What’s behind the socialist revival in the US and the UK?

The success of Corbyn and Sanders is down to more than just anger at welfare cuts


Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn share much in common. Flung from political obscurity to the forefront of national movements, their socialist platforms have galvanised young support while terrifying party moderates who maintain that neither are electable.

The groundswell in support for left-wing candidates is not unique to the UK and the US, however. From Syriza in Greece to Podemos in Spain, anti-austerity parties have been making significant gains, while neo-liberal politicians, most notably Tony Blair, dismiss their supporters as naïve.

But there is more to this socialist revival than just anger at cuts to welfare; although Corbyn’s popularity is in part attributable to his belief that austerity does not work, much of his appeal stems from his status as a rank outsider and his refusal to engage in personality politics.

Sanders too is yet to lower himself to the name-calling, slur-based tactics that epitomise the campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. In an age dominated by technocratic, air-brushed career politicians more concerned with sound bites than substance, Corbyn and Sanders offer a refreshing alternative.

Whether purposefully or not, Corbyn won the Labour leadership contest by turning the election into a referendum on the state of politics in the UK, and across the pond, Sanders is attempting much the same thing.

Where their rivals are conciliatory with big business, Corbyn and Sanders are confrontational; Hillary Clinton’s failure to rouse the same kind of grass roots support as Sanders is due in part to her reputation as a ‘Washington insider’, and her over dependency on rich donors and super PACS.

Peter Mandelson, immediately after their loss in the 2015 general election, argued that Labour had ‘given the impression that we weren’t with the money creators’, while a month or so later Burnham, Kendall and Cooper all either abstained from or voted in favour of a Tory-backed welfare bill that would consign millions of children to poverty. Only Corbyn offered a break from the social neo-liberal or ‘third way’ economic and social policies that so many on the left were beginning to tire of.

Tarnished by their affiliation with New Labour, Corbyn’s rivals failed to appreciate that more of the same was not what their party needed. ‘Radical leftism is often reactionary’ argued Tony Blair, but who can deny that Corbyn has energised a generation of previously apathetic voters; in a recent survey by the Guardian, it was reported that party membership had ‘doubled, trebled, quadrupled or even quintupled’ in almost every constituency polled.

Between Corbyn becoming leader on 12 September and Christmas Eve, 87,158 joined the Labour party, while in the US, Sanders has been equally successful in attracting new, mostly young voters, to his cause.

Are Corbyn, Sanders and their supporters guilty of idealism? David Brooks, of the New York Times, thinks so. In the ethos of what he calls ‘expressive individualism’, “individual authenticity is the supreme value. Compromise and coalition-building is regarded as a dirty and tainted activity. People congregate in segregated cultural and ideological bubbles and convince themselves that the purest example of their type could actually win”.

The implication is that, by disregarding dissent within his party, and failing to acknowledge the importance of the centre ground, Corbyn’s sweeping policies on everything from tax reform to tuition fees, will remain unrealised; better to compromise and choose a candidate with broad appeal, than go with your heart and end up forever in opposition.

Such naysaying, however, is exactly the kind of thing that has left so many disillusioned with politics as it is at present. Like his political soul mate across the Atlantic, Corbyn will need the young, the marginalised and the disenfranchised to turn up en masse if he is to win in 2020. Only by harnessing this previously untapped resource will he or Sanders be able to overcome the need to compromise that has stymied radical change for so long.

As Sanders said on the campaign trail last month:

“The real way that change takes place is when people on the bottom begin to stand up and say enough is enough. That’s true of the civil rights movement, it is true of the women’s movement, it’s true of the environmental movement, of the gay movement. Millions of people begin to stand up and say, “We need change”.

George Steer is a student and contributor

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115 Responses to “What’s behind the socialist revival in the US and the UK?”

  1. Bradley B.

    There were three great destroyers of socialist ideology in the West, The first was the cruelty of the Soviet Bloc. The second was the rise of consumerism which took the edge off struggle and the third was the rise of single issue politics which contradicted class-based ideology exemplified nicely by Monsanto being awarded a prize for achieving such a high number of women executives in 2013.

    The current revival of social democracy comes along with the hard-learned lesson that the most serious problem humanity faces is the accumulation of wealth and power at the top. Having the globe destroyed by corporations run by women, gays and non-white heterosexual men is a naughty thought that the left does not like to engage with.

    Over the last few years there were times when it seemed ‘equality” and ”equal” were concepts applicable to gay marriage only. This skewing of energy and thought into single issues while the world falls apart appears to be ending. If we can also see a decline in politically correct censorship across the spectrum of thought and ideas that occupy our cultures, then it should be possible to build a new consensus through open dialogue.

    However the greatest difficulty will be in moving support from 25% of all voters to 45% of all voters in democratic states. Hard to see that happening though the impending debt-laden recession may help.

  2. toffer99

    What’s behind the revival of the Left? The puke-making evil scumbaggery of the malevolent bumblefucks on the right. Do I make myself clear?

  3. Cole

    So Corbyn doesn’t engage in personality politics? True – but he gets his henchmen and disciples to do it, and they are vicious and abusive. Anyone who is not a disciple is denounced as ‘Bliarite’ or ‘Tory lite’ and are to to ‘f*** off and join the Tories’. They’ve introduced a nasty new tone to British politics.

  4. David Coats

    Not a bad assessment of the failures of the mainstream candidates but a bit too generous to Corbyn (and Bernie Sanders) I’m afraid. It was the crisis of 2007-10 that did for New Labour and for many of the social democratic parties that are continuing to struggle in continental Europe. What is needed is a new social democratic synthesis that draws on the best of Labour’s traditions. What we have today, however, is a leadership that is trying to turn Labour into a peculiarly British version of Podemos or Syriza. In a proportional representation system this could almost work, although it’s a long shot and neither Greece nor Spain are really positive examples.

    It’s better perhaps to make comparisons with the rise of right populism. In that sense Corbyn/Sanders are the flip side of the UKIP/Tea Party coin. They reflect the anti-politics response to the crisis. Neither offers a sound foundation (especially in a first past the post system) for the resurgence of progressive politics. The likely outcome is continued Tory governments to 2025 or 2030. I have every confidence however, that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination and beat the Republican in November.

    Arguably, the Clintons (both of them) are making more of an effort to develop a progressive post-crisis agenda than the centre-left in the UK. Larry Summers (who has served both Clinton and Obama and is likely to be in Hillary’s cabinet) is developing an interesting economic policy agenda, having abandoned his enthusiasm for the pre-crisis status quo (of which he was one of the architects). Higher minimum wages, stronger wage floors generally, measure to boost worker participation and changes to labour law to make life easier for unions are all part of the Summers policy prospectus. Moreover, he is arguing (with more enthusiasm than Ed Balls ever managed) that governments can now borrow at historically low interest rates and should be doing so to invest in infrastructure that improves the productive potential of the economy. No doubt Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders could agree with all of this but the left-populist commitments that Corbyn made at the weekend Fabian conference are unlikely to do anything to restore Labour’s economic policy credibility.

  5. DemSoc93

    While I can’t and won’t excuse some bullies among my fellow Corbynites. Let’s not pretend politics was all sunshine and kittens before September 2015.

    Whenever I see a fellow Corbynite being an arsehole I send them this…

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