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Monday, February 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Trudy Rubin: Boris Johnson’s victory holds lessons for Democrats in 2020

By Trudy Rubin Tribune News Service

Focused on impeachment, Democrats may ignore the crucial lessons they need to learn from the smashing victory by Britain’s Trump clone, Boris Johnson, in elections last week.

The opposition Labour Party got its worst drubbing since 1935, and many longtime Labour strongholds in rust belt areas that were known as the Red Line turned Conservative blue. But because this election revolved around Brexit, – whether and when Britain would finally exit the European Union as a slim majority demanded in a 2016 referendum – some analysts doubt the relevance the British vote can have here.

Having been in England for the 2016 vote on the referendum and pursued the Brexit tale in two visits this year, I believe the similarities are striking. Here are five lessons that the Democratic Party could learn from Labour’s defeat.

1. Personality may matter more than issues

The candidate’s personality and voter appeal will be critical, maybe more so than the issues. That was the case not only with the dour and uber-left Jeremy Corbyn but with Johnson as well.

In an Opinium research poll on election day, 43% of voters who said they were not backing Labour cited party leadership as the prime reason. Corbyn repelled voters. He was seen as shifty because he refused to take a clear position on Brexit. His tolerance of anti-Semitism within the party, and “friendship” with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah offended many voters, not just the small number of British Jews.

Johnson’s personality and energy, on the other hand, helped him surmount his personal peccadilloes (which rival those of Trump). A serial philanderer who fathered an out-of-wedlock child and brought his mistress with him to Downing Street, Boris is as famous for his lies (including about Brexit) as the man in the White House. Yet, with his calculated bumbling and his jokes (including a hilarious campaign video that went viral in which he wordlessly assures a female voter he’ll “get Brexit done”), he won over voters.

The message: A left-center Labour candidate would have stood a far stronger chance of beating the Trumplike Johnson. But that candidate would have needed a strong personality and media savvy to match Boris in wooing swing voters. Democrats take note.

2. Far-left economic policies aren’t a winner

Apart from his personality, Corbyn’s far-left policies failed to attract the Labour votes he needed. His platform included renationalizing the UK’s railways, water and electricity, a four day workweek, and forcing large private companies to give 10% of their shares to workers. This didn’t prevent Labour’s working class heartland from decamping to the Conservatives (and may have scared off many middle-class voters).

The message (which is relevant to Democrats although Corbyn is far to the left of Bernie Sanders): Extreme-left economic policies aren’t the key to winning over the working-class voters Democrats need to defeat Trump.

3. Face immigration issues but without scare tactics

The Brexit issue touched on many of the pains of globalization, including fear of immigration. At pro-Brexit meetings and rallies in England, I repeatedly heard complaints that politicians don’t listen to voters – as well as anger that European Union rules permitted European workers from the continent to be hired on contracts in Britain at below British wages. The immigration issue was a loser for Labour.

The message: The Labour Party never figured out how to address serious voter concerns about immigration without imitating Conservative scare tactics and outright lies on the subject. Nor have Democrats need to resolve a similar conundrum.

4. Clarify who will preserve the social safety net

To woo Labour voters, the populist Johnson pledged to pour billions of pounds into infrastructure in swing districts, as well as into the national health care system. If he actually delivers, this may cement Conservative control of the former Labour heartland.

The message: Trump has failed to deliver on infrastructure or health care; his last budget asked for massive cuts to safety net programs of a kind that British Conservatives would not contemplate. The proposals were nixed by Democrats, but Trump has suggested he would revive them if he wins in 2020. This should be a major Democratic talking point in trying to win swing voters back.

5. Young voters aren’t enough for victory

An enthusiastic youth vote was not enough for a Labour victory. Labour did well in 2017 elections due to a surge in youth registrations, when over 60% of voters ages 18 to 29 backed the party. But the percentage of registered young voters remains low compared with the older population, and older voters, who trend Conservative, have a much higher turnout level.

The message: The situation is probably similar here. So don’t expect a surge of young people to guarantee victory.

Boris Johnson’s triumph is a sobering reminder that center-left parties must adjust to an era where personalities and identity politics can outweigh economics. Boris was nimble, on message, and gifted with a weak opponent. Democrats can learn from his victory – and from how Labour defeated itself.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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