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 contributorLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.