Opinion Op Ed 07 Jul 2017 People vs Establishm ...
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi

People vs Establishments: Crisis for the West

Published Jul 7, 2017, 2:33 am IST
Updated Jul 8, 2017, 3:59 pm IST
The electorate trounced Prime Minister Theresa May and pushed Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn way up on the charts.
American President Donald Trump
 American President Donald Trump

I put it down to a journalist’s luck. Nothing else explains the spontaneous gathering on November 8 (US election day) at Lucknow Boy, Nusrat Durrani’s loft under the Brooklyn Bridge. Journalists, musicians, failed left-wing artists, state department officials, former World Bankers, and a sprinkling of the Lucknow diaspora, all anxious to pop open the champagne as soon as Hillary Clinton crossed the victory line.

We all know what happened. Mr Trump won. The champagne bottles were listlessly restored to Nusrat’s cellar. The American establishment had egg on its face. On June 8, a similar cameo was enacted at St. James’ Court Hotel in London. The electorate trounced Prime Minister Theresa May and pushed Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn way up on the charts.

 

A glaring reality hits you between the eyes. In both instances, people trumped the establishment (pardon the unintended pun). But this is not the case elsewhere in Europe. And thereby hangs a tale. Since the June results, Mr Corbyn hasn’t looked back. The recent rise in the electability of the Labour Party leader as Britain’s next Prime Minister, according to the latest opinion polls, has not made headline news.

This is not surprising as Establishments everywhere, of which the media is a part, imagine that an idea can be made to vanish by playing it down. But the findings of the poll had to be published even in conservative newspapers like The Telegraph in London. This virtually amounts to a taboo being lifted from the idea of Mr Corbyn. Call it acquiescence, if you like. Senior Labour leaders, indeed authors of New Labour like Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, must be close to a nervous breakdown. Or they must be working very hard, as Lord Mandelson has admitted in interviews, to “undermine Corbyn”. The difficulty with mean-minded cribbing by Lord Mandelson is that it generates sympathy among Mr Corbyn’s growing tribe of supporters. Take this quote from a Labour member: “Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister implementing policies that actually benefit the people terrifies the Establishment. It is no surprise that Mandelson has found space in his busy schedule for spending time on oligarch’s yachts to attempt to undermine Jeremy.”

This being the tone of the exchange, Mr Corbyn’s path to eventual success will be made ever more difficult by the Establishment, of which Lord Mandelson and the Deep State are parts. There is, however, a tailwind of recent history particular to Britain, which may be helping Mr Corbyn. Accelerated globalisation after the Soviet collapse was a shot in the arm for capitalism. This, in its turn, generated arbitrary inequalities which erupted in such movements as “Occupy Wall Street”. The Republican “Tea Party” was the immediate counter-punch. The popular will adapts to changing climate. Establishments, obstinately resistant to change, begin to strategise: how to channelise or thwart the popular will.

In almost all Western democracies, the conflict is on: Establishments versus The People. A left-wing Syriza brought 43-year-old Alexis Tsipras to power as Prime Minister of Greece. Germany and the EU broke the movement’s will: revert to austerity, or we shall not pick up your debts. In Spain, where the ghost of Franco still hovers over public life, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the right-wing People’s Party supervised over such unspeakable corruption (another gift of globalisation) that a new Communist-inclined party Podemos, under the leadership of 39-year-old Pablo Iglesias, burst upon the scene. The resulting stalemate between the People’s Party, Socialists and Podemos led to a repeat election which yielded more or less the same configuration. The Establishment worked overtime. On the pain of being decimated, the Socialists allowed themselves to be persuaded to abstain in a parliamentary vote. This let the corrupt PP hold on to power. The idea is to weaken and eventually erase Podemos by sheer attrition and election fatigue.

In the process of warding off unfriendly political trends, the Establishment learnt another lesson. The sprinkling of leaders breaking out of the two-party suffocation were all anti-austerity, leftists and in their 30s and 40s. Why couldn’t the “right” respond with similar aspirations?

That exactly is what has been attempted in Spain by launching Ciudadanos (Citizens), a centrist party with an unusual rise on an anti-corruption platform. I met people in Madrid and Barcelona who described the new party as “Podemos of the Right”. In terms of youth, Ciudadanos is an improvement. Its leader, Albert Rivera, 35, is four years younger than Pablo Iglesias.

“They are stealing Podemos’ aesthetics” — laments Madrid’s Communist mayor, Manuela Carmena, who hung a giant placard outside her office: “Refugees Welcome”. She tweets: “We are not going to criminalise the Muslim community” and “The response to terror must be solidarity.” Her punchline is: “Coexistence = safer cities”. The aesthetics which define young leaders in Greece, Spain and Canada appear to have been grafted on France’s Emmanuel Macron too. He is their age and talks of influencing the EU to reduce the burden of austerity. The scale of his success has encouraged him to be openly ambidextrous. He invited Donald Trump to the National Day parade on July 14. This despite Mr Trump having withdrawn from the Paris accord on climate change.

In brief, different kinds of gyrations define Western democracies today. In this overall confused picture, another reality remains largely unnoticed. A Fox News poll published some months ago (mostly ignored) shows that Bernie Sanders has a +28 rating above all US politicians on both ends of the political spectrum. The Guardian’s Trevor Timm wrote recently: “One would think with numbers like that, Democratic politicians would be falling all over themselves to be associated with Sanders, specially considering the party as a whole is more unpopular than the Republicans and even Donald Trump right now.

Yet instead of embracing his message, the establishment wing of the party continues to resist him at almost every turn, and they seem insistent that they don’t have to change their ways to gain back the support of huge swathes of the country. The moral of the story is this: a rattled Establishment is in many democracies rushing to thwart or redirect the popular will — and with mixed success.

Against this backdrop, there appears on the horizon a certain British exceptionalism. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader despite Tony Blair, Lord Mandelson and the parliamentary party, the results of the Brexit referendum, the way in which Theresa May was trounced in June 8 elections — all point to the Establishment in Britain, unlike elsewhere, clearly contained by the people.

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