Jeremy Corbyn offered the U.K. a transformational Labour Party manifesto, bent on bringing justice to every citizen regardless of income or social standing. Ultimately it wasn’t enough to usher in even a hung parliament in the face of continued Tory austerity. In the wake of the loss American pundits are coming out of the woodwork in an attempt to teach the American left a lesson on the consequences of daring to dream big. However don’t buy into that narrative and don’t overlearn the lessons of Labour’s loss. The U.K. offers a vastly different political context, especially considering the prominence of Brexit, and most of these self motivated arguments totally fail to appreciate that fact.
Brexit has been an all consuming political issue since June of 2016. The debate surrounding Brexit has been the main focus of U.K. politics ever since, from Theresa May’s ouster to the rise of Boris Johnson, the through line of basically every major political debate has been Brexit. And the most recent election is no exception.
The Labour Manifesto Was Ambitious, But Brexit Reigned Supreme
In 2019 Labour unveiled an ambitious policy manifesto, featuring everything from “A Green Industrial Revolution” which aimed to work with trade unions and other workers organizations to create over one million jobs while also bringing U.K. emissions down substantially to help bring the U.K. inline with international goals before the 10 year horizon offered by the United Nations. To a housing guarantee. It was an ambitious document and very similar to the manifesto offered in 2017 where Labour did unexpectedly well.
Labour offered an ambitious housing plan that aimed to revitalize the U.K.’s public housing stock and offer affordable social housing to millions of people currently renting from private landlords or unable to find housing entirely. They aimed to bring the government definition of “affordable” to something other than the Tories 80% of market rates, and to build over 150,000 council homes a year until the U.K.’s housing crisis is solved. Additionally, rent control efforts and a focus on home ownership for lower income residents aimed to make housing affordable to all.
They also proposed a plan to undo years of Tory austerity and cuts to the NHS, in direct contrast to leaked documents which showed Boris Johnson willing to privatize large swaths of the NHS to the benefit of American healthcare corporations. Labour wanted to renew the effort to provide quality care for all, including mental health care, by reinvesting in the NHS as opposed to privatizing it.
On issue after issue, Labour had a comprehensive agenda to make life better for everyone and to invest in a just and humane future. Not unlike their similarly ambitious manifesto from 2017. However on one issue, there was a significant departure from their 2017 position. And that issue was Brexit, the all consuming political debate which Boris Johnson promised to end shortly after Christmas if given a majority. Labour offered a second referendum, ensuring the issue remains a hot button political issue well into the future. The so called “final say referendum” was bent on avoiding a no deal Brexit like that offered by Boris Johnson and the Tories. But would have allowed Brexit to remain an open debate for a long time.
Brexit Is An All Consuming Issue Labour Didn’t Promise to End By Christmas
The Brexit deal offered by Labour still promised to end the debate, as it would have been legally binding. On one side they offered a Brexit deal which recognized workers rights, respected immigrants, protected the environment, and continued participation in a bevy of E.U. programs. On the other was the choice to remain in the E.U. Labour promised to undo imposed austerity and still break with the unpopular status quo.
Ultimately in the beginning Brexit was billed as a straightforward process, one that would take some political maneuvering, but few imagined over 3 years out it would still represent the all consuming political issue it has become. Which is why the Tories and their “out by Christmas” position propelled them to victory in the face of Labours second referendum. Labours new referendum was a key difference in their platform compared to that offered in 2017 and ultimately it was the biggest contributing factor to their unfortunate defeat.
It’s also the main reason American leftists should be careful not to overlearn the lessons of Corbyn and Labour’s loss. Brexit isn’t an issue in the United States and Labour’s defeat didn’t speak to the popularity of the ambitious manifesto, it spoke to the unpopularity of an extended debate surrounding Brexit, an issue which has taken over every aspect of the U.K.’s political debate for the better part of 3 and a half years.