Lessons from British Elections: Change Candidates Win — That’s Why We Need Elizabeth Warren
By Robert Creamer, Heather Booth, Mike Lux
Some American pundits have drawn the wrong lessons from the British elections. They argue that Boris Johnson won his landslide victory because Labour Leader Jeremy Corbin’s policies were “too far” left — another indication, they say, that Democrats should nominate a “centrist” middle of the road candidate that promises stability and a return to business as usual.
Just the contrary is true. In fact, their analysis betrays a complete misreading of what is going on in British — and American — politics.
Fact is that British voters support many of Corbyn’s key economic proposals. They support the Labour stand against raising the retirement age. They strongly support more investment in the national health system. They support financing public investment through higher taxes on big corporations and the wealthy.
So why did Labour lose?
Voters Want Change
First, Johnson — like his political soul mate Donald Trump — is not at all about business as usual. Johnson won, mainly because the British voters were tired of years of dithering, indecisive confusion about the direction of the country and its economy, and wanted decisive action to resolve the year’s long impasse over Brexit and bring about change. Right or wrong, he is viewed as a fighter who will bring about change.
Johnson’s message had only one element: “Get Brexit Done” — decisive change.
Corbyn, on the other hand, hedged and triangulated on Brexit — the central issue of the campaign. He tried to satisfy those on both sides of the issue and focused on process — pledging to renegotiate a Brexit deal and then take it to a referendum that would let British voters decide if they should take the deal or stay in the EU. That might sound reasonable to those who periodically observe British politics. To most British voters Corbyn’s positions sounded like more “dithering.” They wanted decisive change now.
And that desire for change was not rooted solely on the fact that they are sick of the ongoing Brexit impasse, though that was a critical factor. British and American voters want change, because they believe that the “system” — the economy — is not delivering for them. Because, by and large, they haven’t had a raise in 30 years. They see people they consider to be the “elites” taking an increasing share of the country’s wealth and worry that they and their kids face an economic dead end.
Trump and Johnson turn that legitimate dissatisfaction with the status quo into nativist, right wing directions filled with hatred, isolationism and ultimately economic catastrophe. But the answer is not, as some American pundits believe, to try to convince voters that they should all be happy way things are — or “be patient” and work for incremental change.
To win, progressives must offer decisive, fundamental structural change that directly addresses the view of ordinary voters that the economy is rigged against them to benefit billionaires and massive global corporations — not ordinary people.
Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump were change candidates. In 2020, Elizabeth Warren is the change candidate that can most credibly offer the decisive progressive change ordinary voters want — and win this critical election.
Corbyn Was Personally Unpopular
Second, Corbyn’s Labour Party lost because he was personally unpopular. Going into the elections polls showed he had a 61% unfavorable rating. A variety of factors underlie that unpopularity. But the fact is that elections — even in a parliamentary system like Britain — involve casting votes for people — not just policies.
Winning candidates must project authenticity and likability — and above all inspire passionate support. Corbyn did none of those things. Among Democrats in the US, Elizabeth Warren is best equipped to do them all.
Division Yields Defeat
In the British elections Johnson’s Tories consolidated conservative and pro-Brexit voters (including some who are not so conservative) to get 43.6% of the popular vote. Labour lost ground and picked up only 32.2%. The remaining 24.2% was split between other parties — particularly the Liberal Democrats that got 11.6% of the vote and the Scottish National Party that received 3.9%.
The Liberal Democratic vote was spread pretty evenly — especially in England — and resulted in only 11 parliamentary seats.
But the Scottish National Party (SNP) vote was concentrated in the 59 constituencies in Scotland — and resulted in a whopping 48 parliamentary seats. Many of these seats had previously been held by Labour MP’s. In fact, Labour held 37 Scottish seats before the 2016 elections. Today it holds only one.
The SNP surge has resulted from growing Scottish support for independence from Britain — largely because most Scots want to remain in the European Union. Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP scored an election success on the par of Johnson and is closer than ever to her goal of a second independence referendum in Scotland.
All of that means that it is possible that as a result of his drive for Brexit, Boris Johnson’s may preside over the demise of Great Britain. Perhaps it will come to be known as “Lesser Britain.”
For American Democrats the lesson is clear. We must not allow the progressive forces in America to be divided as we did in 2016, when 4.3% of 2012 Obama voters failed to vote or voted for a third party. Many of these voters were younger and more progressive voters who were disaffected and uninspired to vote for the Democratic nominee.
Of course, 1.9% of Romney voters from 2012 also moved to Clinton since they could not bring themselves to vote for Trump. That number has no doubt grown since Trump has been in office. These voters will not stay at home or vote for Trump. For many of them, the 2020 election will be all about getting Trump out of the White House regardless of the Democratic nominee.
The portions of the Democratic base that must be inspired not to defect or stay home are progressive, young, diverse voters. And the candidate best equipped to inspire them is Elizabeth Warren.
As is often the case, we would do well to ignore the conventional wisdom of mainstream pundits who claim that the British elections are a warning for Democrats to pick a “moderate”, instrumentalist candidate that avoids addressing the fundamental underlying fault lines of wealth and power in America.
In fact, the British election demonstrates once again that it is critical to choose a change candidate, who is authentic, warm, engaging and inspirational
— a candidate who can inspire a united, massive, motivated movement to create the most progressive period in modern American history. For our money, that candidate is Elizabeth Warren.
Robert Creamer has been a political organizer and strategist for five decades, and worked on hundreds of electoral and issue campaigns and served as consultant in the last three Democratic Presidential campaigns. He is author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He’s a partner in Democracy Partners. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.
Heather Booth is one of the country’s leading strategists about progressive issue campaigns and driving issues in elections. She started organizing in the civil rights, anti-Vietnam war and women’s movements of the 1960s. She was the founding Director and is now President of the Midwest Academy, training social change leaders and organizers. She has been involved in and managed political many electoral campaigns and was the Training Director of the Democratic National Committee, served Director of the NAACP National Voter Fund, and has managed and consulted on many of the countries most important issue campaigns. She is a partner in Democracy Partners and is the subject of the film, “Heather Booth: Changing the World.”
Mike Lux, is a partner in Democracy Partners, and the principal in Mike Lux Media. His clients have included many of the most important institutions in the progressive community. Mike served as a senior staffer or advisor on six different presidential campaigns and as special assistant to the president for public liaison in the Clinton White House. He is also the author of the widely praised book The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be. His latest book, How to Democrat in the Age of Trump, was published in June of 2018.
Edited by Cheri Whiteman, a Partner in Democracy Partners, and Director of Executive Recruitment Services for the firm.