Last week, Britain’s Labour Party suffered its worst election defeat since before World War II. Led by staunchly progressive Jeremy Corbyn, the party barely cracked the 200 seat threshold out of 650 in Parliament, while British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, the cartoonish leader of the Conservative party, handily won a majority in a rare December snap election. Corbyn announced that he will step down after leading the party through a period of reflection. What he could have “reflected” on earlier was his own unpopularity before he agreed to move forward with Johnson’s snap election.
In the U.S., the drubbing prompted some pundits to warn Democrats that a similar defeat awaits them if they nominate progressives Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren—just like Brexit was a bellwether warning of Trump’s looming victory. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait said that many U.S. leftists argued “Corbyn was the model for success in the US. His massive defeat should prompt a rethink].” His colleague Andrew Sullivan tweeted, “if the Democrats don’t stop their hard-left slide, they’ll suffer the same fate as Labour. If they don't move off their support for mass immigration, they're toast.” And Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Carrie Dann wrote for NBC News that it was “hard to ignore that the results in Britain last night were bad news for Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and America’s left.”
Corbyn is best known in the U.S. for moving the Labour Party strongly to the left on policy and he suffered a historic defeat, so, the thinking goes, Democrats should not repeat the mistake by nominating someone from the party’s left who is also doomed to lose. That narrative is simple to understand, but it’s wrong. The reality is that Corbyn could not overcome his deep personal unpopularity. But Labour’s policies, on the other hand, are extremely popular. Take, for example, a proposal to tax all income above 123,000 pounds at a 50 percent rate—it’s backed by 64 percent of UK voters, according to YouGov polling. The party’s climate change plan for zero carbon emissions by 2030 is also supported by a majority, with 56 percent of all voters and even a plurality (47 percent) of Conservatives. And 56 percent of the British public backed Labour’s pledge to renationalize the railways, while 62 percent support Labour’s free broadband initiative.
Public support for the Labour Party’s policies is not matched by feelings for its leader. Jeremy Corbyn is not just unpopular, he’s toxic. The number one concern for the British public about a possible Labour government, according to the pollster Lord Ashcroft, was “Jeremy Corbyn being Prime Minister.” YouGov polling has his net favorability at -40 percent, with just 21 percent of Britons holding a positive view of him and 61 percent negative.
The “historically unpopular” Donald Trump is at a -11.3 percent net favorability according to FiveThirtyEight, and has never been worse than -21 percent. Trump’s net favorability is very similar to Johnson’s -12 percent rating. But Corbyn is twice as unpopular as Trump has ever been, while Sanders’s net favorability at -4 percent and Warren’s at -7 percent, according to Quinnipiac.
Corbyn’s net favorability is consistent with the feedback that Labour candidates and campaigners were getting on doorsteps. Ian Murray MP, said after the polls closed that “every door I knocked on, and my team and I spoke to 11,000 people, mentioned Corbyn. Not Brexit but Corbyn.” Phil Wilson, the Labour candidate in Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s former seat), said, “for the Labour leadership to blame Brexit for the result is mendacious nonsense. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was a bigger problem.” And former MP Anna Turley, who lost her seat in her words “thanks to Jeremy Corbyn,” wrote in the Independent after the election that, “[t]here was visceral anger from lifelong Labour voters who felt they couldn’t vote for the party they had supported all their lives because of ‘that man at the top.’”
One of the core issues with Corbyn’s leadership was anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. Anti-Semitism is all too frequently a charge that is weaponized by the right to unfairly malign progressive political figures or causes. That does not appear to be the case with Corbyn’s Labour leadership. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission in the UK is investigating charges of institutional anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. And 70 current and former Labour Party staffers submitted testimony organized by the Jewish Labour Movement, which concluded “the Labour Party is no longer a safe space for Jewish people.” Ruth Smeeth, the Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, told the BBC that “Jewish friends have told me today that they feel a Labour victory would make them unsafe.”
There is no doubt that Brexit played its role in this defeat too. Johnson has consolidated the pro-Brexit vote behind him and the Conservatives as the Brexit Party has floundered. Support from those opposing Brexit remains split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and in Scotland, among the Scottish National Party. But here again, it’s not just the irresistible forces of Brexit, it’s that Corbyn repeatedly failed to take a strong and clear position on Brexit when it seemed nearly every sentence Johnson uttered began with “Get Brexit Done.” (If Americans are looking for any kind of lesson from the UK election, the winning side’s relentless message discipline would be a good place to start.)
It would be foolish for American progressives to ignore Labour’s defeat or completely discount this loss because of Corbyn’s toxicity. Polls did show that the public was concerned about the cost of Labour’s proposals and that it would increase the debt, a view shared even by some Labour voters. And it is not a situation unique to the UK for progressive policies to be popular but the candidates who back them still not prevailing at the ballot box. Figuring out what causes this disconnect is extremely important for Democrats.
But assessing where there are real public concerns about otherwise popular policies and how to ameliorate them is vastly different than panicking and writing off the entire progressive project because an intensely unpopular politician lost. If there is any lesson to take from Corbyn’s loss for U.S. Democrats, it’s that you can’t rely only on a popular policy agenda and a reviled opponent to win, you also need a candidate that inspires people to get out and vote.
Ken Gude is a Democratic strategist and former policy officer with the UK Labour Party.
He’s as famous and accomplished as a man can be. He could just stay home, relax, and count his money. But Paul McCartney is as driven as ever. Which is why he’s still making music and why he has loads of great stories you’ve never heard—about the sex life of the Beatles, how he talked John Lennon out of drilling holes in his head (really), and what actually happened when he worked with Kanye.
Originally Appeared on GQ