Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are often equated to one another because of their proximity on the left-right political spectrum. Such glib comparisons always overlook a ‘yooj’ difference between the two — their underlying approach to politics and class struggle. Here is how Sanders summed up this difference:
“Whatever I’ve done in my life — writing, being mayor of Burlington, Congressman, U.S. Senator — I have always believed from the bottom of my heart that everything that I do and what I say represents the vast majority of the people. Sometimes I think there are progressives out there who think ‘well we’re fighting for social justice, we’re this, we’re that, it’s too bad that we’re in the minority but someday the majority will catch up with us.’ I’ve never believed that for a moment. …
“Everything I’ve ever talked about, every idea I’ve ever espoused, I believe is what the vast majority of our country believe.”
Corbyn is exactly the kind of progressive Sanders cautioned against — the perpetually embattled perpetual minority. And there is no better way to characterize Corbyn’s time as head of the Labour Party than “perpetually embattled.”
To Americans, Corbyn’s trials and tribulations as leader of the Labour Party are oddly familiar because they mirror Donald Trump’s unending struggle with the Republican Party. Inflammatory as the comparison may be, the parallels are nonetheless striking:
- Trump and Corbyn never expected to win.
- Trump and Corbyn came to head their respective parties thanks to record levels of grassroots support and enthusiasm within their parties.
- Trump and Corbyn defeated a slew of establishment candidates.
- Trump and Corbyn are incapable of overcoming or neutralizing establishment hostility within the parties they head.
- Trump and Corbyn have extremely amateurish campaign operations.
- Trump and Corbyn are guided by extremely narrow cliques of advisors.
- Trump and Corbyn blame their failures on a hostile media.
- Trump and Corbyn advocate utterly unworkable policies when they go beyond sloganeering.
- Trump and Corbyn are un-electable because of fringe positions and high unfavorability ratings.
- Trump and Corbyn have cult-like followings based not on policies but on personas; any and all criticism triggers an unthinking circle-the-wagons response from the alt-right and the alt-left, respectively.
The above similarities are manifestations of the contradiction between the popularity of both leaders among the party faithful on the one hand and their unpopularity with the broader electorate on the other. So long as Corbyn remains leader of Labour, this contradiction will persist and the Tories will govern.
Resolving the contradiction between Labour Party’s electorate and the general electorate may prove impossible for the foreseeable future thanks to the unhinged reaction of the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to Corbyn’s accidental ascendance. Hilary Benn’s criticism of Corbyn that he “is a good and decent man, but he is not a leader” applies even more so to Corbyn’s PLP opponents. Good leaders would never plot and scheme to sabotage their party’s Shadow Cabinet, try to keep Corbyn off the ballot in a new leadership contest even though he is the incumbent, talk of splitting the party, or try to bar new members from voting. These underhanded tactics did enormous damage to the party as a whole by creating an atmosphere of deep suspicion and mutual contempt between the PLP who are fresh out of fresh ideas and the party rank-and-file desperate for something other than what the PLP is offering, even if that something’s expiration date is in the 1980s.
By the same token, Corbyn’s catastrophic failures as party over the past year deepened the PLP-membership rift while turning his own prominent supporters in the PLP against him:
“Richard Murphy, an economist who was initially very well disposed to the Corbyn project, has recently written a blog where he outlines his frustrations at not being able to make a difference; he criticises the leadership team’s lack of conviction, inclination to offer nothing more than vague words, inability to offer direction, and lack of vision. His piece is an extraordinary indictment of the leadership’s failings.
“He’s not alone. Lilian Greenwood gave a speech about how Corbyn undermined her by discussing his inclination to drop support for HS2 in an interview, without asking or informing her, after she had put huge amounts of effort into working on that project. And he did this more than once.
“Heidi Alexander, the former shadow health secretary, was cut out of secret NHS meetings set up by John McDonnell, and only found out by chance. She also had to stage a sit-in outside Corbyn’s office in order to get a steer from him in terms of the party’s health policy.
“Whilst undergoing cancer treatment, Thangam Debonnaire was promoted to shadow arts and culture minister by Corbyn, before he sacked her a day later, without telling her on either occasion. Later, Debonnaire was reinstated, only to find it extremely difficult to get any time with him, nor decisions from him.
“Danny Blanchflower, another former economics adviser, now complains that Corbyn offers no policies, only empty words like ‘let’s stop austerity & lower inequality’. Easy to say the words, far harder to construct a set of policies to make that a reality.
“These are all people who have tried hard to contribute to Corbyn’s Labour, and are now at the end of their tether.”
Polls reflect Corbyn’s terrible tenure.
Since Corbyn’s election, the Labour Party’s energies have been consumed not by a issue-based or policy-driven struggle but a personalistic struggle for and against Corbyn and the party’s long-term existential crisis has gone ignored. For example:
“The scale of Scottish Labour’s collapse is unprecedented. Reduced to a single MP in the 2015 UK general election, the party was further humiliated by a third place finish behind the SNP and the Scottish Tories in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election.
“More alarmingly, this catastrophic collapse has occurred in what once were considered Labour heartlands. In the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999, Labour held 28 of the 29 constituency seats in Glasgow, and in West and Central Scotland. The other seat was held by the Labour rebel Dennis Canavan.
“By 2016, every one of these 29 seats was held by the SNP. In less than 20 years the party lost 53 of its 56 constituency seats while [sic] haemorrhaging 745,000 constituency and regional list votes.”
A comparison of general election results in 1997 and 2015 shows that Labour’s geographic contraction has not been limited to Scotland but is evident in England and Wales as well (Labour seats in red).
Neither Corbyn nor his current challenger Owen Smith have a serious plan or even a coherent vision to reverse Labour’s degeneration into a party that wins elections almost exclusively in multi-ethnic densely populated urban areas of England. Smith’s attempt to position himself as ‘like Corbyn but competent’ is awkward, clumsy, and unconvincing not only because it is a contradiction in terms but more importantly because it is obviously insincere. Smith’s pathetic pandering shows just how ideologically and strategically bankrupt New Labour’s successors are; they see no other way to beat a 1980s political antique except to ape him and hope against hope that enough Corbyn supporters fall for it.
They won’t and they aren’t.
The Labour Party is fundamentally broken — Corbyn is the symptom and Tory rule is the consequence. Accusations by the PLP that Corbyn supporters are Trotskyists and counter-accusations that the PLP are ‘Red Tories’ together help the real Tories by keeping Labour interminably divided and hopelessly dysfunctional. A party crippled by its own contradictions cannot function as an effective opposition and a party that cannot act as an effective opposition will never be trusted by voters with the grave responsibility of governing the country.
Sooner or later Corbyn supporters will have to grapple with the problem of electability if Labour is to have a future as something other than a party of ineffectual protest. And this is where the difference between Sanders and Corbyn becomes too big to ignore — Sanders is far more electable than Corbyn and Sanders’ job approval rating (83%) is more than three times greater than Corbyn’s (25%).
Because their underlying approach to politics and class struggle are as different as night and day.
Sanders’ actions and positions are always geared towards mobilizing the vast majority of working people to stand up and fight for their own interests while Corbyn’s actions and positions are those of a perpetually embattled perpetual minority. Consequently, Our Revolution is dedicated to electing dozens and eventually hundreds of progressives other than Bernie Sanders whereas Momentum is does little other than defend Corbyn and attack his opponents.
Drill down deep enough into their political differences and you will find that these differences have a moral basis. For example, Sanders would never be part of a group that condoned the murder of a policeman, accept payments of £20,000 (about $27,000) from Iran’s brutal theocracy to appear on their Holocaust-denying TV channel Press TV, or call Hamas and Hezbollah “friends.” These acts by Corbyn are not only indefensible politically they are indefensible morally and what’s worse is that they are the rule with Corbyn rather than the exception.
Not only is the Labour Party broken as a political instrument, like the American Republican Party it is being led astray by a man without a moral compass.
How — or whether — the Labour Party comes together, heals its wounds, and develops a winning progressive agenda appropriate for the United Kingdom of the 21st century is unclear. But one thing is certain: Jeremy Corbyn is no Bernie Sanders.