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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

What We Do When We Lose

On picking up the pieces and continuing the fight.

If you’re going to be on the political left, you have to get used to losing a lot. In Bernie Sanders’ first election, he received 2.2 percent of the vote. The winner got 64.4 percent. In Sanders’ next election, he only got half as much, reaching 1.1 percent. Even when he finally made it to Congress, nearly 20 years later, he spent several more decades as a lonely outsider. But in 2016, he nearly toppled the Democratic Party’s hand-picked presidential nominee, and in 2020 he might actually receive the nomination. It took a long time to get to this point.

The British Labour Party’s recent defeat was deeply upsetting. It means that a sociopathic right-winger will continue to govern the country for years to come. It means that the Labour agenda, which is inspiring and would have fundamentally changed Britain—making college free, kicking off a Green Industrial Revolution, ending austerity, building public services that work, strengthening animal welfare, introducing free public broadband, creating new national parks, saving the NHS from privatization—will not be implemented. Under Conservative governance, Britain has suffered from malaise and hopelessness. When I visited this year for the first time in six years, I was struck by the growth of gambling, the hatefulness of the tabloid newspapers, and the percentage of radio ads I heard that were for various different types of financial and insurance products. Labour was offering a vision of a very different Britain, a place where nature flourishes and people take care of one another and care about the country around them. Now the Tory party will be in power for at least another five years. Magnificent.

We can tell ourselves all kinds of things after a disastrous election. Many of them are true. The British press was absolutely vicious to Jeremy Corbyn, and instead of rallying behind him, many liberals decided to echo ludicrous smears about him being an extremist who hates Jews. The press presentation of Corbyn often felt like the “Two Minutes Hate” from Orwell, and indeed I knew older people in England who absolutely despised Corbyn but couldn’t seem to articulate clear reasons for it. Corbyn had a less focused message than during the impressive 2017 campaign, which increased Labour’s vote share by the largest margin since 1945 (ironically, Corbyn’s previous success had the effect of making last month’s loss look worse than it otherwise would have). Brexit messed everything up: Presiding over a party comprised of both staunch “remain” and staunch “leave” supporters, Corbyn was in an impossible position, couldn’t stake a strong stance, and then ended up supporting a proposal that would drag out the Brexit nightmare even further, just as Britons had reached the limits of their patience with it. There is no reason to believe that Labour’s leftism was the cause of its defeat. Labour’s economic and social policies were overwhelmingly popular, and the only party that was more badly defeated than Labour was the centrist Liberal Democrat party, which was crushed.

Whatever lesson we need to take from the British election, then, it is not that “leftism is bad” and Britain needs a new Tony Blair. (People hate that guy.) Critics of the left, will, of course, try to gloat: They are always attempting to make the “McGovern argument” that if you “run too far to the left” you will lose. That doesn’t fit the facts of the British election: If a leftist Corbyn lost votes in 2019, why did the same leftist increase votes in 2017? But a catastrophic loss allows people to say: Look, voters had a choice. You offered them your left agenda. They rejected it. You said “socialism or barbarism” and they resoundingly chose barbarism. Give it up. They don’t want what you’re selling. Corbyn’s ideas are discredited. You were idiots to think that people would opt for radical leftism. And I am sure some of us feel the self-doubt. When Abdul El-Sayed lost in Michigan, Politico characterized it as a clear electoral rejection of “socialism.” (Even though Abdul wasn’t a socialist.) Abdul has convincingly explained why that’s silly—he was running against an extremely powerful candidate with a lot more money, and it’s impressive that he did as well as he did as an insurgent. But I am sure I am not the only one who has felt the occasional twinge of self-doubt: What if those who say we’re crazy are right? What if the left cannot win? What then? So what if we can “exceed expectations,” like Corbyn did in 2017 and Bernie did in 2016? We need to win. And what if we are just destined to lose?

Before accepting that depressing conclusion, though, it is worth remembering some history. In 1931, the British Labour Party suffered an absolutely catastrophic defeat, far worse than what just happened to Corbyn. The Conservative Party received 470 seats in Parliament. Labour got 52, and even the party leader lost his seat. There was virtually nothing left of the party. Flash forward to 14 years later. Winston Churchill had just led Britain through World War II, and one might have expected him to sail through the 1945 General Election with ease. That did not happen. Instead, despite having just helped the country defeat the Nazis, Churchill lost to Clement Attlee’s openly socialist Labour Party. And when I say “openly socialist,” I mean that Labour’s 1945 election manifesto said the following: 

The Labour Party is a Socialist Party, and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain – free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people.

Toward that end, the manifesto promised public ownership of: the fuel and power industries, iron and steel manufacturing, and all rail, road, air and canal transport. Labour’s socialism was anti-bureaucratic and anti-authoritarian–the manifesto said that “the economic purpose of government must be to spur industry forward and not to choke it with red tape” and on civil liberties it was stirring:

The Labour Party stands for freedom – for freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of the Press. The Labour Party will see to it that we keep and enlarge these freedoms, and that we enjoy again the personal civil liberties we have, of our own free will, sacrificed to win the war. The freedom of the Trade Unions, denied by the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, 1927, must also be restored. 

It made clear, however, that it did not believe in the capitalistic conception of freedom: 

But there are certain so-called freedoms that Labour will not tolerate: freedom to exploit other people; freedom to pay poor wages and to push up prices for selfish profit; freedom to deprive the people of the means of living full, happy, healthy lives.

This is the manifesto that inspired the British people to throw Winston Churchill out of office. Attlee’s government went on to establish the most important and popular social institution in the history of Britain: the National Health Service, which guaranteed free-at-point-of-use health services to every person in the country regardless of their means. The NHS remains beloved in the U.K., despite years of Conservative mismanagement. (Remember that the way right-wingers convince people government doesn’t work is by running government services horribly and starving them of funds and then going “See, it’s a disaster, looks like we need to privatize it.”)

    Things can change, then. It takes a while. But it’s a long fight. If Bernie had told himself, when he received half as many votes in his run for governor as he had when he ran for senator, that a socialist could never break 2 percent of the vote, then he wouldn’t be a serious presidential contender today. It is not helpful to conclude, without decisive evidence, that we “cannot” win. All we know is that we did not.

    In fact, when I look over the British election now, having had a few weeks to reflect, I understand why Labour did not win. Personally I was inspired by the bevy of policies that Corbyn put out. But now, when I look at the ad in which he recites as many of them as possible in 60 seconds, it seems more like undisciplined messaging than amazing ambition. Campaigners on the ground apparently said that the sheer volume of policies, and the failure to make it clear which were the priorities, confused voters and made Labour’s program sound unrealistic. Substantively, the 2019 manifesto was similar to the 2017 one, but it’s true that the campaign was less compelling this time around. Even the titles: “For The Many, Not The Few” (2017) versus “It’s Time For Real Change” (2019) The first one stakes out a clear division between the rich and the rest of us, while the second is vacuous. 

    I like Jeremy Corbyn tremendously and I think nearly every mainstream criticism of him is deeply unfair. My colleague Gautam Bhatia has written movingly about how rare it is to find a principled anti-imperialist in British politics, and how much of the criticism of Corbyn is because he dared to stand up for unpopular causes like Palestinian rights, Irish republicanism, and South African liberation. But I do not think it is harsh or cruel to Corbyn to say that he is not particularly effective as a politician. (In fact, depending on your opinion of politicians, that should be a compliment.) The fate of a principled person in politics is that they will be unwilling to “fight back” against smears, won’t know how to manipulate the press to their advantage, won’t think in terms of “branding” and “messaging,” and won’t use rhetoric. Corbyn strikes me as a thoroughly decent man—watch him in interviews and try to reconcile the person on display there with the caricature and hate figure. But he hasn’t mastered the “game of politics.” He can seem laconic when he should be passionate, opaque when he should be crisp. 

    Corbyn didn’t manage to benefit from what should have been his chief strength, his authenticity. If you watch the ITV debate between Boris Johnson and Corbyn, you’ll see Johnson insisting over and over that Corbyn is being evasive on his Brexit position. In response, Corbyn simply repeats the same talking point: that he will put whatever deal he secures up for a new referendum so that the people can decide. Johnson says that Corbyn is refusing to tell the public whether he will campaign for his own deal. Corbyn avoids a direct answer. By simply falling back on stock phrases, Corbyn makes Johnson look like the more direct and honest one. That’s a shame, because Corbyn could have had a powerful reply. He could have said: 

“Of course I’m not going to campaign one way or the other. This is a people’s vote! It is my job, as the representative of the people, to negotiate the deal, not to tell them whether to accept it! I do the people’s will, not the other way around, and it tells you a lot about Boris Johnson that he thinks this is a point against me, since it shows he doesn’t understand the basics of who is supposed to make the decisions in a democracy. Boris Johnson has always thought he could manipulate the public into leaving the EU. Hence his endless lies about it, from his early days in journalism to the present day. He thinks you’re stupid and should do what he says. I think you are intelligent enough to decide whether you want to take or leave whatever deal I can get on your behalf.” 

That is not what Corbyn did though. He simply repeated his talking point about how a new referendum would be over quickly. It’s a shame, because he looked ineffectual where he should have been strong, and if he had been of a more aggressive, brawling disposition, he could have gotten the upper hand over Johnson, at least in the debate. (In the election might be another matter, since as I say, Corbyn’s position was basically impossible.) 

To the extent that the British election result came about because of Corbyn’s strategic choices and political skills, and a campaign of vilification directed at him personally, it is not quite so discouraging for the Left as a whole. The big question after Labour’s defeat among U.S. leftists was: What does this mean for Bernie Sanders? And I think the answer is: not much. Not just because the U.S. does not have a “Brexit” vote (although Trump will try to portray impeachment as a similar attempt by Elites to overturn the people’s will). But also because Bernie is a very different kind of politician. Corbyn spent many years as an obscure back-bencher before being thrust into the spotlight, and had to learn political leadership after having it thrust upon him all of a sudden. Sanders has spent many years racking up legislative victories and served as a successful mayor. As my colleague Paul Waters-Smith notes, Sanders is actually a formidable organizer who has demonstrated a strong command of messaging and tactics.

But there are lessons we need to heed. We can’t just write off the British election as irrelevant and ignore it. It does show that a strong economically left agenda does not “sell itself.” It might be popular, but unless a party leader can present it to people effectively, even if they like the individual policies they might not vote for the party. We also see a warning about the power of media: Corbyn faced a relentless barrage of anti-Semitism accusations, and had to expend valuable time and energy trying to deal with them. That particular charge would be a little more difficult to make against the man running to be the first Jewish president (though they’ll probably try it nonetheless). But there will be a media onslaught: Expect to hear about Sandinistas, the USSR, the PLO, and whatever else they can throw at Bernie. You can’t rely on liberals—look how Tony Blair tried to destroy Corbyn rather than help him, just as Obama hates Bernie Sanders. We need to be ready, and there has to be a very clear message that can win. Bernie’s message right now is at risk of being muddy like Corbyn’s was: In part to compete with Elizabeth Warren, he now has a “plan for everything,” and the Sanders plan might sound to some voters like the Labour manifesto, with too many giant promises and too little focus on a few key priorities. Sanders also needs to take note that you cannot win with young people alone: If it had been up to young people, Corbyn would be prime minister, and they would surely make Bernie president, too. But the elderly vote, and there needs to be an appeal that can reach them. 

Bernie needs to get the nomination, but if he gets it, he has to win the general election. Worse than him losing the nomination would be getting the nomination and losing the general. Centrists would spend years blaming the loss on “leftism gone too far,” even if the data showed that their preferred candidates would have done even worse. This is what is going to happen in Britain now, and it is going to make it very difficult to take the next steps of building a viable left.

What are those next steps? I don’t claim to be able to advise the British left, which is in a very difficult position, but if the American left loses the 2020 election, we’ll probably have to focus on building institutions outside the government, slowly rebuilding the labor movement and taking over local offices. It will be very, very tough, and I do not envy those in Britain who must now figure out how on earth to take next steps politically with half a decade more of Conservative austerity government on its way.

When we lose, though, the best thing we can do is to remember just how many people have lost before, and how they picked themselves up and kept fighting. The 1931 Labour defeat was horrendous. Less than 20 years later, Labour would transform the entire country. When I watched Abdul El-Sayed lose in Michigan, I was devastated. So many incredible people had put so much effort into that campaign, and it had all come to nothing. The best candidate lost. But I also knew that Abdul will be back sooner or later, that he’s not going anywhere and someday he will win. 2020 is going to bring a presidential election that will either be crushingly disappointing or will give the left more power than it has ever had in this country. I hope that this time next year, Bernie Sanders is the president elect. I am going to do what I can to make that happen. But if he is not, the fight cannot end. Our energy must be redoubled, and we must press on. 

Fun Fact: I am a follower of a Facebook page for memes about postwar British Labour prime minister Clement Attlee. I highly recommend it.

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