Left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the British Labour Party leadership race this past weekend came just as polls showed that Bernie Sanders may be pulling ahead of Hillary Clinton in Iowa, adding to his already established lead in New Hampshire. Look back only a few years ago and few would have predicted that one self-declared socialist would be heading up British Labour and that another would be a real contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. Their gains are a reason for left optimism, but they also serve as reminders of the need for unity and tactical flexibility.
Corbyn handily captured the top spot in the Labour Party and beat out three challengers at a special conference on Saturday, securing almost 60 percent of votes on the first ballot. Following his win, Corbyn made his first major public speech as leader only a few hours later at a rally in London in support of Syrian refugees.
He called on the governments of Europe to live up to their responsibility under the Geneva Convention to take in more asylum-seekers. “They’re victims of war; they’re victims of environmental degredation; they’re victims of poverty; they’re victims of human rights abuses all over the world,” he declared to a large crowd gathered in Parliament Square.
On the same day, Sanders was making a sweep through the old Confederacy, appearing on stage alongside African-American activist and academic Cornel West in South Carolina. In a series of events in recent weeks, the Sanders campaign has been working hard to grow its base beyond white progressives and to demonstrate its commitment to the causes of broad constituencies.
In a speech in Florence, S.C., Sanders spoke on the problems of mass incarceration and denounced what he called the “political cowardice” of Republicans who “scheme to make it harder for people who disagree with them to vote.” He also criticized the recent Supreme Court ruling that weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Sanders also took time Saturday to congratulate Corbyn on his win, telling the Huffington Post: “We need leadership in every country in the world which tells the billionaire class that they cannot have it all. We need economies that work for working families, not just the people on top.”
Both Corbyn and Sanders have been gathering support with platforms that strongly oppose austerity and challenge not only their right-wing opponents, but also the Labor and Democratic establishments. Each of them represents a bold challenge to the neoliberalism embraced by the Conservative and Republican Parties. Just as important, though, they symbolize a growing shift away from the ‘third way’ model of social democracy embraced by many center-left parties in recent decades.
For Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the holy political trinity of the 1990s was opportunity, responsibility, and community. The two leaders pushed this third way formula in opposition to the message of redistribution, welfare entitlement, and class and identity politics that they associated with what was called the ‘old left’. Today, with Corbyn and Sanders surging, it appears that this ‘old left’, long thought vanquished, may have a second life left in it. Along with the electoral gains of socialists across much of Europe, particularly in Greece and Spain, the struggle to define what it means to be on the political left has been reignited.
The third way advocates who dominated this discussion over the past twenty years are not taking the left-wing resurgence sitting down, however. Corbyn, despite his popularity with the grassroots, only won the backing of 14 of his 211 fellow Labour MPs. Many members of former leader Ed Miliband’s outgoing shadow cabinet have announced they will not serve under Corbyn, and at the first meeting of the Labour caucus on Monday, the environment was tense. Differences were aired over NATO, Trident nuclear missiles, and membership in the EU. Such division casts a shadow over election efforts heading toward 2020.
In the U.S., the competition between Sanders and Hillary Clinton has so far been more cordial, with each of the candidates focusing their criticisms on Republican adversaries and sticking to a discussion of major policy proposals. That may be beginning to change, though, as a pro-Clinton super PAC called Correct the Record issued a sharp attack on Sanders this week. In a classic red scare tactic, the group is trying to smear Sanders by drawing connections between him and Corbyn as well as the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
These divisions among progressives show that the left’s growing prominence brings with it the need to find ways to compete for control of the agenda while still safeguarding unity. Many commentators have called on Clintonites and Blairites to acknowledge the increased popularity of those to their left and work on cooperating. It is good advice. But the third way folks are not the only ones who need to hear it.
The Labor left in Britain, much like progressives in America, are still learning how to operate in a rapidly changing political atmosphere. After so many decades spent on the defensive even within their own camp, many left-wingers have yet to gain their footing in the new environment.
In the UK, for instance, there is the temptation to wallow in the victory achieved over the Blair loyalists. Such a celebratory tone prevailed in a number of left journals and blogs over the weekend.
While we are still early on in the primary season in the United States, similar sentiments are easy to find here. Many on the progressive left automatically associate Hillary Clinton with the politics of her husband without focusing on the real differences that separate the former Secretary of State from the stars of the far-right such as Trump, Bush, Carson, and the rest.
Corbyn and Sanders (as well as Clinton) must strive to be unifying figures. For Corbyn and the Labor left, this task is already throwing up many hurdles. The British Labour Party may very well face a lot more division before it can successfully coalesce around a single message.
And in America, if progressives truly want to push back the reactionary resurgence that is taking place within the Republican Party while charting a way forward to a stronger and fairer economy, they can ill afford see each other as enemies. Support Hillary. Support Bernie. Campaign for either or both of them. Just don’t forget the bigger picture and be ready to stand together once the primaries have ended.
Photo: Bernie Sanders supporters rally in Burlington, Vermont. | Andy Duback/AP