Should Jeremy Corbyn’s Ideas Cross the Atlantic?
On April 18, in the face of rocky Brexit negotiations with the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May called for a snap election in a bid to shore up her Conservative Party’s control over Parliament. In her announcement outside No. 10 Downing Street, May blamed opposition parties Labour and the Liberal Democrats for destabilizing her government’s attempts to deliver on the referendum result from last year, in which the British people voted to leave the EU.
May hoped to gain a stronger majority and thus a mandate to push ahead for a hard Brexit. But on June 8, the election results handed her anything but a mandate. The Conservatives suffered a net loss of 13 seats, Labour managed a net gain of an astonishing 32 seats, and Britain ended up with a hung parliament.
In Britain’s multi-party system, a party needs to win 326 of the 650 seats in Parliament to have a majority that can form a ruling government outright. The Tories, as members of the Conservative Party are often called, now hold only 318 of those 326 seats.
Since the election, May has made a deal with the far-right Democratic Unionist Party and thus maintained her place as prime minister, but her image was greatly damaged by an embarrassing campaign and the shock election results. In April, before she called the snap election, May’s favorability rating was as high as +21 percent – an opinion poll in July put her at -20 percent.
But what is perhaps more shocking than the prime minister’s popularity slump is the surge of support that Labour has seen under its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn rose to the role of party leader in 2015, after having long been regarded with suspicion by mainstream Labour members who viewed him as too far left and branded him unelectable. After the latest election results, however, that “unelectable” label has begun to chip away.
Jeremy Corbyn has been the MP for Islington North since 1983. In 2015, under the leadership of Ed Miliband, Labour lost the general election to David Cameron’s Conservatives. Miliband resigned as leader, and to the surprise of many, Corbyn was subsequently voted leader of the party.
In an interview with The Politic, Joe Peck ’21 explained why he voted for Corbyn in the 2015 leadership contest. “I liked what he said and believed in, and I liked his rebuttal of everything that happened to the Labour party over the years: becoming increasingly centrist and forgetting its roots,” he said.
In 2016, another leadership contest saw Corbyn take 62 percent of the vote, while his main challenger, Owen Smith, received only 38 percent. This was an impressive result for someone who had been seen as an outsider within the party for years.
But not all has been smooth for Corbyn since his rise to Party leader, and when May called the snap election in April, she did it precisely because the Tories were doing so well in opinion polls as compared to Labour.
By the time of the 2017 general election, Peck had lost faith in Corbyn’s leadership. “I had no hope at all that he’d actually achieve anything and I thought that he would lose a lot of seats,” he said.
In spite of seeing little hope for Labour in the election, Peck campaigned for the Labour candidate in his local constituency of Plymouth Sutton and Devonport from 6 AM to 6 PM on election day. “Even though I spent the whole day on the doorsteps speaking to people, I didn’t have any indication that it would be better,” Peck said.
Then, as the results came in on election night, Labour shocked on-lookers by taking both swing seats and seats that were previously considered firmly Conservative. With this success, Corbyn went from being an insecure leader who many members of his own party viewed as a liability to being the popular leader of a competitive opposition party with real clout in Westminster.
“There were talks of him possibly being able to form a government, which, though it wasn’t likely, the fact that people would say that is pretty commendable,” said Brandon Chambers ’21 in an interview for The Politic.
Though Labour lost the 2017 election and remains an opposition party, the tone of British politics has changed since April. To be sure, there have been other events besides the election that have influenced May’s image–the Grenfell Tower fire, the persistently contentious negotiations with the EU, and terrorist attacks such as the attack at London Bridge and Borough Market and the Parsons Green tube bombing come to mind as particularly notable examples. But Labour supporters feel emboldened by their success, and many are pointing to what they see as a leftward shift in British politics.
At a campaign event in Peterborough, England, Corbyn said that “Elections are, yes, about knocking on doors and talking to voters, but they are also about framing the debate. I have been very clear that this is a national debate.” And in the months since the election, it has seemed that Corbyn has been remarkably successful in framing the national debate in Britain.
“There’s a sense that at least in Westminster, amongst the political class, the debate has shifted onto ground which is more favorable to Corbyn because people are taking him more seriously, rightly or wrongly,” said Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History and Director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham, in an interview for The Politic.
“Because [Corbyn] has become Labour leader, he’s been able to entrench himself in the party. Because he did quite well, or not as disastrously as people thought that he would do in the election, more widely, he’s been able to influence aspects of the national political debate,” said Fielding.
Some of the domestic policy points that May has been forced to address in months since the election has been issues that Labour emphasized during the campaign. For example, Corbyn advocated for the abolition of university tuition fees, believing that higher education should be paid for through taxation rather than through student payments.
“That wasn’t being talked about before the election,” said Fielding. “It’s now a problem that the government is trying to address in some way.”
Corbyn is not a typical Labour Party leader. Many of his policies are decidedly left of those supported by past Labour leaders, especially when compared to those of former prime minister Tony Blair.
“Jeremy Corbyn believes in a much more radical idea of the role of the state … you might even say a predominant role for the state, which in terms of the policies he’s associated with, is in dramatic contrast to the Labour Party historically … but also philosophically,” said Fielding. “Compared to generations of Labour leaders, it’s a radical departure from the position of the state versus the market.” Corbyn’s desire to nationalize British railroads and utilities and his push to abolish university tuition fees are examples of ways in which he seeks to expand the role of the state.
Under Corbyn, Labour has gained a great deal of support among young voters.
“I have always been able to relate to the Labour Party, but since Jeremy Corbyn has been the leader, I find myself arguing [for] Labour policies far more strongly and more often,” Lucy McEwan ’21, from Liverpool, England, told The Politic. McEwan explained that she supports Corbyn both because of his personal appeal and because she believes that his policies are morally correct.
In addition to energizing Labour-leaning people such as McEwan, Corbyn has also successfully made enthusiastic supporters out of people who are usually disinterested in politics because they don’t identify with mainstream candidates. According to Fielding, he has also brought back into Labour older members who left the party when it was led by Tony Blair because they disapproved of his accommodation of neo-liberalism.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Many people have drawn comparisons between Corbyn and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Both are self-described socialist politicians who have spent decades in their respective countries’ legislatures, holding views that are to the left of their countries’ main liberal parties. Both have recently run populist campaigns that have gained traction among young voters, and both have defied expectations with their rapid rises to prominence.
They have often praised each other, too. Sanders refrained from formally endorsing Corbyn ahead of the UK election, saying that it would be inappropriate for a foreign politician to do so. However, in the week leading up the election, he went on a three-day speaking tour in the UK in which he didn’t hold back compliments for the Labour leader. At the Brighton festival, Sanders said that “What has impressed me – and there is a real similarity between what he [Corbyn] has done and what I did – is he has taken on the establishment of the Labour party, he has gone to the grassroots and he has tried to transform that party … and that is exactly what I am trying to do.”
Can the methods Labour used to gain seats be successfully transferred to the U.S.? Some of Labour’s strategies during the campaign are things that have already been used to great effect in America. Corbyn held mass rallies to excite large crowds of voters, and volunteers participated in grassroots campaigning to engage voters on the local level. His team also organized a great deal of digital outreach, with ads on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. They even created apps of their own to help voters find their nearest polling station and to help volunteers find the nearest swing district where they could talk to voters.
Beyond practical aspects of campaigning, however, some American politicians believe that Labour’s shift towards a Corbynite brand of populism is really what powered the election result, and they seem to believe that it could work on the other side of the Atlantic.
Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are among these politicians. They believe that shifting the Democratic Party away from the center-left and towards a platform of economic populism is the is the key to taking control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections.
In some parts of America, there is certainly an appetite for the sort of left-wing populism peddled by Corbyn, Sanders, and Warren.
“It’s like a proof of concept, that democratic socialist policies are popular…and they can do really well at motivating people,” said Isaac Kirk-Davidoff ’18 of Labour’s surprise success in an interview for The Politic. Kirk-Davidoff is an active member of Yale Democratic Socialists, which was founded after the 2016 election.
But a party-wide shift left, modeled after Corbyn’s changes to the Labour Party and in line with what Sanders and Warren advocate for, is not the solution to Democrats’ midterm conundrum.
If Democrats choose to ride the populist wave in 2018, it’s conceivable that they could pick up seats in districts dominated by white, working-class voters. But there simply aren’t enough districts like this to propel a Democratic majority to the House.
Much attention has been given to traditionally Republican districts where Trump did poorly. One such district is Georgia’s Sixth, where Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff came close to beating Republican Karen Handel in a special election earlier this year. Ossoff didn’t come close to winning this red district by parroting Bernie Sanders, however; his approach was pragmatically centrist. A Corbynite approach would not be attractive in a district like Georgia’s Sixth.
In an interview for The Politic, Makayla Haussler, ’19, Legislative Coordinator of the Yale College Democrats, pointed out the importance of choosing candidates who can speak to local issues. With regards to Democratic senators from mid-Western states, Haussler said that “the reason why they’ve managed to hang on is that they speak to state issues very well, in a way that National Democratic candidates typically don’t.”
Haussler also indicated that Democratic candidates in her home state of Nebraska have tailored their platforms to the local political landscape. “In both Lincoln and Omaha, I think you see more moderate Democrats who are pro-business. A lot of their platforms focus on economic growth, how you bring more businesses to Lincoln or Omaha. Lincoln is also a university town, and because there are more young people there, they’ve been effective in raising social justice issues that young people tend to care about.”
The Democratic Party needs to tailor its approach to each targeted district on the local level; the same approach won’t win across America and there is no one model candidate that would be competitive in enough districts for Democrats to stand a chance. Democrats need to field candidates who are suited to the local political climate, and this is incompatible with a party-wide shift to the left.
Another thing to consider is that the Labour Party did not conduct its 2017 campaign in a vacuum, and some of its success may have been due to the Conservative Party’s stumbles rather than due to Labour’s own campaigning prowess. The Tories were badly damaged by the disastrous roll-out of their party manifesto, which led to May’s reversal over the policy infamously known as the “dementia tax.”
American liberals should also answer the question of whether or not the Democratic Party should be seeking to model itself after Corbyn’s Labour Party in the first place. Corbyn has made some alarming statements on terrorist groups and dictators in the past. Last year, he said that Fidel Castro “will be remembered both as an internationalist and a champion of social justice” following the Cuban dictator’s death, and he has praised the leadership of Muammar Qaddafi and Hugo Chavez. Many people have also noticed anti-Semitism creeping into the Labour Party under his leadership, and he has received a great deal of criticism for referring to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” in 2015. (In July 2016, during a committee meeting regarding anti-Semitism in his party, he said that he regretted his wording.)
Furthermore, Corbyn’s foreign policy views are unusually anti-American.
According to Fielding, Corbyn’s negative view of the United States is another issue that sets him apart from past Labour leaders. “He doesn’t believe in the transatlantic alliance, he doesn’t believe in the special relationship, he doesn’t believe that the United States is in any real sense a force for good,” said Fielding. “He’s a radical skeptic with regards to the United States.” In Fielding’s view, this is something that vastly separates Sanders and Corbyn. Corbyn’s anti-American foreign policy views would clearly be fatal to any candidate attempting to run for office in America.
Democrats will need a diverse set of strategies if they want to be the majority party representing their diverse country. Corbyn’s Labour may be on the rise in Britain, but his success does not present a straightforward path for the Democrats. There may be some Corbyn and Sanders supporters who would prefer pure ideology, but politics is a game of strategy.