British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party won a landslide victory in the U.K.’s general election Thursday, returning the party to power for yet another term and giving the bombastic leader a clear mandate, for better or worse, to take the country out of the European Union. The unambiguous result handed the Tories 47 new seats, amounting to its biggest electoral victory since the days of Margaret Thatcher winning a third term about 30 years ago. Thursday’s results decimated the Labour Party, particularly in northern strongholds that have for generations been the backbone of the working-class party’s support, leaving Labour with 59 seats fewer than it went into the election with. That means Johnson and the Tories now have a wide majority of 78 seats to work with to enact their agenda, after briefly losing their working majority before the vote as members of the party defected over the rancorous negotiations over Brexit.
The election was a devastating one for the Labour Party and its lefty leader Jeremy Corbyn, who worked to drag the party back to the left following its drift towards the political center under Tony Blair. It was a result the party had not seen the likes of since the 1980s and in the end was the party’s worst showing since 1935. It was a particularly disappointing loss for the recently resurgent left wing of the party that was buoyed by 2017 election results that saw Corbyn lead the party to a 30-seat gain, picking up nearly 10 percentage points of the national vote.
It was a seismic day in the U.K., so there is now an understandable urge among American politicians and observers to glean lessons and transpose them onto the looming contest in the U.S. in 11 months time. This is particularly the case because of how the 2016 Brexit referendum was, in retrospect, an unheeded harbinger of things to come in the U.S., namely the populist rise of Donald Trump.
Before we jump to that conclusion, which is obviously politically self-serving for certain Democrats and members of the Labour Party looking to redirect power their way, it’s important to remember this election was about one thing: Brexit. There seems to be a bizarre collective amnesia in the U.K., even amongst the British press, over what’s happened over the past year to even intimate that this election could be about anything else other than Brexit. Was it lefty Corbynism that was to blame? It certainly did not help, and the Labour leader never managed to widen his appeal beyond his base, but this election was far from a referendum on Corbyn or his general ideas for the country. This election was a referendum on Brexit. The U.K. has had three general election in four years, and one just two years ago, so this election wasn’t due—it was called because of the legislative impasse on Brexit. Are there other challenges facing the country? Yes. Are they serious and urgent? Of course. Is that what this election was about? No. It was about Brexit to everyone, everyone except Jeremy Corbyn, that is.
What Corbyn can be blamed for is that he ran a campaign on every issue but Brexit. As the opposition leader, he never really rallied forcefully around the cause of remaining in the E.U. because, in fact, throughout his career, before finding himself at the helm of the party, he was deeply skeptical about the European project. During the six-week-long campaign, the parties’ tag lines alone showed a fundamentally different understanding of what the election was about. Labour: Change, etc. and For the Many, Not the Few. Tory: Get Brexit Done.
Running a campaign based on everything but the very issue that has consumed the country for years set the party up for defeat, pure and simple. Even Labour’s “Final Say on Brexit” position wasn’t really a position at all. “Within three months of coming to power, a Labour government will secure a sensible deal,” its policy states. “And within six months, we will put that deal to a public vote alongside the option to remain. A Labour government will implement whatever the people decide.” That doesn’t exactly sound like leadership. In a country weary of wading back into the morass, the Labour position looked a lot like starting over again. The British people have heard a lot about deals, and what constitutes a good one versus a bad one, but the electorate, despite nearly half of it supporting the U.K.’s continued membership in the E.U., had shifted.
Corbyn never offered a coherent alternative to the Leave vision, no matter how ill-informed and duplicitous much of the Leave effort was and continues to be. Johnson made it a point of emphasis during the campaign to ask, simply, does Jeremy Corbyn want to remain or leave the EU at this point? Corbyn’s position to “leave it to the people” felt like just that: positioning. It was effectively a nonanswer. If he was triangulating on the yes-or-no question of a generation, who’s sticking around to hear his plans for anything else?
To be fair to Corbyn, the Labour leader was dealt an incredibly difficult, if not innately losing, hand strategically when it came to the politics of Brexit. He had to straddle the reality that much of his party had voted to remain but that a significant percentage now wanted to move on, not relitigate. For the most ardent of both those positions—Remain vs. Leave or just move on—there were parties there running on either option, the Liberal Democrats as the party of hardcore Remainers and the Tories as the party of not just of the Brexiteers, but increasingly the choice of voters who just wanted to be done with the theatrics of this, merely stage one of the Brexit process. That left the Labour Party somewhere in between, in no man’s land on an era-defining issue. That’s a tough place to be and a losing proposition from a leadership standpoint, no matter which party you are in whatever country you’re running in.
What does all that mean for 2020? There are a couple of ways to read it when it comes to Democratic politics over the coming year. One way is to make sure you’re where the voters are on the big issues, which seems obvious enough but it’s something Labour somehow failed to do. That is the case Democratic centrists will make: that the party needs to needs to optimize its vote-getting potential. The other is that you need to offer a vision, articulate it, and persuade the American people on it, not just at the end, but throughout, something Labour also came up short on. What is clear abundantly from Labour’s loss under Jeremy Corbyn is that you can’t do both.