What U.S. Activists Can Learn from Jeremy Corbyn.

Author:Jaffe, Sarah
 
FREE EXCERPT

I don't know what I expected to see when I walked out of the United Kingdom's Parliament building, in the shadow of the iconic Big Ben, but a child in a rubber Donald Trump mask wasn't it. And yet there he was, a reminder of the fact that, these days, all politics are global.

I was in London to get a closer look at the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon. While American exceptionalism tends to make people in the United States think our situation is unique, similar threads run through the body politic of many countries. Since the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recessions, the West has been defined by a series of shocks: crumbling institutions, austerity policies that prompt rebellions, social movements decrying inequity in the streets, and the rise of the far right and social-democratic left as the center hollows out.

In other words, Trumpism is just rightwing populism with an American mask, and Bernie Sanders is only one part of a rising international left.

The U.K. Labour Party's shifts often mirror those in the U.S. Democratic Party. The current shift has brought us the improbable ascent of Corbyn, a longtime member of Labour's left wing. Not only has he risen to a leadership position within his party, but there are polls suggesting he'd be prime minister if an election were held tomorrow.

Labour's thirty-seat gain in last June's snap general election--beating back a Conservative Party that averaged a seventeen-point lead in early polls--was a more dramatic political shift than that of a few thousand Obama voters who helped elect Trump in 2016. And the party did so despite the near-unanimous enmity of the press and even opposition from its own Members of Parliament.

The massive gain rippled around the world, giving hope to the left that a leader more comfortable at a street protest than at the glittering Davos World Economic Forum could challenge an internationally ascendant right. Where the political center had saluted France's Emmanuel Macron as a bulwark against the far-right National Front, the left saw in Jeremy Corbyn the possibility of pushing back the tide of inequality.

Since the election, Corbyn has continued to face attacks from the right and from within Labour, but seems increasingly confident in his ability to reshape the party as an instrument for mass politics. A Democratic Party still seeking an identity with which to combat Trumpism could learn a thing or two.

"At the Labour Party conference, I used to go out and hold the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament banner. It was me, Jeremy Corbyn, and a few other people and everybody just walked past us," recalls Ian Hodson, now national president of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, the trade union behind the United Kingdom's version of the Fight for $15 campaign. "His politics haven't changed: improve the lives of people, represent the interests of ordinary people in the country."

When the fast food protests began, Hodson says, Corbyn was one of a few Labour Party officials who would turn up, megaphone in hand. Yet even those who liked Corbyn did not foresee him as Labour leader.

In 2014, with Ed Miliband in charge, Labour changed its leadership election rules to allow rank-and-file members a larger say in selecting the head of the party. Member of Parliament Jon Trickett calls this "a fundamental change...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP