LONDON — The votes were still being counted at polling stations across the UK when Joe Biden warned Democrats about the implications of Boris Johnson’s unexpectedly emphatic election victory.
It wasn’t so much about the UK prime minister winning an election that makes Brexit all but inevitable — the Conservative Party now has a majority of 80, the largest since the time of Margaret Thatcher — but the way in which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party lost it.
“Look what happens when the Labour Party moves so, so far to the left,” former vice president Biden said at a fundraiser in California. “It comes up with ideas that are not able to be contained within a rational basis quickly.”
There have been four UK elections this decade, and Labour has lost them all — but this is its worst election result since 1935, as blue-collar voters in Northern England deserted the party. Lost seats included Sedgefield, which has voted for Labour since World War II, and was held between 1983 and 2007 by former prime minister Tony Blair. (Blair is the only person to lead Labour to victory in a general election in the last 43 years.)
Corbyn, whose leadership has been inundated with accusations of failing to tackle anti-Semitism within the party, has said he will not lead Labour into another election, but the party realistically faces another 10 years, or two election cycles, in the wilderness of opposition, regardless of who succeeds him.
He has taken Labour markedly to the left since he became leader in 2015, and the party’s election manifesto was proudly radical, promising to transform the UK with a green revolution, renationalize rail and energy services, and provide free university education and broadband.
The parallels with the Democratic presidential primaries are readily apparent, but trying to understand what made rock-solid Labour seats like Bassetlaw and North West Durham go from Labour red to Tory blue, and then extrapolating what that means for the US, is trickier.
Even in light of a huge defeat, Corbyn has insisted that Labour’s election policies had been popular, and that it was Brexit that was ultimately responsible for the overall result. Since the 2016 referendum, Labour has struggled to articulate a coherent position on the issue, as it tried to satisfy both the supporters who voted Leave in the north of England and Wales, and the overwhelmingly pro-Remain Labour voters in cities like London and Manchester.
In fact, the issue could be much simpler: Labour lost because voters didn’t like who was offering the policies. Despite overseeing a surge in Labour membership and being feted by many first-time young voters, Corbyn will go down as a historically unpopular Labour leader.
Time and time again, Labour candidates and activists reported that the problem on the doorstep with voters was Corbyn himself and the rest of the Labour leadership — that is just not an issue for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders in the same way, however much the policies that they support correlate with a Labour platform.
On the flip side, some seemingly unconnected political narratives can make a difference: Look at the way in which Donald Trump drew energy from the UK’s surprise vote of 52% to 48% in 2016 to leave the EU.
“They will soon be calling me MR BREXIT,” Trump tweeted in August 2016, despite not really seeming to know what it meant a few months before then.
A populist leader with improbable hair and a history of making racist and sexist comments, Johnson is often compared with Trump. (In his remarks on the UK election results Thursday, Biden described the victorious Johnson as a “kind of physical and emotional clone of the president.”)
Trump congratulated Johnson on his victory, saying that it would pave the way for a new US–UK trade deal, but his claim that the deal could be more lucrative than a future UK–EU trading agreement is fanciful: UK trade with EU countries dwarfs trade with the US many times over.
When Trump visited the UK in July 2018, he said Johnson would make a great prime minister, despite Theresa May still being in office. May, Trump told a tabloid journalist, was wrecking the chance of Brexit ever happening, and that of a US–UK trade deal too.
In contrast to Labour’s sprawling offer of radical ideas, the central campaign message of Johnson’s Tories was a simple refrain, repeated endlessly, emblazoned on everything from aprons to bulldozers: Get Brexit done.
It’s there that candidates and pundits in the US should be looking when trying to cherry-pick a moral of the story from the UK election. When the Trump 2020 campaign machine slides into full gear, it won’t be the Democrats’ policies, no matter how far left, that will resonate the hardest with the voters Trump hopes to drive out in his support again. It will be the crisp, newly manufactured, red “Keep America Great” hats, offering a simple solution for a world that seems increasingly baffling.