Corbyn defeat is a lesson for European Left

Written by Denis MacShane on 20 December 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

There is a major lesson for Europe's Left following UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat, argues Denis MacShane.

Jeremy Corbyn | Photo credit: PA Images


There is a major lesson in UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat for the European left like the German Social Democrats who are turning leftward in their search for more appealing policies, new offers to voters and new leaders.

In most EU member states the left is now split. The old 20th century traditional social democratic, socialist or Labour parties being challenged by the harder left like Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany, La France Insoumise in France, Syriza in Greece.  This has helped fragment the left as a solid voting block with appeal across the old spectrum of non-rightist voters.

Britain’s unique voting system, with the candidate who gets the most votes in a single round election in individual constituencies, has avoided such splits which only work if a proportional voting system can deliver seats on a general list basis.


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But the key lesson the European left and other non-rightist parties like the Democrats in the US, are taking from the Corbyn defeat is that absent a convincing and appealing candidate like Obama in 2008 or Bill Clinton in 1992 and a programme that appeals as much to aspirers and strivers as it does to public sector unionised employees or to the left-behind poor then it is unlikely that the left will carry the day.

Indeed, Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson won many seats in the poorest, most disadvantaged communities of Britain in isolated former industrial towns where workers believed that the arrival of three million immigrant workers from the EU was the cause of their immiseration.

Corbyn incarnated all the European hard-left’s standard tropes but, outside young, urban, leftist circles, his vision flopped completely.

“The people” – i.e., traditional Labour voters – just didn’t buy his attacks on globalisation, liberal economics or more state control of the economy. Instead, they put in their lot with the Tories.

"During nearly five decades of hard left activism Corbyn has believed that deep down, people wanted more power for trade unions, more taxes as well as a de-liberalising of modern capitalism through nationalisations. It seems he was wrong"

During nearly five decades of hard left activism Corbyn has believed that deep down, people wanted more power for trade unions, more taxes as well as a de-liberalising of modern capitalism through nationalisations. It seems he was wrong.

To be fair, Corbyn’s offer to the British people was honest in one regard: It incarnated every wish list that different groups in left-wing 20th century politics had ever advocated.

His personality was decisive in losing the election – the sense that he was not a patriot, didn’t like the Queen, didn’t like Nato or the EU, didn’t like UK military operations to contain terrorism in Ireland or to stop Serb butchers in Kosovo, and was fanatically anti-Israel to the point of consorting with various Islamist Jew-hating terrorists groups.

The press attacked him non-stop but even his friends admit some of his statements and some of the company he has kept over 36 years in Parliament leave him exposed to criticism.

Now as they look at the disaster of Corbyn and elimination of Labour as a serious political force in Britain for at least a decade, will the generation of young activists have a rethink?

Labour attracted 500,000 new, mainly young, university educated members after 2015. They swallowed the magic socialist potion offered by Corbyn and his narrow coterie of Marxist advisors.

"Labour attracted 500,000 new, mainly young, university educated members after 2015. They swallowed the magic socialist potion offered by Corbyn and his narrow coterie of Marxist advisors"

Now, the Corbyn generation of young Labour activists face a decade in the political wilderness.

But it is not just them who have some serious rethinking to do. So, do the (older) intellectuals, university professors and journalists — for example columnists in the daily left-leaning newspaper, the Guardian.

They are the ones who describe in glowing terms the links between the Corbyn team and leftist parties like Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French leftist who leads the anti-EU La France Insoumise movement. In an extraordinary intervention Mélenchon has blamed Corbyn’s defeat on Jews.

For the rest of the European left or those US Democrats who believe that Donald Trump can be defeated by a hardish left offer that will bring in a majority of voters in America, the Corbyn defeat is now going to be carefully analysed as a lesson of how a democratic left party can take such a wrong turning that it gets wiped out as an electoral force.

About the author

Denis MacShane is a former Europe Minister in the UK

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