the slide was already evident: while 89 percent of Conservative Remainers were sticking with the Tories on their preference for a government, a whopping 54 percent of Labour Leave voters preferred the Conservatives. Similarly, 44 percent of Labour Leave voters personally supported Johnson versus just 23 percent for Corbyn.
When asked what would be worse, leaving the EU or Corbyn as prime minister, 70 percent of Conservative Remainers said Corbyn, 58 percent of Labour Leave voters, and even 22 percent of Liberal Democrat voters (who are the most anti-Brexit group of all). The clear message is that while Johnson’s decisive stance in favour of Brexit has united Leavers behind him, Corbyn’s fence sitting has kept Remainers suspicious of his motives. A September poll conducted by Politico.eu also prior to the calling of the general election confirmed that voters saw Corbyn becoming prime minister as a worse alternative to “No-Deal Brexit.”
From Division to More Divisions
Rather than deliver a coherent Brexit message that would alienate the deeply divided Labour electorate, Corbyn has focused on other issues and taken hits on those as well:
- Nationalizing rail, telecom, and other utilities, causing widespread anxiety for private sector workers in those industries.
- Promising to abide by the PLP’s position on renewal and replacement of the Trident nuclear submarine program and new nuclear power, which has led to grumblings from Corbyn’s staunchest supporters.
- Responding to the December 1 fatal stabbing at London Bridge by maintaining that convicted terrorists, like the attacker, should not “necessarily” be prohibited from getting early release before serving their full prison terms.
Much of Corbyn’s time has been spent on defending himself and Labour from charges of anti-Jewish statements and actions from his past and by his supporters. Corbyn has clashed in the past with Britain’s former chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, and was recently also cited as a cause of serious anxiety by British Jews by Sacks’ successor, Rabbi Ephraim Mervis.
Truth be told, while this issue has earned its share of headlines, more voters are swayed on the Brexit issue and the state of the National Health Service than by Corbyn’s relationship with the Jews. However, Jewish voters are likely to dump the party, a drastic change for a community that was evenly split between Tories and Labour in 2010.
An astonishing 93 percent of British Jews now say they will not vote Labour, according to a London Jewish Chronicle survey. The anti-Semitism controversy, as well as the wobbly Corbyn stand on Brexit, have also caused the defections of several Labour MP’s since 2019—from the arch-Remainer Chuku Umuna to Leave stalwart Kate Hoey.
Doom Ahead for Bernie?
What happens in the United States with the Democratic primary, of course, is not directly affected by Thursday’s vote in the UK. But the implications of a Corbyn defeat, if the polls are correct, would not be good for Bernie Sanders or any other far-left Democratic Party candidate.
Sanders was denied a bid in 2016, partly due to the tampering of the Democratic National Committee—including leaking debate questions to the Clinton campaign, chaotic voter registration disqualifications in New York and California, and myriad other issues.
Much of this information was revealed by Wikileaks in June 2016 and it has been a catalyst for some of the “Russian collusion” slanders that the media have peddled ever since against both Sanders and Donald Trump.
At the moment, Sanders is sitting at just 17.3 percent in the national polling aggregate, well behind frontrunner former Vice President Joe Biden (28.7 percent), but in a comfortable second place, with rival Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts sinking (14.8 percent). Sanders stands a good chance of winning in the early Iowa and New Hampshire contests, where he is close to leading candidate, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Peter Buttigieg.
But the one problem that continues to plague Sanders is his viability.
Bloomberg in June, prior to the entry of its owner Michael Bloomberg into the race, published an opinion article arguing that Sanders cannot attract the votes of Democrats. Bernie supporters despise Bloomberg and its “neo-liberal” editorial positions, but they need the buy-in of mainstream Democrats, too. They do not have to believe the reporting of Bloomberg‘s writers, but Sanders’ campaign also cannot afford to drive its readers away.
Incidentally, the latest Harvard/Harris poll included Sanders’ old nemesis Hillary Clinton as an option, even though she has not announced her candidacy. She won the poll. Is this just a way to depress enthusiasm among progressives for a candidate like Sanders, or is the former secretary of state getting ready for another stitch-up of Bernie?
Can Democrats Understand What’s Ahead?
If the UK election results in a resounding triumph for the Tories, and the success of Trump ally Boris Johnson, Democrats surely will blame the radicalism and electoral bomb-throwing of Jeremy Corbyn and his followers. While this would be a gross oversimplification of events, Sanders is vulnerable on one issue in the same way that Corbyn is on Brexit: immigration policy.
In 2015, when asked about accepting foreign refugees en masse in what effectively would be an open borders policy, Sanders responded with contempt, calling it a “Koch Brothers proposal.” Four years later, however, the Bernie 2020 campaign has embraced that proposal in everything but name.
Sanders’ immigration policy would “temporarily halt deportations, decriminalize border crossings and ‘break up’ the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection agencies.” This is directly analogous to what happened to the Brexiteer Corbyn, who by 2018 became a supporter of “soft Brexit” that included freedom of movement in the EU and membership in the customs union. By 2019, Corbyn announced his support for the Remainers’ sham “People’s Vote.”
His supporters would say that Sanders has evolved in his outlook, but if so he’s ignoring the ramifications of his newfound beliefs.
A 2018 Harvard/Harris poll asked “do you think we should have basically open borders or do you think we need secure borders?” The overall response was 79 percent to 21 percent against open borders. Even women between the ages of 18-34, the most pro-immigration group, supported secure borders with a 68 percent majority, as did Hispanics (81 percent), African Americans (74 percent), and self-identified Democrats (68 percent).
Is this an outlier? American public opinion on immigration skews depending on how questions are phrased, but any poll concerning related issues shows opposition to open borders when phrased specifically regarding benefits or economic effects:
- A May 2019 poll from CBS News showed that respondents thought immigration admission should be based on education, skills, and work experience (i.e., “contributory merit”) rather than on whether the applicant has family members in the United States by a 48 percent to 40 percent margin.
- During the first Democratic debate all of the candidates on the stage raised their hands in favor of the proposal when asked by MSNBC debate moderator Savannah Guthrie. CNN asked respondents in a poll “do you think health insurance coverage provided by the government should or should not be available to undocumented immigrants living in the United States?” The answer was 59 percent to 38 percent opposed.
- A July poll from NPR/Marist asked: “Do you think each of the following is a good idea or a bad idea? A national health insurance program available for immigrants who are in the US illegally.” The response was 62 percent-33 percent against. Further, 66 percent opposed decriminalizing illegal border crossings, against 27 percent in favor. The only policy that polled lower in this survey was the $1,000 universal basic income proposal advanced by Andrew Yang.
There are many avenues for Donald Trump to attack Bernie, but none as strong as immigration and border security because it is where Bernie’s position once was in step with the majority.
Sanders also cannot openly call for open borders, because while a substantial part of the Democratic national leadership supports it, much of their traditional base, including union workers and minorities, are abandoning the party over the issue.
To be fair to Sanders, all of the Democratic candidates would be vulnerable on this policy. Even former Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), while insulting Trump voters, has warned that Democrats could lose voters over this issue, even if they “are not crazy about Donald Trump.”
Jack in the Ballot Box
Predictions go wrong and Corbyn could still pull out another St. Jeremy miracle. However, the odds are 4.5 against him becoming prime minister, 7.5 against Labour forming a minority government, 13-1 against a coalition between Labour and the Scottish National Party, 15-1 against Labour winning the most seats, and 26-1 against a Labour majority.
The Tories are favored with 1.33-1 odds to win a majority, the most likely outcome. That would be the end of Corbyn’s career as leader of his party, as he already failed to win in 2017 against Theresa May.
Like Corbyn, this is Sanders’ second whack at the presidency, and he has overcome many doubters and his own health scare to remain a top tier candidate, whereas younger and more media-friendly rivals like Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) have seen their candidacies fall apart. While much of the party has drifted Bernie’s way, no other candidate—whether it is former Bain Capital defender Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey or billionaire investors Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg—can compete in that category for the base of progressive voters that turned the 2016 primary from a Hillary slam dunk into a slug fest for months.
A Labour defeat this week would taint Sanders’ candidacy from a superficial standpoint of appearance. Now his so-called moderate opponents can shout back: “Do you want to win the presidency, or do you want to Corbynize the Democratic Party?”