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Boris Johnson’s Right-Wing Populism Prevails in UK Election

Does Labour’s defeat say anything about the viability of the radical economic messages of Sanders and Warren?

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses supporters in Hoxton on December 11, 2019, in London, United Kingdom. Following his party’s loss in the U.K. election, Corbyn announced he will soon be resigning as Labour Party leader.

Sometimes election nights contain great drama; other times, the exit polls, released the moment the polls close, shut down all argument.

Thursday’s election in the U.K. was among the latter. When the voting places closed at 10 p.m., the exit polls released immediately predicted a huge Conservative majority and a catastrophic breakdown of the Labour Party’s support in its traditional northern England citadels.

What does this mean? Firstly, much as with Trump in 2016, Boris Johnson’s brand of right-wing populism has won a huge victory, reshaping the political landscape of Britain and giving Johnson and his Brexit crowd a free hand to pull Britain out of the EU. In fact, Johnson has won a far more total victory than did Trump; for while Trump’s win was a fluke of the Electoral College, allowing a candidate who lost the popular vote to win the presidency, Johnson’s Conservatives have massively outperformed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. And they did so by building an election manifesto largely around the slogan “Get Brexit Done,” promising to end the 40-month Brexit drama and then move on to deliver a set of ambitious public investments and restructuring of the immigration system. In his brief victory speech, Johnson talked about “One nation” conservativism and about “unleashing the potential of the entire people of this country.”

As I write this late on Thursday night, with two-thirds of all the 650 parliamentary seats declared, it looks like the Conservatives will have a majority of roughly 40 seats — and the Labour Party could well end up with fewer seats even than it did in the dog-days of the mid-1980s at the height of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s power.

There is now no doubt that the U.K. will leave the European Union in the coming months, an event that will have decades-long, and I believe shattering, consequences for Britain’s place in the world; and that will turbocharge pro-independence sentiments in Scotland, whose populace is overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the EU.

Indeed, the Scottish National Party won at least a dozen seats from the Conservatives and Labour on Thursday, and, in one of the most stunning results of the night, defeated the Liberal Democrats’ party leader, Jo Swinson. All of this has solidified the Scottish National Party’s status as an utterly dominant political force in Scotland. That could well, over the next several years, result in the eventual dissolution of the United Kingdom itself, as the Nationals campaign both for independence from the U.K. and also renewed membership for Scotland in the EU.

Yet, in the weeks leading up to the election, and in the immediate wake of it, some analysts have pushed the idea that in the long run a large Johnson win might, paradoxically, soften Brexit. For it will give him the freedom to negotiate a post-Brexit relationship with Europe on his own terms rather than leaving himself entirely beholden to a handful of hyper-hardline Brexiteers in parliament. That might offer some comfort, however cold, in a generally dismal election night. After all, Johnson has always been extraordinarily opportunistic on the issue, deciding only once the campaigning for the Brexit referendum was underway as to which side he would support. Unlike Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party, he’s not an ideological hard-Brexiteer.

Meanwhile, Labour Party spokespeople are spinning the notion that the whole thing was about Brexit, and that the ongoing chaos around that fissure-inducing issue crowded out their candidates’ ability to talk about bread-and-butter issues with voters in Leave constituencies. There’s an element of truth to that — no doubt, this election was clearly first and foremost about Brexit and whether or not to stay in the EU. Labour attempted to fudge the issue by arguing for a second referendum without saying whether or not it would come out in support of staying in the EU. The strategy didn’t work. In Leave areas in northern England, in particular, huge numbers of Labour voters shifted their loyalties to the Conservatives; but in parts of pro-Remain London, by contrast, there were huge shifts from the Conservatives, not to Labour but to the Liberal Democrats, the most unabashedly pro-Remain of the major parties.

But all of that notwithstanding, polls don’t support the idea that Labour’s defeat was solely about its failure to connect with many of its voters on the Brexit issue. Of course, on one level it was an overwhelmingly Brexit-dominated election. After all, it’s been the dominant theme of British politics since 2016. But for months now, Jeremy Corbyn’s political leadership has also been front center-stage, with only about one in four voters actually having a favorable opinion of him. Not a single poll during the campaign showed that more British voters trusted Corbyn as a leader over Johnson. And now that leadership — as well as the swing leftward the Labour Party’s manifesto embodied — has been utterly, devastatingly rejected by its core working-class voters in northern England.

The Conservatives will, quite possibly, have turned more seats from one election to the next than at any point since the 1930s. And they will have done so not because they scored a particularly high percentage vote — indeed, there have been many elections in the past century in which they took a far larger share of the vote without winning so many seats — but because the Labour vote imploded. The Conservative vote only went up marginally compared to the last election, in 2017; but the Labour Party’s share of the vote declined by perhaps as much as 8 percent nationally, and by far more than that in many previously Labour parts of the north.

In some ways, that loss of working-class voters in northern England mirrored the migration of white working-class voters in parts of the U.S. to Trump in 2016, largely around issues of trade, of immigration, and of rapid cultural and demographic shifts. And that is a hugely bitter pill to swallow, since many of the proposals in the Labour Party’s manifesto, around green investments, housing, transport, the cost of education, investments in the National Health Service and others, were politically fascinating and individually also commanded the support of large numbers of voters. But the rub was that while large numbers of people seem to have supported particular parts of the Manifesto, they didn’t actually buy the entire political package.

It will, of course, take weeks of analysis and sifting of poll data to come to conclusions, but right now, at least, it looks like the radicalism of the overall message, as well as the leadership style of Corbyn himself, scared off a critical mass of voters. Indeed, a large YouGov poll in the run-up to the election found that only 20 percent of those polled felt Labour’s overall policy commitments were well thought through. People simply didn’t trust that Labour could find ways to fund its hugely ambitious and redistributive economic and social policies.

Corbyn — as he acknowledged in his 3:30 in the morning speech, after winning re-election in his own constituency — will soon be resigning as party leader. When he does, there will be an almighty civil war within the Labour Party. For years, Labour’s parliamentarians have by and large detested Corbyn. He won his leadership position as a result of a grassroots mobilization among party members, largely built by a subgroup within the party known as Momentum. Now the parliamentary figures who always opposed both Corbyn as a leader and many of the policies he and Momentum were pushing, will fight tooth and nail to reclaim their power over the party. And the Momentum movement, having secured power over a major political party these past five years, will fight just as hard to preserve its position. It will, surely, get extremely ugly as the blame games get underway.

All of this will, of course, also have enormous follow-through impacts in the United States as well. Trump’s election in 2016 followed the Brexit referendum in the U.K. Inevitably, pundits will look for analogies this time around too. Does Johnson’s powerful showing indicate the peculiar durability of right-wing populism in the Anglo-American political universe? Does voters’ dislike of Corbyn and suspicion toward at least some of his more radical economic proposals say anything about the viability of the radical economic messages of Sanders and Warren on the other side of the Atlantic?

It’s too soon to tell exactly how these questions will play out. And there are certainly as many differences between the situations in the U.K. and the U.S. as there are similarities, not least the fact that Johnson is at least rhetorically capable of talking about governing in a unifying way — a messaging trick that seems entirely beyond Donald Trump. But it’s a near certainty that over the coming weeks and months political campaigns and parties in the U.S. will be poring over the U.K.’s election data to try to learn as much as possible heading into the 2020 caucus, primaries and then general election season.

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