Britain's big election, and ours: David Kogan on "a critical turning point" in left history

What impeachment? U.K. voters face a stark left-right choice that will (finally) decide Brexit and shape the future

By Andrew O'Hehir
December 11, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)
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In this composite image a comparison has been made between Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Leader and Boris Johnson, Prime Minister and Conservative Leader. (Jack Taylor/Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Precisely as Donald Trump is being impeached by the U.S. Congress, British voters go to the polls on Thursday in a history-shaping national election, the U.K.’s third in less than five years. It has numerous echoes and resonances of the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, starting with the charismatic but abominable incumbent prime minister, Boris Johnson, who resembles Trump translated into Upper-Class Twit. But the differences are also striking, none more so than the fact that despite the enormous stakes in this election, in which Johnson’s Conservative Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party have vowed to take the nation in dramatically different directions, the entire campaign has been confined to six weeks.

The fact that this election is happening at all is an indication of how much the battle over Brexit — the U.K.’s departure from the European Union, which still hasn’t happened and still, just conceivably, might not happen — has disrupted British politics. In earlier times a prime minister could simply call for an election at any point within the five-year term of an elected Parliament. But since 2011 the U.K. has theoretically committed to a more regular, American-style schedule, with national elections held in May every five years. It hasn’t worked out that way.

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In the spring of 2015 — the first and, for now, last of those scheduled “fixed-term” elections — Tory (i.e., Conservative) Prime Minister David Cameron won an election many observers thought he might lose. One of Cameron’s campaign promises was to hold a referendum the following year on British membership in the EU. That was when the wheels started to come off.

It’s important to understand that Cameron, along with most leading figures in both the Conservative and Labour parties, favored remaining in the EU and assumed the Brexit campaign would fail. He resigned almost immediately after the shock result of the 2016 referendum, in which 52 percent voted for the “Leave” option. His replacement as prime minister, Theresa May, had also been a “Remainer,” which probably doomed her from the start. May got Parliament to approve an unscheduled “snap election” in 2017, hoping to consolidate power, and lost her governing majority, holding onto Downing Street only thanks to an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party, a tiny right-wing grouping representing Northern Ireland Protestants. There will be a quiz!

But hang on. We have to back up here, because there’s a further level of irony that’s especially difficult for left-liberal Americans to grasp. After Labour’s defeat in 2015, a left-wing insurgency took control of the party in a populist uprising anticipated by exactly no one, after 20-odd years of more centrist, compromise-oriented leadership. Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was a longtime backbencher viewed as a relic of the Old Left, elected with the enthusiastic support of a generation of young activists. (We’ll discuss the obvious Bernie Sanders parallels below.)

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Here’s the thing: Although Corbyn, as Labour leader, officially and somewhat begrudgingly advocated a “Remain” vote, he comes out of a tradition of deep skepticism towards Europe on the British left. Everyone could tell his heart wasn’t in it, and it has often been suggested he personally voted “Leave.” So as perverse as this may seem, it’s not entirely false to suggest that the leader of the Conservative Party in 2016 was a Remainer (while most Tory voters went for Leave) and the leader of the Labour Party was a Brexiteer (while most Labour voters chose Remain).

Theresa May replaced Cameron, nearly lost to Corbyn in 2017 and endured a series of epic humiliations in her attempt to craft a Brexit deal with EU leaders in Brussels. She quit in disgrace earlier this year and was replaced by Johnson, a world-class con man and incompetent who — after playing Tory moderate as mayor of London — has rebranded himself as an all-out Brexiteer wrapped in the Union Jack. No one quite like him could exist in the U.S., but if you took the worst qualities of Trump, Mitt Romney and Tucker Carlson and sort of Mixmastered them together, you’d get close. Author and journalist David Kogan, in our conversation below, described Johnson as “the most authoritarian, the most brutal leader of any party” in modern British politics.

That almost gets us to where we are right now, with a highly uncertain election between two leaders with devoted fan followings who are viewed with great suspicion, or significant dislike, by the wider public. Johnson is running on a Brexit deal that, in the best possible construction, is worse than the deals May made. Corbyn, meanwhile, has made clear why no one took him seriously as a leadership candidate. While embracing an ambitious and frankly inspiring left-wing reform agenda, Corbyn has steadfastly refused to take a clear position on Brexit and was extremely slow to respond to a series of ugly anti-Semitic episodes that have tarnished not just his image but the entire party’s. 

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In an effort to make sense of all this — and what the fate of Labour and the British left might mean for America — I reached out to David Kogan, whose recent book “Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party” offers a definitive, deeply-reported account of that party’s ideological swings over the last 40 years, and the unlikely rise of the Corbynistas. It’s a book Americans should read too, both because at times it reads like a funhouse-mirror reflection of the Democratic Party’s history and because our two nations — so overly proud of our democracies for so long! — currently lead the world in political dysfunction. 

This is a long conversation — but I hope it’s worth it. I’ve tried to trim judiciously while allowing Kogan to make his points in his own discursive fashion.

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Well, I’m sure this is a tense and exciting week in Britain. You've documented this immense historic shift in the Labour Party, from its near-collapse in the Thatcher era through the rise of Tony Blair and “New Labour” to the historically unlikely rise of Jeremy Corbyn — a left-winger almost no one took seriously — as party leader. What is at stake for Labour, win or lose, in this election?

Oddly, having been interviewed a lot, it's the first time anyone's actually asked me that question. It's both an extraordinarily important election for the Labour Party and an extraordinary important election for the left of the Labour Party.

That doesn't necessarily mean the same thing. I'm of the generation where I lived through the Labour Party losing four elections in a row, when Margaret Thatcher and then John Major were elected in 1979 through '92. To be out of power for 18 years was a cataclysmic event for the Labour Party. If it loses the election this week, it will be out of power for up to 14 years. Having lost four times in a row, it really will start to look, to misquote the title of my book, as a party of protest rather than the party of power.

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Bear in mind that the Conservatives haven't won a big majority in the elections since 1987. They've always won pretty small victories. For Boris Johnson to win after nine years of Conservative rule would be an enormous blow to the Labour Party and its future. To the left of the Labour Party, it would be in some ways an even bigger blow. Having got to the point where they actually took power within the party in 2015, the manifesto that has been created by [deputy leader] John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely the playbook of the left.

It's got everything in it that Jeremy Corbyn would ever have wanted in a manifesto. If it gets beaten, the left will be seen to have had the moment of victory snatched away when it was running against a very, very untrusted Conservative leader. So for the left, the stakes are even higher than for the Labour Party in general.

 In terms of the dynamics of the Labour Party, what I hear, on both sides of the pond, is a lament from certain observers: "Oh, Labour doomed themselves by electing this left-wing leader and are going to lose a winnable election because of that." Now of course Labour also lost in 2015 with a more center-left leader, Ed Miliband, and lost in 2010 with a more moderate or even centrist leader, Gordon Brown. So how do you evaluate these arguments?

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Yeah, the argument that Labour consigned itself to losing because it elected the left into the leadership. I don't buy that argument. I think the left had a historic moment of opportunity — has a historic opportunity — to actually be really radical. But that's not the question you asked me. The question you asked me was about this particular leader.

In 2015, people like [longtime Labour leftists] John McDonnell and Jon Lansman, people who'd been out of power, out of any sort of influence, for 35 years — when they ran Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership, it wasn't because they thought Jeremy Corbyn was a man destined for greatness. It's because he was the available guy they could put up, not expecting to win.

But the wider view of the left within the union movement and within the Labour Party was that there was this opportunity to be radical and do different things. That was a pretty consistent theme and has been over the last four or five years. So Jeremy Corbyn, having gotten to the leadership, comes under scrutiny as a potential prime minister.

That has in many ways done damage to the left. But the left itself, and the agenda of the left, was not destined for historic failure. I think people in this country are extremely tired of austerity, extremely tired of rising levels of poverty, and particularly child poverty. In 2017, there was a genuine view among young new voters that the left actually had an agenda that was workable. But that's not necessarily the same as saying, "This left leader was electable." Those are different things, if you follow my logic.

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Absolutely. As your book makes clear, and a lot of Americans may not completely understand this, the election of Corbyn to the Labour Party leadership was a strange and largely unanticipated event.

Totally.

If you had asked a bookmaker, let's say six or seven years ago, what the odds were that Jeremy Corbyn would end up as leader of the Labour Party, you'd have been laughed at, right?

If you'd asked that bookmaker six weeks before the 2015 general election — indeed, if you'd asked that bookmaker two weeks after that 2015 general election, just before Corbyn was nominated — they would have laughed you out of the shop. I mean, until 2017, even though he'd won the leadership twice, he was not regarded as a viable candidate to be prime minister. It was only in 2017, when Theresa May's campaign collapsed and Labour gained 20-odd points, that Corbyn was seen as being viable. The tragedy for Corbyn and the tragedy for the left is that after 2017, the two issues of anti-Semitism and Brexit exposed Corbyn's leadership so badly that the left has basically been done in by that, in my view.

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Yes, I wanted to get to those topics. Let’s start with Brexit, which is especially confusing to Americans, who largely fail to understand why the Labour Party has been internally divided on Brexit. There's this assumption, "Oh, well the left certainly favors the European project, blah, blah, blah." And it's not nearly as simple as that.

No, it's a generational thing. Let's try and break it down in a way that is coherent. What is the great success of the left project since 2015? It is the huge increase in membership that took place from 2015 through 2016, where the Labour Party went from 178,000 or so members, if I remember rightly, to over half a million.

The two groups of people who joined the Labour Party where on the one hand, the Old Left — old in terms of age, old in terms of politics — who basically left over Iraq and had felt betrayed by New Labour. They all rejoined because Jeremy Corbyn was absolutely in their sweet spot. The other group who joined, the far bigger group, were young people, people like my kids, who had never been members of the Labour Party. They were the generation radicalized by austerity, by the crash of 2008, by the fact that they were paying tuition fees, the fact they were disassociated. Their politics were quite different to those of the Old Left.

Their politics were to do with gender identity, which, you know, is a completely new phenomenon over the last 10 years; to do with climate change, which was a huge issue for people under 30, and which the Old Left had never really taken seriously. Bear in mind, the trade unions had jobs in dirty industries. So you had this absolute conflict of political ideology. My kids are 30 and 27, and their generation believes that free movement is an inalienable right. They've grown up not knowing passport control in Europe. They've grown up believing they could work in Paris or in Berlin, and people from Paris and Berlin could work in London completely easily.

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Now, that is quite different to the political ideology of the Old Left coming from the ‘70s, who saw Europe as being a capitalist conspiracy. This is very much the view of Corbyn and [advisers] Seumas Milne and Len McCluskey. Not only a capitalist conspiracy, but with cheap labor coming in from Eastern Europe, for instance, that’s undermining the traditional trade union movement. So what you had within the left and still have, is the left Brexiteers or “Lexiteers,” who tend to be rooted around Corbyn's office but were a massive minority within the party in general.

Because Corbyn was leader of the party and has been able to obfuscate the issue, the Labour Party has ended up in a position which is frankly almost impossible for them to explain. The incoherence and the lack of clarity are a fundamental problem. That means when people are judging Corbyn not as a leader of the left but as a potential prime minister, he looks weak and vacillating. It has completely undermined his leadership.

Was there ever an opening for someone else, let’s say an actual leftist who supports  85% or 90% of Corbyn's policy views, but was also a solid Remainer? Was that person an option?

Well, I think it's going to be an option if Labour loses the election, because the potential candidates to replace Corbyn will include people on the Labour front bench who've prospered under his leadership, but who have taken a much fairer view on Remain. One of them is his closest political associate, John McDonnell. His left credentials are as good as Corbyn's, and his ideological framework is stronger than Corbyn's.

McDonnell in the last two years has been absolutely clear that he believes in Remain — not in fudging, not in being a referee, not in being neutral, which is Corbyn's latest absurd position. In this election, you can't be neutral on the biggest issue of the day. I mean, it just doesn't stand. McDonnell, just in terms of being on the left and being in favor of Remain is actually in the mainstream [of the Labour left]. 

Corbyn's isolation on this issue is very, very clear. It's not a traditional left-right division. In my book, I talk to people from Another Europe is Possible who are absolutely of the left. But they're young and their fundamental premise is based on freedom of movement. Actually, somebody of my political generation is also for freedom of movement, because that is a fundamental, old-fashioned belief of the left. But it's not Jeremy Corbyn's position.

It’s a very visible contradiction. That's a big problem in an election campaign that’s so short. I covered two American presidential elections in my career for the BBC. I lived in America for a number of years. I'm married to an American, I know America very well. When you've got a primary campaign between many presidential candidates, all this gets flushed out. People have to define their positions. When you've got an election campaign of only seven or eight weeks, and three weeks in, Jeremy Corbyn announces in a public debate that he's going to be the “neutral referee” on Brexit, that not only alienates his new young left supporters who are pro-Europe, it also alienates a lot of the older leftists who might agree with him on the NHS but think he's too weak to be prime minister. So it has a doubly poor impact, if you see what I mean.

As you're probably aware, we've had our own version of the anti-Semitism debate in the Democratic Party, which has historically been tied to a very strong pro-Israel position, much more so than Labour. What struck me was not so much the revelations about some degree of anti-Semitism on the left, because that’s nothing new, but the fact that Corbyn didn’t address the problem promptly and directly. That was surprising and unsettling. Is that fair?

Yeah, I think that's absolutely fair. I am asked at every public meeting I do, and I've done a lot, “Is Jeremy Corbyn an anti-Semite?” My view, and I say this, by the way, as a left Jew — a totally lapsed left Jew who is not a supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, not a supporter of the way the state of Israel operates, just to tell you where I sit — I don't believe Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-Semite. I don't think that's the issue.

I think his particular tradition on the left was always to side with Hamas and Hezbollah, certainly in 2009 with the Israeli incursion into Gaza because they saw it as partially another freedom fight. But the problem in the U.K. is a 45-year history emanating from the “Zionism as racism” resolution by the UN in 1975. Anti-Zionism has been conflated with anti-racism, which has been conflated with what has become anti-Semitism. 

That was a terribly small minority and pretty much hidden. What has changed is the accelerant effect of social media allowing any number of views to be expressed. It turns out that meant any number of views by quite a lot of Labour candidates expressed on private Twitter feeds, from about 2015 onwards. That was the first problem.

The second problem was, and this is where Corbyn and his followers' inexperience came in, because they've never managed anything, they’ve never run anything: If you are so far out of the mainstream of the party that no one takes you seriously, you create a total bunker mentality. What happened to Corbyn and all these people around him is that they suddenly faced this problem where Jewish Labour MPs were being attacked in the most appalling way, and they simply couldn't handle it. 

The longer they went on not handling it, the worse it got. It's a failure of political will, a failure of management. a failure of actually giving a shit. Jeremy Corbyn has admitted he hasn't met anybody from the Jewish leadership in the U.K. since late 2018. He's not made any effort to deal with it.

If they had said, two years ago, "These are the number of cases we're dealing with, we're going to call in external people to deal with them, lawyers or whatever, and we're going to do this in a completely open and rigorous way,” they wouldn't have the problem they have now. Even today, we don't know how many cases are still pending. All we have are rumors. This is a failure of management, a failure of political will, and a failure to understand how much of a stain it is on the reputation of the Labour Party. It’s shocking.

Many people over the past several years have compared Corbyn to Bernie Sanders, for obvious and understandable reasons. They’ve known each other for a long time, which isn’t surprising. It strikes me that the differences and similarities between them reflect the complex relationship between British and American politics. How do you see the contrast?

Well, the first thing to say is, of course, Bernie Sanders isn't a Democrat. He’s an independent. I think that's quite a big difference. I happen to live in Jeremy Corbyn's constituency. He's my local MP and has been since 1983. Jeremy Corbyn was always in the Labour Party. It's worth remembering that Tony Blair never made a move against Jeremy Corbyn. Tony Blair and New Labour regarded Corbyn as irrelevant. They never made an attempt to expel him because the concept of a broad church held, which is more than what's happening now, when people are being dropped and expelled. So that's the first one.

I think the difference of party structure is important too. You’ve got 50 states, and a senator can get elected in a state like Vermont and be as radical and eccentric as an individual as they want. Within Labour, it's more of a monolithic operation. Once the leadership's got control, it's got control, as Jeremy Corbyn has demonstrated for the last four years.

To be honest with you, what I find more interesting is the similarities between AOC and the other young Democrats coming through and their young left counterparts in the U.K. I think it's interesting to look, particularly after [the 2016 Sanders campaign], at how the new young left in the States are evolving their policies and politics compared to the new young left in the U.K. So again, gender identification, climate change, border control, immigration, emigration. I've noticed some very strong similarities there, whereas actually I look at Sanders and think of him as being in the mainstream of the Old Left, unlike Jeremy Corbyn.

I think you're right about that generational change. Funnily enough, you live in Jeremy Corbyn's constituency. I live in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's congressional district. I moved here and she was handing out leaflets on the subway. My first reaction was very much, “Ha ha, this Bernie girl is running against a member of the House Democratic leadership.” Then I changed my mind.

This is where I would draw a parallel between the U.K. and the U.S. at the moment, right? If Labour loses this election — and, I mean, Corbyn doesn't have to win an overall majority, because Labour will certainly go into alliance with the Scottish National Party to get him over the top. But if Labour doesn't even achieve 270 seats, if it doesn't get close to being in any sort of minority government, that will be a substantial failure for the Labour Party and the left. Then you're into a new generational move again. It's very hard to see what will happen, because the left controls the party now. It's a bit like the Democratic Party in '71 and '72.

That's how I compare it. When I spoke at the Brookings Institution, I said, "What the Labour Party is like now is when you had the young insurgents coming in who weren't going to elect Ed Muskie." The question is what happens if you then lose? Well, I would say the same about the Democratic Party's space. If Trump wins next year and the Democratic Party have gone for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, what does the left then do? Because you'd have four more years of Donald Trump and the Republican Party. That would be an appalling loss for the Democratic Party. In some ways, the left in Britain and the left in the U.S. are facing very similar big questions about what happens in the next decade — and in both cases, this election is going to be a critical turning point, one way or the other.

Let’s close by talking about the other side briefly. Many people in the U.S. are wondering what the hell becomes of the Republican Party in the medium term, now that it has abandoned all its traditional so-called principles in the name of supporting this deeply irrational, deeply ignorant, would-be authoritarian leader. I’m not sure the Tories are in exactly the same situation, but it’s not totally dissimilar. 

Well, I think your language in describing Trump could be absolutely applied to Johnson. I mean, here's a historic irony. For all the 50 years of debate about how the left of the Labour Party were going to expel the Blairites and do this and do that, the party that’s ending up actually hurtling itself towards the cliff is the Conservative Party. At the beginning of September, we saw the purging of 21 Conservative MPs, including four former government ministers. I mean, that has not happened in British politics. Boris Johnson is the most authoritarian, the most brutal leader of any party we've seen in modern politics.

Every Conservative candidate this election had to sign a pledge supporting Boris Johnson's Brexit deal, which is a terrible deal. The fact that he's actually forced Theresa May, as a Conservative parliamentary candidate, to sign up to a deal that’s markedly worse than the deal she negotiated, is a sign of complete, absolute control. So I think the similarities between Trump and Johnson and the way they have both taken control of their parties by political brutality, simply being more aggressive than any of their centrist colleagues, are very, very strong,

If Johnson wins a majority of 20 or 30 this week, that will be the largest majority the Conservatives have won in 25 years, so he will be regarded by his party as someone they don't like but someone who won. Again, who does that remind you of?

Once he's got into Downing Street with a majority and some of the people around him ... and also, of course, considering the effects on the economy of Brexit, the chances of this government having a smooth ride over the next five years are very, very low.

The question, though, is whether Labour is going to be in a position to take advantage of that. The historic choice for the Labour Party, if it loses for a fourth time: Does it double down and go for a new, young left leader who is pretty much going to be unelectable? Or is it going to go back towards the center and be more pragmatic in the hope of winning? That of course is very like the Democratic Party, in terms of the current primary season. Johnson's capacity to blow up is very, very high. Has Labour got the capacity to take advantage of that? That's the great unknown of the next few years. It will be with a totally different political generation coming in, people who won't even remember when Labour was last in power.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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