U.K.'s Labour Party Offers Lessons Learned To Democrats In U.S.
NOEL KING, HOST:
People around the world are interested in the Democratic primaries here in the United States, including people in the United Kingdom. Here's why. In December, a populist conservative leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, won big. He beat a socialist, a guy by the name of Jeremy Corbyn. Now some Corbyn supporters say they learned a lesson from that. They should have supported a centrist. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from the town of Sedgefield.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: For decades, this former coal town in the northeast of England was a sturdy brick in the Labour Party's red wall - a string of safe Labour seats, stretching from the English Midlands to the northeast, kind of like the Democrats' once-reliable blue wall in the upper Midwest. Then in December's election, Boris Johnson's Conservative Party brought that red wall crashing down.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)
PHIL WILSON: Hello.
LANGFITT: Mr. Wilson, nice to meet you.
WILSON: Come in.
LANGFITT: I'm Frank. Thank you.
Among the casualties was Phil Wilson, who represented Sedgefield in Parliament for a dozen years.
WILSON: This is a disastrous result for the Labour Party. To put it in historic perspective, Sedgefield has been Labour since 1935.
LANGFITT: The red wall collapsed for various reasons. The Labour Party never took a clear position on leaving the European Union, the biggest issue the country's faced in decades. Many Labour voters here supported Brexit, while some incumbents, like Wilson, favored another public vote. But Wilson says a big problem was Jeremy Corbyn.
WILSON: On the doorstep, people would say to me, Phil, if you had a different leader, you'd walk this election. You would win it.
LANGFITT: Some voters complained that Corbyn's agenda, which included nationalizing rail services and taxing private school fees, was too left-wing. Corbyn also offered a grab-bag of giveaways, everything from free university tuition to free broadband. Hilary Smith is a writer in the nearby town of Newton Aycliffe.
HILARY SMITH: He just had a wish list. I don't think nationalization of big companies would've done the country any good at all. I don't know what - how he was going to fund it. You can't help but think he's a Marxist. Do we want a Marxist country? No (laughter).
LANGFITT: Given reactions like that, Phil Wilson says Labour's next leader must be a centrist.
WILSON: We've got to drag the party back into an area which speaks for the broad base of the British people, not just to the working class, but to the middle class as well because you can't win elections with only one of them.
LANGFITT: Wilson follows U.S. politics. He thinks there may be a lesson for the Democrats here. Choose a centrist to take on President Trump.
WILSON: If Bernie Sanders is the candidate, then you've got a radical left agenda that you're taking into the general election. I think he's got to be very careful that America isn't prepared for that. I don't know whether it's that kind of country.
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LANGFITT: At a local Labour Party meeting, Paul Daly has a completely different take.
PAUL DALY: I feel the Bern. You know, I love Bernie Sanders. I think he's absolutely brilliant.
LANGFITT: Daly is a math teacher and chair of the local Sedgefield Labour Party, which is meeting tonight at a working men's club - essentially a blue-collar social club - in Trimdon Colliery, a former mining village. Daly knows socialism is more controversial in America than here in the U.K. But he says in an era of income inequality, running a democratic socialist draws the perfect contrast with President Trump.
DALY: If things aren't going well, you vote for change. You don't vote for the status quo, which is the establishment figure. I think people are willing to vote anti-establishment. Trump is the establishment. He's rich. He was born rich.
LANGFITT: And in fairness, there are many differences between Sanders and Corbyn.
JOE TWYMAN: Jeremy Corbyn has not been popular in this country for a long period of time.
LANGFITT: Joe Twyman runs Deltapoll, a survey research firm. While polls show 48% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Sanders, a whopping 63% of Britons view Corbyn negatively.
TWYMAN: Historically, he was the most unpopular Labour leader that we have had in this country since the Second World War. He is seen as out of touch, not very effective. He's not seen as a strong leader.
LANGFITT: Whoever wins the Democratic nomination, some analysts here say he or she should take a page from the Trump-Johnson playbook and come up with a short, simple slogan, like build the wall or get Brexit done, that cuts through the noise and resonates with voters.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Sedgefield. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.