Late last year I wrote a piece here on the lessons that Progressives could and should learn from the events of 2019 and the elections that took place. A big part of that piece for me came from some folks on the further left constantly saying, “Oh if we only had a Jeremy Corbyn in Canada” or “We need a Bernie Sanders in Canada”. Heck recently someone even put that idea down in a piece that I believe totally misses the mark, mostly because Bernie Sanders would not be very radical in the Canadian context at all. Most of what he’s calling for are things we already have and have come from policies from both the NDP and eventually the Liberals when they got popular enough. But yeah, I’m sure that point won’t go over well.
Regardless, many on the far left in Canada point to these examples as the way forward and the way that the NDP should be. Forget the fact that neither of them won a major election and that Corbyn just had the worst Labour defeat in decades, that doesn’t matter we keep getting told. And yes, while right now Bernie Sanders is riding high and will most likely win in New Hampshire today, I wouldn’t count my chickens until after Super Tuesday at the earliest. My point is that there is a long way from now to the Democratic Convention this summer and while Bernie is a front runner right now, he’s not running away from the field and if the more moderate wing of the Democrats ever coalesce around someone, Bernie’s got big problems. But hey, that’s a fun debate for another day and time.
In the meantime, I feel that it’s always important to look at empirical data and information that can tell us a lot about what happened in past campaigns. That helps us learn from what happened before, in order not to repeat mistakes from the past. It was in that spirit that I came across an interesting piece from British pollster and Conservative Lord Ashcroft. And while yes, he’s a Tory and put the usual caveats on everything, he did focus groups and polling of Labour voters, those who left Labour in this campaign and why. The results are interesting and some good lessons to learn from:
While Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters are whistling past the graveyard and refusing to place any blame at their own feet, Ashcroft’s findings show something quite different. I pulled three graphs from the report and put them above because they show just how starkly Labour was out to lunch and just how disconnected they’ve become from those who have voted for them for so long. While Brexit played a role in this campaign, it’s clear from reading this that it wasn’t the determining factor. You can see from those who left Labour to vote elsewhere large numbers point to Corbyn himself as a big problem, pointed to Labour “no longer really representing its traditional voters” and to “Labour’s election promises not being believable”.
In other polling information you see it again and again, a theme being repeated; I didn’t want Corbyn, Labour no longer represents me and I don’t believe they could deliver on their promises. But it’s the last graph there that really drove home the point about how much of a factor Brexit actually was when it came to those who abandoned Labour. 52% of those who left Labour this time said they would have done it anyway, Brexit or no Brexit. Only 18% said they would have voted another way if Brexit wasn’t on the table. Think about that for a moment; of all the voters Labour lost, less than 20% said they wouldn’t have switched if Brexit hadn’t been a feature of this race. That’s it. More than half of those past Labour voters were gone, regardless of Brexit. That lays at the feet of Corbyn and his team and they need to answer for it.
There is a lot to pick over in that report and a lot of data that’s very interesting, but for me the big takeaway from this is that Labour under Corbyn’s leadership had their fingers nowhere near the pulse of their supporters and stood no chance of winning with Corbyn as leader. Brexit was just the coup de grace, not the main cause. And folks, for those pining for a “Canadian Corbyn”, that’s exactly where that kind of leader would lead the NDP; to historic losses and ruin.
The fact is that Labour under Corbyn has lost its bearings and lost its connection with those who they have traditionally supported. As many of those former Labour supporters said (people who said they could support Labour again it should be noted) is that they feel like they are being spoken at and down to, not being represented. The NDP needs to be cautious to not go down that path and in some cases, some could say that already happened. Repeating that example fully and forcefully here in Canada would not deliver the utopia that some claim it will because Canadians are skeptical of people offering the moon and stars and their ability to deliver on it. I would hope that people would look at the content of what that report says and the results of those panels, and not the name of the author. There is a big lesson to be taken from that report and the only question that remains is “Will we learn from it?” or “Will we ignore the fact because they might prove us wrong?”. Time will tell which will happen, but it can’t be said that no one isn’t trying to get it right.