The election of Jeremy Corbyn last month as leader of the British Labour Party — for the second time in a year, this time with an increased majority — continues to baffle and infuriate his enemies both within and without his party, as it does the serried ranks of Britain’s commentariat. Even The Guardian newspaper, for so long the Bible of the typical left-leaning British liberal, has been vehement in its opposition to Corbyn. Its strictures weren’t just ignored; a proportion of its readership is angry and gives every impression of feeling betrayed.
How is it, critics ask, that a majority of Labour’s membership — now over a half million — should go against the bulk of the parliamentary party and most of a shadow Cabinet that had resigned en masse in a failed attempt to defenestrate their leader? And what of the increasingly strident warnings of a former Labour leader, Tony Blair, who helped win general elections for a party that has spent rather too much time in opposition over the decades?
The truth is that, as with the votes in the Scottish referendum and the recent vote for Brexit, the professional politicians and mainstream media have simply got it wrong over the Corbyn effect. But then so did the pollsters, who were so badly off the mark that the former prime minister, David Cameron, went to bed on the night of the EU referendum believing those who had told him the vote would be for “Remain.”
Having got it so badly wrong, the default position of some critics is now to explain away Labour’s astonishing transformation from an ailing patient on life support to the largest membership party of the left in Europe by attributing it to a personality cult around Corbyn. The truth may be more prosaic. Britain’s “first past the post” electoral system ensured that a grass-roots movement for change was channeled through an existing entity — as opposed to breakaway populist movements, such as Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, who are boosted by proportional representation systems. And the splits on the left of European politics are equaled by the increasing influence of populist, nationalist parties of the far-right, such Austria’s Freedom Party, Poland’s Law and Justice Party, and Hungary’s ruling Fidesz, which just conducted an inconclusive yet corrosive referendum on migration. The losers now tend to be the big parties: the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany, the traditional Gaullists and Socialists in France, all facing coming elections with very real trepidation. Even Sweden’s once all-powerful Social Democrats cling to office by a thread.
Many of the same mistakes were made by the commentariat and pollsters in the United States over a septuagenarian conviction politician from Vermont who came within a hair’s-breadth of winning the Democratic Party nomination. Until recent weeks, the same has been true of a tax-avoiding behemoth of a billionaire, whose atavistic appeal has fallen on ready ears in Rust Belt states that were once the Democratic Party strongholds. For millennials, as for the once-proud blue-collar working class, warnings and the admonitions simply do not cut it. In fact, as in Britain, they have the opposite effect.
Few American and British commentators are taking the longer view. We forget at our peril that forces more powerful than nation-states have shaken old certainties to their very core — even for a superpower such as the United States. Much as the postwar era marked the high-water mark for the New Deal in America, so the late 1970s ushered in a reaction to perceived economic sclerosis, concentrated labor power, and “big government.” The elections of President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher heralded the triumph of the Chicago Business School, Milton Friedman, and deregulated banking systems. Globalization, all-encompassing free trade agreements, and cheap prices became the watchwords for policy makers. As electoral contests increasingly became determined by fewer participants, cutting taxes and cutting prices were seen as the way to win over voters from an apparently immoveable political center ground.
Only when muscular globalization was accompanied by the global banking crisis did the scales finally fall from many eyes.
And so now the wheel begins to turn again, as it did at the end of the Second World War and as it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bernie Sanders resonates with millenials, who know that their opportunities for good jobs, earning a pension, and owning a home have been diminished by an increasingly despised governing generation that kicked the ladder away. Jeremy Corbyn, his self-defeating parliamentary colleagues notwithstanding, has caught a similar zeitgeist in Britain. Students saddled with enormous debt and a workforce whose wages have been frozen for decades are now in revolt against a burger-flipping world of temporary or zero contracts. Corbyn and Sanders have managed to reactivate at least part of a shattered base, because they do not politically triangulate and their authenticity is plain to see. They also rail against the race to the bottom and promise a return to solid, productive, unionized jobs. Whether what they have started will be enough to help turn the wheel to the left — or whether the nationalist, far-right is set to turn it forcefully harder in the opposite direction — is both a question and a challenge for our times.
Mark Seddon is a former editor of Tribune and member of the UK Labour Party’s ruling National Executive Committee.