U.S. Democrats Draw Conflicting Lessons from UK Elections

Moderate Candidates Point to Labour’s Defeat as a Cautionary Tale of the Perils of Moving Too Far to the Left

As the dust settles on the UK parliamentary elections, American political analysts are seeking to draw lessons for the tumult ahead in Washington. Rival factions of the Democratic party are pointing to the outcome in Britain to bolster their case in this year’s primary elections, with centrists contending that Corbyn’s defeat should prompt Democrats to adopt a moderate platform while progressives have sought to downplay or resist a move to the right. 


As the Democratic party moves toward holding primary elections in February for selecting its 2020 presidential nominee, moderate candidates have pointed to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s defeat as a cautionary tale of the perils of moving too far to the left. “Boris Johnson is winning in a walk,” Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, told those attending one of his campaign’s fundraisers in San Francisco. “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.” Biden went on to make explicit the dangers awaiting Democrats of a potentially similar outcome in the U.S.: “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.'”

Another veteran of the Obama administration, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, called Corbyn’s defeat “a lesson for all Democrats who are eager to replace Trump.” Emanuel, who served as President Obama’s chief of staff for the first two years of his administration, located the driver of Labour’s defeat in a mixture of indiscipline and ideological excess: “There was no skimping on the progressive agenda and it was the worst performance in two decades. It’s not just economics. You have to have a candidate and a message that’s close to the zeitgeist of the moment — not just a grab bag of giveaways.”

Several American analysts on the left side of the spectrum have similarly attributed Labour’s poor showing to a lack of discipline in messaging. David Leonhardt of the New York Timesargued that Corbyn was defeated by the failings of “intellectual leftism,” which “isn’t a winning message in many places.” In Leonhardt’s assessment, “voters, in Britain and the United States, remain progressive on most economic issues (which explains Johnson’s campaign promises of more government spending), but progressive economic policies aren’t enough. Candidates need a more instinctual way to make frustrated voters hear: I get it, and I’m on your side.


Within the progressive wing of the Democratic party, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign attempted to deflect the fallout onto Bernie Sanders, her main rival to consolidating leadership over the most left flank of the party. Campaign surrogate Murshed Zaheed, a partner at Megaphone Strategies, said, "Corbyn was basically a satellite project for Bernie world. If there is one lesson to be gleaned from the devastating loss across the pond, it's that we need more than just soaring rhetoric backed up by bravado of organizing. … We need to have leaders who have crystal-clear analysis of how to solve problems and leverage power to achieve those solutions. Corbyn never appeared to be a candidate with any sound plans on how to move the U.K. forward.”

Within Sanders’ orbit, the primary response has been to maintain a discrete silence over the election outcome. Some of Sanders’ stalwarts have argued that the Conservative victory should drive Democrats to adopt more progressive policies, rather than less. Congressman Ro Khanna, a Sanders surrogate and campaign co-chair, disputed that Corbyn’s loss should cause voters to question Sanders’ viability, arguing instead that “What the U.K. elections show is that the technology revolution and globalization has led to deindustrialization and stagnation of wages for the working class … The task of the left is to offer an aspirational vision instead — how can we bring new, good paying jobs to people and communities left behind.”