Bloom Briefing 22: UK Elections and a Renascent Left

Hello and welcome to the 22nd edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. This week, the focus is on the British parliamentary elections and the American right’s reaction to them. Not interested in the UK elections? There are links to other good writing on different subjects down below. As always, feel free to drop me a line.

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UK Elections – What Happened

The United Kingdom went to the voting booth this week. Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called early elections to try and achieve a greater mandate, i.e., a larger majority in the House of Commons. The decision to call snap elections backfired spectacularly. The Tories lost enough seats that they are now forced to try and form a minority government with Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.

In the end the Tories lost “only” 12 seats, but they had been expected to gain something close to 100 seats a few weeks ago. The turnaround was shocking, both because of how unexpected it was, and because of how good the result was for Labour. Collectively, the two major parties took their highest vote share since 1970.

Fascinatingly, despite the ongoing narrative about the rise of right-wing nationalism, the preponderance of votes that switched from other smaller parties to Labour or Tory votes was from UKIP, the nationalist party, which saw its vote share drop from 12.6% to 2%. UKIP often gets labeled as a far-right party, and it is. Nigel Farage built UKIP’s appeal around a basic xenophobia (get the immigrants out) and rejection of Europe (it was UKIP which most wanted the referendum on EU membership last year).

Yet the votes that went for UKIP in the last election didn’t all go to the Tories in this election. In constituency after constituency, as the returns came in, the precipitous drop-off in UKIP support was often falling as much (and sometimes more) to Labour as to the Conservatives.

British Elections – Interpreting the Results in an American Context:

Most Americans would be surprised if even 20% of Trump’s support switched to Democrats in the 2020 election. I would be too. Our politics are more tribal and more binary than UK politics, but the behavior of UKIP voters in this election does signal something about some selection of voters – that they may be more anti-establishment than far-right. Their anti-establishment votes are up for grabs.

In this country these are the Sanders supporters who decided to vote for Trump either because he would bring about the necessary crisis in American democracy faster or simply to stick a finger in the eye of the current establishment. There aren’t a lot of these voters – the vast majority Sanders supporters voted for Clinton – but there are some.

Jamelle Bouie made an interesting point on Twitter this week about this pattern in American voting.

“During times of economic distress, there are voters who will back liberal economic policies despite racial liberalism. They need help, and if alliance with blacks/immigrants/etc. is the only way to get it, they’ll sign up versus the Republican appeals. But these voters would prefer otherwise, and in good economic times, they may reject Democrats on the basis of that racial liberalism.

What Trump did was offer a third way of sorts: ‘I’ll give you jobs and help, and I’ll do it while sticking it to brown and black people. I’ll make no pretense of equality, I’ll make sure you get help, and not them.’ It’s actually a very old strategy. The reason we haven’t really seen it since the 1960s is the ideological realignment of the parties.

Since the 60s, racial liberalism and economic liberalism have been in the same party, racial conservatism and economic conservatism likewise. But economic liberalism and racial conservatism have always been a potent combination in a society like ours, and Trump stumbled onto that.”

These are voters we might broadly consider to be “anti-establishment.” They disdain the “political correctness” of the “mainstream media.” They feel left behind in rural America, and they’re not wedded to voting for one party or the other. They’re willing to vote out of anger against the people they blame (immigrants, people of color, the urban elite) or out of economic self-interest. Trump gave them the impression that a vote for him was a vote for both.

The British election was an interesting statement about what happens when these voters are left without a Trump-like figure. Theresa May ran as an establishment conservative. Voters who had voted for economic populism and ethno-nationalism only two years ago split between voting for economic populism (Labour) or the closest thing available to ethno-nationalism (Tory).

American Center-Right Screams “Socialist” at Rise of Corbyn’s Labour Party

What remains of the American center-right has seemingly lost its mind at the depth of support for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Even before the votes had been cast, Ross Douthat published a column that called Corbyn radical and anti-Semitic and accused him of “fellow-traveling” with terrorists. Later this week Bret Stephens called a Labour vote a “reckless” one in the same vein as voting for Donald Trump.

When Douthat accuses Corbyn of “fellow-traveling” with the IRA and anti-Semitism, these are charges serious enough to make me take notice. So I did. I followed the internal links in Douthat’s column and read the supporting evidence for why Corbyn was pro-IRA or anti-Semitic. The evidence for such outrageous claims is rather underwhelming.

In the 1980s and early 90s, Corbyn is accused of offering too much political support to members of the IRA. Among the charges against him is that he petitioned Margaret Thatcher for better prison conditions for a convicted terrorist serving 11 life sentences and invited “two prominent Sinn Fein/IRA personalities to Parliament” (no support provided). Sinn Fein, by the way, won seats in Parliament in these elections, and their unionist equivalent, the DUP, is the party with which the Tories want to form a coalition government.

The charges of anti-Semitism stem, it seems, from Corbyn’s willingness to support certain Palestinian figures on specific issues despite inflammatory remarks and hateful rhetoric about Jews and Israel. Among Corbyn’s more absurd “provocations” is having “taken tea on the parliamentary terrace” with a man convicted (in Israel) of hate speech against Jews.

The most obvious American parallel for these criticisms of Corbyn strikes me as the critiques of Obama’s connections to Jeremiah Wright. Both sets of criticisms (closeness to the IRA; support for anti-Semitic Palestians) involve no statements made by Corbyn himself nor any policy made by or supported by Corbyn. Similarly, the criticism of Obama was that he attended church where Reverend Wright preached.

Both Obama and Corbyn have denounced the radicalism with which these critiques associate them. When pressured about his anti-Semitism, here is what Corbyn had to say: “Holocaust denial is vile and wrong. The Holocaust was the most vile part of our history. The Jewish people killed by the Nazi Holocaust were the people who suffered the most in the 20th century.”

What is most interesting about this entire episode is how eager and willing Douthat and Stephens are to perpetuate outrageous and difficult-to-justify claims against Corbyn. They attempt to put him in the same camp as Donald Trump in terms of his threat to liberal democracy. Consider Stephens: “He has done much to shove the Labour Party to the nasty left, as Donald Trump has shoved the Republican Party to the ugly right.” Your false equivalence alarm should be ringing at high volume.

Stephens’ real concern is less shrouded than Douthat’s, though at the core they are the same. Stephens uses the phrase “watered-down Marxism” to refer to Corbyn’s ideology (though there is no more explicit reference to anything in Labour’s platform that is exceptionally radical or Marxist). He also ambiguously uses the line, “populists, bigots, radicals, xenophobes, and useful idiots” in a way that seems to apply to Corbyn, though which of these particular epithets he would attach to him is unclear.

American conservatives (even the NeverTrump center-right conservatives) want to portray Corbyn as some kind of radical left-wing revolutionary. He’s a Marxist! He’s friends with Hamas! He supports the IRA! He’s an anti-Semite! These are old and tired critiques of the left. The fact that at their core, all of these critiques of Corbyn are simply aspersions about abstract ideology, completely untethered from any practical consequences or policy platforms should give us pause.

Their real fear is not the decline of liberal democracy but a renascent left. While Douthat and Stephens both couch their fear in terms of the threat to liberal democracy, they’ve made no assertions whatsoever about how liberal democracy would come under threat from Corbyn. They just assert that he’s a radical and that radicals are threats to liberal democracy.

Since the 1990s, the major left-of-center parties in the UK and US drifted towards the center. What Bill Clinton did for Democrats, Tony Blair did for Labour, collectively bringing the two parties towards a technocratic, heavily free-market, center-left.

Corbyn (like Sanders) has motivated the younger generation by advocating for farther left (read: old left) policies. In the US, this means a return to FDR and the New Deal and LBJ and the Great Society. In the UK, this means a return to a more redistributive left of old. At a time when the right is floundering to a point bordering on the irredeemable in the US, what could be more terrifying for center-right conservatives than the renaissance of a left grounded in economic redistribution? Their fear is understandable, but that doesn’t excuse their baseless attacks.

The American Left Should Be Paying Attention

This is what Sanders would have had to be prepared to deal with had he won the nomination. There would have been no support from the conservative intelligentsia for a Sanders presidency. They would have labeled him a radical revolutionary. But for those of us among the leftward-drifting American left, these critiques of Corbyn are useful, for they prefigure the critiques that will inevitably come if a farther left figure wins the 2020 Democratic nomination.

It also behooves us to remember that Corbyn is still in the minority. Imagine how much more intense these criticisms would be if he had become Prime Minister.



Additional Reading:

Writing for the New York Times, Richard Reeves dissects class-based political ideologies in the UK and the US.

The opioid epidemic continues nearly unabated. The New York Times published new data on the severity. Margaret Talbot put a human face on the story with her in-depth New Yorker article.

If you feel there wasn’t enough Trump in this week’s briefing, I suggest Jesse Berney’s piece in Rolling Stone. It’s a good argument for why Trump should resign.

In the New Yorker, Nicholas Schmidle has written a profile of James Comey. It’s quite fascinating and good, in this polarized political moment, for not being hagiographic.

On the subject of Republicans’ questioning of Comey during his testimony to the Senate Intelligence committee this week, in the Washington Post, Christine Emba wrote about the eerie parallels to the questioning of victims of sexual assault. Cait Bladt made the same argument in humorous, though somewhat cringe-inducing satirical form at McSweeney’s. If you read one thing this week, make it this last piece by Bladt.