Jeremy Corbyn, a sexagenarian socialist and vegetarian teetotaler, and for 32 years a prickly, independent backbencher in the British parliament, has been elected in a landslide to lead the British Labour Party. The victory of the “British Bernie Sanders” raises the obvious question: Could that happen here?
British parties and politics are far different from those of the United States. But the two countries have experienced parallel sea-changes in the past. The victory of the “Iron Lady,” movement conservative Maggie Thatcher in 1979, presaged Ronald Reagan’s stunning victory in 1980. The two leaders helped launch the conservative era, arguing in Thatcher’s words, “there is no alternative.”
Bill Clinton packaged himself as a “New Democrat” to tack to these prevailing conservative winds and win the presidency in 1992. Tony Blair followed and imitated, championing “New Labour” to win the lead of the party in 1994 and the country in 1997. Both touted their savvy in embracing conservative positions on welfare, crime and deregulation.
Corbyn’s victory and Sanders’ stunning rise in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination – he now polls better than Clinton in both New Hampshire and Iowa, the only states where voters are paying much attention – suggest a new sea change could be in the making.
Like Sanders, Corbyn has been a principled outsider to his own party as it tacked right. Corbyn was dismissed as “unelectable” from the start, an argument made, as Laurie Penny of the New Statesman wrote, “by three candidates who can’t even win an election against Jeremy Corbyn.” Hillary Clinton’s supporters similarly scorn Sanders as unelectable, even as their candidate falls behind him in early polling.
Beneath the Corbyn victory and the Sanders surge is a revolt against politics as usual. What the chattering gaggles of “political strategists” find it difficult to absorb is how much people are fed up with an establishment politics that has utterly failed them.
Tony Blair is now loathed among Labour Party voters for joining George W. Bush in lying Britain into the war on Iraq. Hillary Clinton voted for the war, and only begrudgingly apologized after the political costs of that vote became apparent in 2008. Sanders, like Corbyn, opposed the war from the start. An entire generation of activists came into politics in opposition to that debacle.
Blair and Bill Clinton celebrated a “third way” that championed bipartisan embrace of financial deregulation, corporate trade policies (“free trade”), fiscal austerity (budget surplus), rollback of poverty programs (“welfare reform”) and tough-on-crime extremism (“mandatory sentences”). Followers of both scorned labor unions as outmoded relics. Both heralded the end of the “era of big government.”
The results were devastating. Financial bubbles followed by financial collapse. Gilded Age inequality and a declining middle class. Mass incarceration. Public squalor. Unending trade deficits that savaged American manufacturing and American workers. Millions in America surviving on less than two dollars a day. And, the final insult, a “recovery” – strangled by a bipartisan embrace of austerity – that saved the banks and served the few, while most Americans struggle with stagnant wages and less security. People are increasingly convinced that the rules are rigged against them.
Sanders and Corbyn opposed the deregulation, the rollback of welfare, the cutbacks in public investment. Corbyn calls for renationalizing the British railroads, in notable decline after privatization. Sanders champions national health care, protesting a costly health system corrupted by insurance and drug companies. Both condemn a fiscal austerity that slows growth, undermines wages and cuts back public services.
Both New Labour and New Democrats embraced big-money politics, even as they bemoaned it. From Clinton to Obama to Clinton, Democrats promise to get big money out of politics but, claiming they can’t “unilaterally disarm,” build ever-greater war chests from ever-larger donations. Hillary Clinton aims at raising more than $2 billion for her campaign this year.
The Clintons and Blair profited personally after they left office, rewarded no doubt for their service. Both boasted of their sophistication in message development, polling and focus groups. Now people are sick of packaged politicians. Corbyn and Sanders are, in the modern lingo, “authentic.” And as The Washington Post’s Dan Balz gently phrased it, “[Hillary] Clinton has yet to find this voice.”
Corbyn’s election, Balz concludes, was a “full and conscious rejection of the New Labour philosophy of Tony Blair.” In the run-up to the election, Labour Party membership surged by one-third, as the young, the working poor, and union members flooded in to vote for Corbyn. Labour collected 15,000 new members in the 24 hours after Corbyn was chosen.
Sanders has focused his campaign on a rejection of the bipartisan, big-money-dominated politics that has failed America. And his campaign has been met with a remarkable surge of support among the young, the working poor and union members.
There are, of course, many differences. Winning the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party is a far different, more costly, more exhausting process than becoming head of the Labour Party. Money plays a much bigger role in America’s elections.
And Hillary Clinton has sought to navigate the new currents. She’s put forth serious reform proposals on mass incarceration, immigration and election reform. She will champion vital parts of a progressive economic agenda – from making college more affordable to paid family leave, universal pre-school and more.
But she presents herself as more hawkish and interventionist than Obama on foreign policy. And she has yet to stray from the New Democrat embrace of corporate trade policies, take on the big banks, or champion the rebuilding of America. She has said she wants to make climate change central to her campaign, but we have seen few signs of that yet.
“There is no alternative,” Thatcher proclaimed. New Democrats and New Labour accepted that. The “Washington consensus” hailed the triumph of markets, even as the U.S. proclaimed itself the “indispensable nation.” Then it all fell apart.
Corbyn presented a choice: “It doesn’t have to be unfair, poverty isn’t inevitable, things can and they will change.” Sanders applauded his victory, noting that “we need leadership in every country of the world which tells the billionaire class that they can’t have it all.”
Corbyn will have a hard time reviving a badly divided and demoralized Labour Party. Sanders remains a long shot in the Democratic primaries. But one thing is already clear: The center will not hold. The old consensus is collapsing in the wake of its failures. People are casting about for a new course.