October 30, 2020

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If You Lose an Election, You Probably Deserve It

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Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks from Doncaster, U.K., Sept. 22.


Stefan Rousseau/Zuma Press

“When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to.”

Imagine how different U.S. politics would be if Democrats and their media allies had entertained such a thought even once in the years after Donald Trump descended that infamous escalator. As it happens, you might not have to stretch your imagination too far, since the U.K. is about to show us exactly what could have happened.

That line above comes from a speech Keir Starmer delivered this week to members of the Labour Party, which he leads. Mr. Starmer replaced Jeremy Corbyn this spring, after Mr. Corbyn drove Labour to its worst electoral drubbing in generations last December. Mr. Starmer faces the unenviable task of picking up the pieces.

His challenge in doing so is not unlike the challenges confronting Democrats in the Trump era. Britain’s surprise vote in 2016 to leave the European Union revealed a political class woefully out of touch with the population it purports to represent. Brexit especially exposed the gulf on the left between Labour’s traditional blue-collar, culturally conservative base and its newer voters among the white-collar and culturally liberal.

Many politicians’ first instinct was to assume the voters hadn’t really meant it or—better yet—had been misled. This is why the U.K. has suffered through four years of palaver about various Brexit deals, many of which wouldn’t have meant Brexit in any material sense. Britain even had its version of Russiagate, in the form of abstruse and contested campaign-finance complaints and suggestions of Kremlin influence.

The Conservative Party eventually fought its way through this denial phase and reached a form of acceptance by picking as its leader arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson. Labour has taken longer to get there, having first passed through a desperate bargaining stage under Mr. Corbyn.

His far-left circle’s theory of Brexit was that voters fully intended to say they were unhappy, but that they cared less about Brexit specifically than about general economic discontent. They could be bought off with extravagant promises of a vastly expanded social-welfare state.

This fell apart because it demonstrated the same low opinion of voters’ intelligence that got Britain’s political class into this fix in the first place. Polls after the election found voters recognized the taxing and spending numbers didn’t add up, and disliked Mr. Corbyn for trying to hoodwink them. They also viewed Mr. Corbyn’s pathological pacifism and disgraceful anti-Semitism as un-British.

Now comes Mr. Starmer to try something very new for Labour: its own version of acceptance.

The premise of Mr. Starmer’s speech to his party’s annual convention Tuesday was that British voters have known all along exactly what they wanted to say. Labour just needs to do a better job listening. Note the line following his headline-grabbing admission that Labour deserved its December drubbing: “You don’t look at the electorate and ask them, ‘What were you thinking?’ You look at yourself and ask, ‘What were we doing?’ ”

One important lesson he already has learned is that voters want Brexit—an uncomfortable admission for the fervently Remain Mr. Starmer—and also national security and morally respectable leaders. As for the rest, Mr. Starmer can’t wave a magic wand to resolve the tensions between blue-collar and metropolitan voters that divide parties of the left around the world.

But for now voters are responding well to the more respectful tone. Labour is running more or less even with the Conservatives in opinion polls for the first time since Mr. Johnson became prime minister. Don’t play this down by attributing it solely to Mr. Johnson’s inept virus response. Mr. Starmer is offering an alternative voters think they can trust in a way Mr. Corbyn could not, because Mr. Starmer is signaling he trusts voters.

Now, if only something similar would happen in America.

Democrats and the media resistance have invested nearly four years in delegitimizing President Trump’s 2016 win and the voters who delivered it. They’re ramping up to do the same on the off chance Mr. Trump pulls off a repeat in November. Not once have they admitted that their loss four years ago wasn’t the fault of Russia or the Electoral College or deplorables—that it might have been a bad candidate peddling a series of tone-deaf messages to fed-up voters.

The result is a form of permanent culture war epitomized by the fact that Joe Biden isn’t a shoo-in despite Mr. Trump’s obvious flaws. Like Britain plagued with Mr. Corbyn’s Labour, the U.S. also now finds itself with a constitutional order that’s fraying because one of the two main parties is abdicating its basic responsibility to respect voters.

Mr. Starmer in contrast appears to have sussed out a way to offer trenchant opposition without blowing up the system—and all through the simple expedient of taking voters seriously. Imagine that.

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2020-09-24 14:30:00

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