In the weeks leading up to the Conservative Party’s triumph in the British elections earlier this month, there were just enough glimmers of hope to let Labour partisans nurture what, deep down, they probably knew were unrealistic dreams of an upset—anecdotes about surging voter registration, talk of armies of canvassers, a bit of movement in the polls. In the end, that only made the final results more stunning. Boris Johnson will lead a commanding majority in Parliament with a mandate, as his campaign slogan went, to “get Brexit done.”
The vote tallies had barely been announced when pundits began churning out dire warnings about what this meant for Democrats in the United States: See what happens when you move too far left? In the Atlantic, Yascha Mounk gravely suggested that if Democrats “position themselves outside of America’s cultural mainstream, they may suffer the same dismal fate as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.” In New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan admonished them to “ignore the woke.” The New York Times rushed out an article about the “ominous signs” centrist politicians like Joe Biden and Rahm Emanuel saw in Labour’s defeat. Roger Cohen, also in the New York Times, published a column titled “Boris Johnson and the Coming Trump Victory in 2020.” His colleague Bret Stephens seemed to agree, concluding that to oppose Trump with “progressive primal screams is to ensure his re-election.”
Not much of this was serious analysis. It’s true that Donald Trump could win again in November, especially in the absence of an economic downturn. But the direct comparisons between U.S. politics and what happened in Great Britain strain credulity. Most of all, Jeremy Corbyn was a deeply unpopular candidate, quite apart from his politics. His approval rating going into the election was forty points underwater. While some of this surely was due to an onslaught of negative press, including charges of anti-Semitism, it’s also true that Corbyn could seem evasive in his answers about Brexit, allowing his position to be tagged as “dither and delay”—during his final debate with Johnson, he refused to say whether he would campaign for or against the deal he promised he would negotiate with Brussels and put to a second referendum. Bernie Sanders, often compared to Corbyn, is viewed quite differently. As Eric Levitz pointed out, he’s “more than 15 times as popular as his British comrade.”
There’s little evidence that Labour’s leftwing agenda should be blamed for their loss. One exit poll found that only 12 percent of respondents cited the party’s economic policies as the reason they didn’t vote for Labour, while 43 percent said it was because of the party’s leadership. Polling on the Labour platform was summarized this way by the Independent: “The public are absolutely not scared of government intervention and quite like Labour's socialist platform. These policies individually range from quite popular to ridiculously popular.” Proposals to raise taxes on the rich and nationalize railways and water companies, for example, garnered broad support. Whatever else this means, it certainly doesn’t prove that Democrats should tack to the center instead of embracing a wealth tax, Medicare for All, or the Green New Deal.