What are the chances of a couple of grey-haired men spearheading change on both sides of the Atlantic? It would be unwisely optimistic to exaggerate the prospects. Yet the very fact the question can be raised is in itself something of a novelty.
After all, who would have thought that a 73-year-old who describes himself as a democratic socialist could get much traction in his quest for the Democratic nomination in the US? Yet Bernie Sanders has been attracting bigger crowds than Hillary Clinton, and the opinion poll gap between the two has narrowed.
In Britain, meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn barely made it on to the Labour Party’s leadership ballot, but has since then steadily been winning the support of trade unions and activists. He, too, is a socialist. It would be an understatement to describe Sanders as something of an anomaly in the American context. Although the former mayor of Burlington has represented Vermont as a Congressman and senator for decades, he has been the only member of the US Congress to self-identify as a socialist.
In recent decades that term has featured prominently, if fallaciously, in invectives against the Obama administration. Sanders suggests he would go much further. He frequently cites the Scandinavian model of social democracy, and argues that too many Americans are unaware of the European scenario where healthcare and education are considered rights, and are either free or heavily subsidised.
Europe has been retreating from these norms, but by and large remains considerably more progressive than the US. This is an aspect of American exceptionalism of which Sanders would like his fellow citizens to be more aware. More broadly, he militates against the notion that “small government” is necessarily a virtue, while simultaneously opposing excesses. Corporate power is a particular bugbear, not least because of its electoral influence. Sanders’ refusal to accept contributions from Wall Street puts him at a disadvantage vis-à-vis Hillary.
It would nonetheless be incredibly interesting to see Sanders, who claims to represent the 99% against the “two-tenths of 1%” who have benefited from the redistribution of wealth in the US, go up against any contender of the Republican Party.
Perhaps inevitably, some on the left who don’t disagree with anything Sanders says in public find him wanting in several other respects, notably when it comes to US foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel or Russia. On the other hand, Hillary offers precious little respite on those fronts. Now she stands a reasonable chance of not just winning the Democratic contest for nomination but of becoming the first female President.
That’s inevitably a positive in some respects. Let’s not forget, though, that Britain’s first female PM was a determined radical who began to roll back the welfare state — and was followed in due course by a Labour PM who effectively followed in her tracks. Tony Blair has warned the Labour Party against swerving to the left, and most of the candidates aspiring for the party’s leadership agree. The assumption that Labour floundered under Ed Miliband because it veered too far from the centre is misguided. A coherent alternative to the neoliberal austerity offered by the Conservatives would probably have stood Labour in much better stead in this year’s polls.
Corbyn stands out for going against the grain. Like Sanders, he believes in the redistribution of wealth. More broadly, the fact that he chairs the Stop the War Coalition and is a vice-president of the Campaign for N- Disarmament serves as a reminder that British socialism differs from the American variant. It has been suggested that the Conservative Party would like nothing better than to have Corbyn at Labour’s helm, as that would alienate enough of the electorate to entrench a Tory majority for years to come. It would be well worth finding out whether that is the case. The real fear of a socialist alternative comes from the danger that it might grab public imagination. It hasn’t happened yet, but Sanders and Corbyn are indications that it should not be ruled out.
By arrangement with Dawn...