Corbyn offers little hope for the left in Latin America

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 12, 2017


The surprisingly good showing by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in last week’s election in the United Kingdom will likely not lead Latin American leftists to believe that a protectionist populist left-wing message is the way forward. The results in the UK speak more of the discontent at the incumbent government more than an intention by voters to embrace Corbyn’s message.


It is true that a win is a win. Even if handed power only because of a punishment vote against the ruling party, a party that attracts enough voters to form a government gets a chance to implement policies that, provided that they help put the country back on the right track, will produce electoral victories in the future.


The June 8 election was a setback for Theresa May and the Conservative Party. But it was not really a Labour victory. Theresa May will, at least for now, remain as prime minister. And even if she cannot hold onto power for much longer, a new Conservative prime minister is more likely than a Labour-led cabinet.

Of course, victories and defeats are both absolute and relative. The Conservative Party won more seats than Labour, but the opposition party increased its share of seats, going from 229 to 262 in the 650-seat House of Commons. Given that everyone expected a resounding Conservative victory just a few weeks ago, the results tasted like victory for Labour. Unsurprisingly there were more smiles in the Labour camp than among Conservative leaders on election night. Labour’s unexpectedly strong showing, only two months after Prime Minister May called a snap election, constituted a dramatic upsurge in support for their party — and a major setback for Conservatives.


Though May has been able to form a government coalition, it is fragile and there is strong pressure within the Conservative Party pushing for May’s resignation. The prime minister does not have a mandate to move forward with the Brexit negotiations with the European Union. Her position is weak and her coalition is fragile. Labour is in an expectant position, ready to try to form a government if the May-led Cabinet breaks out into infighting in the coming months between those committed to moving forward with Brexit and those who are having second thoughts.


Yet, Labour should not be misled, thinking that voters are attracted by its protectionist and pro-public sector messages. Many people who voted Labour sought to punish the Conservative Party’s embrace of Brexit. Others were simply fed up with the incumbents and wanted to throw them out, without paying much attention to the alternatives. The ability of Labour to energise its voter base had more to do with the dominant perception that the UK is moving in the wrong direction, not with a conviction that Labour knows how to put the country back on the right track.


To some extent, the election results were even better for Corbyn since the revival of Labour does not require him to deliver anything in the short or medium term. His campaign rhetoric will not need to be materialised into real policies. Corbyn will not be held accountable for what happens in Britain in the coming months. People have expressed their discontent with the direction of the country but Labour will not get a chance — at least not yet — to take the driver’s seat and try to steer the UK back onto a path of economic and sustainable growth.


In the rest of the world, the left is understandably happy to see a European country voting against conservatives. In most recent elections in Europe and Latin America, the left has suffered setbacks. Winning votes and seats is a welcome change for left-wing parties everywhere.


Yet, at least in Latin America, the left will likely not attempt to follow Corbyn’s model. In the region, left-wing governments embraced protectionist policies for 18 years, ever since Hugo Chávez came into power in Venezuela in 1999. Though there were positive results when the region benefitted from the commodity boom and there was plenty of money to fund social programmes and reduce poverty, the decline in terms of trade for the region has produced fiscal strain. People have voted against the left in Latin America and the protectionist policies the left embraced are unpopular. Because Brexit also represents a rejection of globalisation — a trend that both left and right in Latin America embrace, for different reasons — the protectionist message that the Labour Party has championed in the UK will not go well with voters in Latin America.


Corbyn’s message of social inclusion will be popular in Latin America and his drive to strengthen the public sector might also resonate with voters, especially in countries where the private sector runs unchecked and the safety net is weak or inexistent. But Corbyn’s admiration for Hugo Chávez’s legacy is not a popular strategy for left-wing leaders in the region. Leftists in Latin America have welcomed the Conservatives’ setback in the UK, but Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party does not represent a model to follow in Latin America.