As with the rise of Syriza in Greece and the growth of Podemos in Spain, Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning win in the UK Labour Party’s leadership election is evidence that something profound is happening within European electorates. The unexpected turns in the Democratic primary indicate that a similar and related shift is happening in the United States, opening the door for significant gains for progressives after many decades of right-wing and corporate dominance. Moreover, the similarities between the United States and the United Kingdom are far greater than between the United States and either Greece or Spain. It stands to reason that if there were lessons to learn from the Greek left, then the Brits might have something to teach us, too.
Corbyn’s victory represents a forceful insertion of a genuine left alternative to austerity, corporate power, xenophobia, racism, and militarism into the mainstream of British politics. By running a lively, militant, and hopeful campaign, Corbyn and the forces behind him have created the conditions necessary to build power on the left. The only reason those of us on the left in America might want to avoid imitating this result would be if we don’t actually think that Americans want a left alternative—in other words, if we don’t think we can win. Looking at Bernie Sanders’s candidacy through the mirror of Corbyn’s suggests that it is possible for the left to make a national intervention in American politics—and that what we need to do is to figure out how. As Pablo Iglesias has said, “The left can win.” So what can we learn from the Corbynistas?
1) The messenger matters. Voters don’t necessarily hate politicians. What they hate is a class of people who for the sake of their own political advancement are content to play by the rules of a political system that manifestly fails to deliver the goods. Establishment politicians are simply not credible opponents of a system that they complacently serve. Corbyn and Sanders are both long-time elected officials, but both have always also been outsiders, without any significant power base within Labour or the Democrats. Both are forthrightly ideological in their views, and in particular both have been intransigent opponents of austerity in any guise. Both are men of modest means and modest egos. These factors matter greatly in their ability to attract support.
2) The message matters more. What led people by the hundreds of thousands to register to vote in the Labour leadership election was the combination of Corbyn’s credibility as a spokesperson for his program with his program itself. Labour voters were presented with three candidates who ranged from reactionary to milquetoast on economic policy, and one candidate who pledged open combat against austerity. Corbyn put forward a vigorously left program for ending years of economic stagnation and deteriorating public services, and people rallied to it. Sanders has also put forward an emphatically left-wing program to address the economic, political, and ecological ills facing the country, one that is many miles to the left of what any pundit or pollster thinks is acceptable to the American mainstream. Yet his poll numbers surge by the day. An alternative vision, combined with a credible spokesman for that vision, can rally mass support.