Argument

Democrats: Don’t Screw Up Like Britain’s Labour Party Did

Radical leftism may provide a political high, but it won’t bring victory—and the withdrawal symptoms could last decades.

Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn rally outside Parliament on June 27, 2016 in London.
Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn rally outside Parliament on June 27, 2016 in London. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The U.S. Democratic Party is flirting with radical leftism. Be warned; there is no return.

There is no way to merely experiment with radicalism. It will tear apart the Democratic Party and open the door for yet another ugly Republican insurgency. Believe me, I know.

I spent 15 years of my life dedicated to the British Labour Party, before that party decided to experiment with radical leftist policies and in the process destroyed arguably the greatest social-democratic party in the Western world.

The Labour Party is now a shadow of its former self. On Thursday, it achieved its worst general election result in more than 80 years. Labour lost seat after seat in its political heartlands where the Conservative party had never in its history won.

Looking across the Atlantic to current debates among Democrats, committed British social democrats hear the same siren sounds that led Labour to annihilation

Former coal mining towns (Blyth Valley, Bolsover), former steel towns (Redcar), and towns in the old industrial heartland of England (Wakefield, Scunthorpe) which were ruined by Thatcherism in the 1980s all for the first time in recent history rejected the Labour Party and gave Prime Minister Boris Johnson a crystal-clear mandate for a hard Brexit.

Looking across the Atlantic to the current debates in the Democratic Party, committed British social democrats hear the same siren sounds that have led Labour to annihilation: the obsession with identity politics over communitarian patriotism, shopping lists of policies that signal fiscal incontinence, and the siren sounds of political extremism (anti-imperialism, conspiratorialism and anti-Semitism).

The Democrats have time to stop the intellectual rot and achieve two things: marginalize the extremes and listen to the people. If they don’t, progressive politics in both the United States and the United Kingdom will be dead for a generation.


I write as someone who has gone on a political journey, from an ardent, arguably naive, supporter of former Prime Minister Tony Blair—and the new wave of Third Way politics that linked the Labour Party under Blair and the Democrats of former U.S. President Bill Clinton—to disillusionment with the failure of progressive politics to tackle the gross inequalities and disorder created by globalization.

I too wanted a decisive shift left; now I regret it. Turning Labour leftward has not realigned the party, it has capsized it. Signals that Labour had become a safe space for more radical ideas began under former leader Ed Miliband, but the damage truly began when a number of normally sensible Labour members of Parliament agreed to nominate left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as a candidate for party leader. Most of those MPs did not think Corbyn could win given his extreme views, but wanted Corbyn on the ballot to show the breadth of views represented in the party.

Since Corbyn took over as leader in 2015, the Labour Party has attracted both a new wave of younger members, who (on the whole) have enriched and renewed the party, and an older contingent of members who were mostly on the wrong side of the Cold War.

The younger millennial members have led to total Labour dominance among voters 30 years old and younger—potentially sowing the seeds for revival in the late 2020s. Yet alongside young people came the worst of the disenchanted left, including former members of the British Communist Party (which was for years an unapologetically Stalinist political movement), anti-Semites, genocide deniers, and apologists for the regimes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Members who wanted to open the party up to a U.S.-style primary system for electing the leadership, myself included, instead got a very British muddle in which MPs first select the candidates who can run, then anyone who pays a token £3 ($4) membership fee can vote in the election for leader. Unlike a U.S. primary, in which any registered Democrat can vote, the 500,000 members and supporters of the Labour Party were representative of the left of British politics, but not the public as a whole.

Corbyn was the signal for the worst elements of the British left to join Labour. This wave of new hard-left members coincided with a sharp rise in cases of anti-Semitism and bullying. Labour’s own figures show there were 673 complaints of anti-Semitism against the party and its members within a 10-month period, and party conferences saw the dark spectacle of a female Jewish Labour MP requiring police protection.

The situation is so grim that Labour is now one of only two British political parties to be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for racism; the other is the far-right British National Party.

The situation is so grim that the Labour Party is now one of only two British political parties to be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (a government body) for racism; the other is the far-right nationalist British National Party. The Jewish Labour Movement’s submission to the EHRC reveals the depths to which Labour sank into a quagmire of anti-Jewish racism.

Worse still, the resurgent hard left took on Labour’s so-called soft left in the same way that European communists viewed social democrats rather than fascists as their enemies in the early 1930s. Rather than work together, the new party’s members on the hard left began to deselect sitting Labour MPs for not being loyal enough to Corbyn.

Internal party struggles happened at the same time Labour was facing a renewed and disciplined Tory party. Local parties have even begun the process of formally disaffiliating trade unions and other socialist societies, breaking the link between working people and the party that is supposed to represent them.

It’s not surprising. Corbyn’s career was essentially built with the motto of Alexander Kerensky—one of the social democrats behind the Russian Revolution—of “no enemies to the left” in mind. It is his persistent failure to recognize enemies on the left, and his personal admiration for some of their ideas, that has led to the hard-left takeover of Labour.

The same mental rot now threatens the Democrats. The doctrine of “no enemies to the left” leads to endorsing political ideas and politicians from outside one’s intellectual tradition. The result is electoral defeat.

The rot really starts when anti-establishment, populist, anti-war sympathies cross over into sympathy with the devil. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard may be the least likely candidate for president to enter the huge 2020 field, but she is a Democrat formerly embraced by Rachel Maddow and Nancy Pelosi. She is also unfit to hold any office for the Democratic Party.

When a party is willing to entertain a candidate whose tweets celebrate Putin’s murderous intervention in Syria, breaks with the party’s political line by meeting Assad in person, only to parrot Syrian government talking points, including casting doubt on CNN about his regime’s use of chemical weapons, then the party is in deep trouble. Labour’s failure to expel Chris Williamson, an MP with a track record of offending the Jewish community and hanging out with Assad apologists, until the last possible moment did untold damage to the party.

The case of Gabbard is perfect evidence that the Democrats are beginning to adopt the mantra of “no enemies to my left.” Despite Gabbard’s hobnobbing with Syria’s murderous ruler, a number of prominent organizations backed her in the 2018 midterms, including the AFL-CIO and Our Revolution, a political action organization (in many ways similar to the Corbynite group Momentum)—founded by activists from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign to elect so-called progressive candidates on a Democratic ticket. My Democrat friends: Gabbard’s presence on the debate stage and on the Democratic ticket in 2018 is not making the party look electable to ordinary voters.

More fundamentally, the electorally suicidal strategy of “no enemies to my left” means that a party opens the door to the hard left, who consistently fail to welcome progress from moderate leaders such as Blair and former U.S. President Barack Obama. The hard left sees positivism as its enemy, which leads to an overemphasis on vision and an underappreciation of delivery. Obama put his finger on it when he recently said: “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”

In the period before Corbyn, the hard left outside Labour repeated their mantra that there was no difference between a Blair government and a Conservative one, and it stuck. If you’re a fan of big government, Labour under Blair increased public spending from 38.2 percent to 40.9 percent between 1997 and 2007—and his successor, Gordon Brown, raised public spending more than any other British government in peacetime between 2007 and 2010 (from 41 percent of gross domestic product to 47.7 percent). But the slander stuck. It’s now almost impossible within Labour to make the case for the most successful and redistributive Labour government in British history.

“No enemies to my left” extends to lazy thinking on economics. The United States, like Britain, has only embraced high marginal tax rates for short periods of time. Often these high marginal rates of tax were tempered by high deductions (in both Britain and the United States, top tax rates peaked at over 90 percent on the very richest earners, but did allow taxpayers to deduct mortgage interest, and sales taxes were near zero).

Federal taxes as a percentage of GDP in the United States have fluctuated between 15 and 20 percent for most of the period since World War II; in the U.K., the figure for total government taxes as a percentage of GDP has remained consistent around 35 percent (give or take a few percentage points) for 40 years.

What U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal means in practice is that U.S. public spending could rise by $2.5 trillion per year—an increase of more than 50 percent. Her much-debated 70 percent marginal tax rate, which would raise just $700 billion annually in taxes, is merely the canary in the coal mine; total taxes as a share of GDP would have to increase dramatically. These fanciful ideas aren’t from a marginal politician; they come from the woman who has quickly become the most famous congresswoman in the United States. Ocasio-Cortez is the face of the modern Democratic Party.

Just three years after Trump won on a low-tax platform, Ocasio-Cortez is pledging one of the biggest tax increases in U.S. history. She may well be the future of Democratic Party politics, but the party doesn’t have the voters of the future yet.

In the meantime, it is wishful thinking of the highest order, and the type of fundamental realignment of the U.S. economy that could see Middle America embrace Trump wholesale. Corbyn’s Labour only proposed increasing the top rate of tax to 50 percent (far short of the 70 percent proposed by Ocasio-Cortez), yet in focus group after focus group, concerns by ordinary people over fiscal laxity loomed large. The last Democratic presidential candidate who backed ambitious tax raises so openly was Walter Mondale in 1984, who lost every single Electoral College vote apart from those in his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

And this is where the Democrats have hard choices. Bernie Sanders is not Jeremy Corbyn; he has not invited terrorists to Congress for afternoon tea, and he is a Jew who rejects any form of anti-Semitism. Sanders is, by European standards, a moderate social democrat. Yet he risks repeating the same mistakes the Labour Party just made.

A recent Buzzfeed article, “You Don’t Know Bernie,” detailed Sanders’s efforts to highlight poverty in the United States today with emotive first-person stories—the same strategy Labour deployed with viral video after viral video (here retweeted by Ocasio-Cortez) with stories highlighting poverty and the threat to Britain’s National Health Service. A single vox-pop video on health care costs in the United States and the risks of privatization garnered more than 40 million video views (in a country of 66 million people), leading to Labour enjoying a significant lead on social media, according to monitoring platform Pulsar.

Yet most Americans are not poor. Nearly 1 in 6 Americans is very wealthy indeed, with assets over $800,000. Yes, Middle America, like Middle England, is squeezed. But focusing on poverty has its limits in societies with broad middle and upper-middle classes. And while it may be the right thing to do, Sanders supporters have to ask themselves the tough question—is my candidate doing everything he can to win over Democrats who became Trump supporters in 2016? As in the U.K.’s election, relying on nonvoters or young and first-time voters to come to your rescue rather than persuading people who actually vote regularly and reliably is a risk indeed.


Just over a decade ago, in 2007, the British columnist and Foreign Policy contributor Nick Cohen wrote What’s Left?, a book that mercilessly attacked Labour politicians’ inability to speak truth to elements of the unreconstructed hard left that remained dangerous. Cohen cited the failure of the left to defend free speech after a fatwa was imposed on writer Salman Rushdie, its apologism for theocracy in Iran, and its defense of “anti-imperialist” (i.e., anti-Western) regimes across the globe.

The response from critics at the time was uniform: What Cohen called the left was nothing more than a “leftist fringe,” in the normally wise words of leading left-wing intellectual Sunder Katwala. A decade later, that so-called fringe was in charge of the biggest social-democratic political party in Europe.

The Labour Party became a comfortable place for people who just years before had been campaigning against it. It didn’t take much, just for decent people on the left to fail, to realize they did have enemies on the left. If the Democrats aren’t careful, they risk becoming an increasingly pleasant place for Assad apologists and conspiracy theorists—and in doing so they risk toxifying their relationship with their traditional voting base.

Meanwhile, poverty is rising, millions of Americans are still denied health care, and the culture wars are gaining a toxic intensity. In Britain, the Labour Party has become the handmaiden of Brexit, a move that will leave the country poorer, more divided, and a global laughingstock.

Poverty can be beaten. So can climate change. But it won’t be beaten by lecturing the working classes and arguing for radical change. Take the candidate who will deliver change, and win, over the candidate who is praised for having vision. It is now too late for Labour, but it is not too late to save the Democrats.

Radical leftism is not a drug you can take as a party and return to normal the next morning.

Mike Harris is the CEO of the communications agency 89up. He has been a parliamentary advisor to three former Labour Party members of Parliament and was Labour vice-chair of London’s Lewisham Council. Twitter: @mjrharris

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