The Labour Party has elected a new leader – one that gives the Sanders movement in the Democratic Pary hope. His name is Jeremy Corbyn, aka “The exact opposite of Ed Miliband.” Unlike his predecessor Corbyn is resolute, visionary, and a completely unabashed member of what we could call “Old Labour” – the party that existed before Tony Blair turned it into something American Democrats would recognize, especially during the (Bill) Clinton years.
Does this mean Sanders and his progressive left supporters will take the Democratic Party? Will history repeat itself yet again and see Britain lead the way for the US? Like nearly any good political question, the short answer is “Yes” but the long answer is “No”.
Corbyn’s election with a 60% majority on the first ballot is a watershed in Labour Party history. He has never been in leadership before, consigned to the “back bench” during his 32 years in Parliament. When it started to look like he might win the poll of Labor registered voters across the UK, party stalwarts and leadership lined up blasting him as “unelectable” and that he would “spell disaster” for the party.
Hearing that from Ed Miliband, who led the last drubbing at the last general election, probably only helped Corbyn’s case.
This was the first time registered party members voted in a “one person, one vote” system that opened up leadership to all of the Labour Party. The old guard released control and the party faithful summarily responded.
Here in the United States we can’t help but ask whether this is a trend that we might follow, given our tendency to follow political trends out of the UK (and think primarily about ourselves). The coalition of youth that propelled this old, long ignored man of principle to the forefront does seem a lot like Sanders’ brigades, desperate to break up the oligarchy in favor of a more open system that supports working people.
The similarities hardly end there. Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) Democrats like Clinton similarly rode a wave that seemed to start with Tony Blair and still represent a centrist but non-populist strain of the party. The challenges within Labour were indeed the same as the challenges within the Democratic Party.
However, it’s easy to make far too much of Corbyn’s victory here across the Atlantic. The defeat in the last British general election was horrifically bad and cried for new party leadership – an event that simply has not happened in the US. More importantly, the entire structure of the UK government seems to be up for discussion with devolution and votes for independence in their regions and a growing disaffection with the EU – a position now welcome on the left after the horrific treatment of Greece.
President Obama himself, an able machine politician who is comfortable in populist clothes when it suits him, is the largest single difference.
The opposition, too, is completely different. The Tories hold a clear majority and rule from the center. Their largest potential weakness is the smug “I was born to rule” attitude that permeates PM David Cameron’s otherwise congenial visage. Labour voters can be forgiven for thinking that a strong dose of populism might actually be quite electable, thank you very much.
The similarities between Corbyn and Sanders seem much more interesting by comparison to the other party, in fact. Many Democrats are behaving like Republicans, lining up behind the establishment choice early, while Republicans wallow in chaos like Democrats on acid. The idea of a complete shake-up, now realized in the UK, has to seem not only desirable but organic to a party known for opening up to generational change in a way that makes cat herding seem fun and easy.
What can progressive left Democrats who support Sen Sanders take from the election of Corbyn? There is indeed a movement on the left that is growing in digits and desires, and it is global. It is a reasonable reaction to the ravages of globalism and the obvious answer to the worst of the damage done by a hurricane of change. Like the reactions on the right, the US Tea Party and the UKIP, this movement is much better at identifying what has gone wrong than it is at describing the vision of the new world ahead. But that may yet come.
The more important message from this election should be received by the Democratic establishment, which is to say Sec. Clinton and her supporters. The movement that they see ready to swamp them with a tidal surge is not going away and needs to be listened to. The real opening comes if the leadership changes this calling into a solid vision of progress towards a future together, demonstrating the purpose of leadership itself.
Failure to do this could well be fatal to the establishment. The challenge is very different than it was the UK, so the result can and should be different. Exactly how that goes down is entirely up to the establishment who are being tested more strongly than they have since FDR.
How is Corbyn like Sanders? Enough to get us talking. Hopefully, it will also be enough to get us to listen to each other, too.