It’s been a long time since anything truly good has happened for the small but resurgent international left. The performance of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom general election last night changed that.
The party, led by the socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn — who has often been compared to Bernie Sanders here — vastly outperformed expectations and picked up dozens of seats, pushing the conservatives out of a majority in an election that was supposed to be a landslide and into a hung Parliament. They even took one seat that had been held by the Tories for a full century.
It looks like the Tories will be able to form a majority coalition or arrangement with the conservative N Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, but Prime Minister Theresa May is far weaker than anyone expected at the beginning of the campaign. More importantly, Corbyn's message is far stronger than anyone expected, and it seems all but certain that he'll stay on as leader of the party for the foreseeable future.
We're two completely different countries, but the struggle for the left is international now. We're all facing the same dehumanizing austerity, the same impending climate catastrophe. To see ideological siblings in the United Kingdom — in a country with which the United States has been so closely connected for all of its history — rally for a result that was plainly unthinkable when the campaign started is genuinely one of the most inspiring and remarkable things to happen in an absolutely dogshit last few years.
With that in mind, the American left can take a few lessons from Corbyn and Labour's incredible night.
First and foremost, that the future is exceedingly bright. Before the election, one poll showed that Labour was actually ahead by three points in one unadjusted poll, but the adjusted result put the Tories up by five by taking out, according to the Independent, “those historically unlikely to vote, who include black and ethnic minorities as well as the under 35s and the least well off older people.”
As the numbers showed, that was a mistake.
Corbyn did so well with young people because he put forward a clear and optimistic vision for the future, which made investments for the priorities of young people like education and the environment. In return, the youth came out for him in droves; it appears that those polls we've seen indicating that young people support socialism in higher numbers are starting to pay off.
The American analogue, of course, was Bernie Sanders' big support from young people in the Democratic primary last year. But Corbyn has proven it can be part of a winning message not just for on the left-wing, but people who are on the fence as well. The kernel here for the progressive movement is that putting our trust in young people and actively reaching out to them, trying to give them a reason to get over the cynicism that's so dominated our politics, is a way for the left to reach people.
The second big lesson is that the center won't hold. The Liberal Democrats, formerly a coalition partner to Tories and historically the UK's largest third party before the rise of the Scottish National Party, ran as an explicitly pro-EU third option and tried to pull in votes from the Labour right and Tory voters who voted to remain in the EU last year.
It didn't work. The Liberal Democrats (who were also hurt by ties to an austerity coalition with David Cameron's conservatives they were apart of for five years) only picked up a few seats, and surrendered much of the popular vote to Labour and the Tories — so much so, in fact, that the Corbyn-led Labour won its second-largest share of percentage in the last sixty years with over forty percent, a nearly ten-point pickup from just two years ago.
As the last two miserable years have shown, the far-right has found a market in driving up fear of immigrants and Muslims in a Western society that has been crushed by late capitalism.
What Labour's result shows is that giving people the chance to have a better future rather than what the Liberal Democrats and the Tories offered — a version of “stability” that, for many people, was anything but stable — can be a winning message for the larger population. The significant number of undecided voters who came over the Labour during the campaign showed this, and raises the tantalizing question of what could have been if Labour had even one more week to campaign.
The last lesson the left should take from Corbyn, however, is that it's still in a stage of growing pains. Corbyn's victory, great as it is, is mostly moral in nature, enhanced by the atrocious expectations that were set for him at the beginning of the campaign. But with or without May, the Conservatives will still be able to form a government, although it's possible they'll call for another election now that they find themselves in an extraordinarily worse-off position than they previously were.
Even if Labour had miraculously won, the party itself is still divided; there are many in the Labour Party who spent the last two years sounding of the alarm of Labour Party's demise under Corbyn; as Tony Blair wrote before Corbyn's first election, Labour was “walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff's edge to the jagged rocks below.”
Of course, he was dead wrong. But chances are that this result is just going to solidify, for some of those people, that a more centrist candidate would have routed May and returned Labour to government—even if it's obvious, from the amount of people who came over to Labour during the election, that they were wrong.
The Blairites are still a force to be reckoned with in the party, however, and no one should count on this result shutting up the Labour right. It’s a worthy reminder for the American left that the center will not just cede power and seamlessly assimilate into the left; current talk of unity and purity politics be damned, there will undoubtedly be a war for the soul of the party — as well as the more existential one for the soul of the country — that will be waged in the decades to come.
Progress is a slog; there will be more of these moral victories, and there will be false starts, and there will be devastating, brutal losses. The important thing is to realize that there’s still a long way to go; the worst thing for the left right now would be to fall into the liberal trap of expecting the wins to eventually fall in our laps just because we’re right.
It’s obvious, from recent wins—such as the fight for single-payer in California and the passage of Medicaid for All in Nevada—that this progress cannot rely on demographics alone, but the efforts of organizers to make it happen. And as Jeremy Corbyn showed last night, the power of collective action is alive and kicking, and can overcome sabotage from the right, the center, and the press. Because of Corbyn and the organizers who made this happen, there’s reason for those of us on the other side of the pond to enjoy a little bit of optimism today.