I don’t want to pick on Owen Jones again, but I’m forced to. Yesterday he penned an article entitled “First Corbyn, now Sanders: how young voters’ despair is fuelling movements on the left” which pretty much did what it says on the tin. The basic idea is that the rise of Corbyn and Sanders can be taken as part of the same phenomenon, namely that young people feel turned off by the “establishment” and are looking for fresh new voices (the fact that both of these “fresh new voices” are over 60 is not dealt with in Owen’s article). I get it. But there are huge problems with this theory, not least of which is that there are some massive differences between Corbyn’s politics and Bernie’s.
What Owen often likes to gloss over is that this feeling of discontentment that swept Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party isn’t some positive groundswell from the Left for a grand vision of a society remade – it is actually a negative reaction to the feeling that establishment parties and political figures don’t know what they’re doing, or at least are acting only their own interests, and there is a sort of desire to “tear it all down”. It is not confined to the Left, this feeling – you can see it in the rise of Nigel Farage a few years ago in Britain, and in the rise of Trump in America currently on the right of politics. It is all about complaining about how nothing works and asking for destructive solutions – pulling out of the EU, re-opening coal mines somehow to go back to the 1970s, keeping Muslims out of the country, creating carriages on trains that only one gender is allowed to ride in – and having nothing positive to suggest in the way of an alternative plan.
While I don’t agree with a lot of what Sanders says, he is not part of the same angry tide. Some may flock to him for that reason, but that isn’t really why he almost managed to take Iowa from Hillary. He calls himself a socialist, which is really stupid a). because that word is particularly toxic in America and b). he isn’t a socialist anyway. He’s basically a social liberal, someone whose views if taken in a British context most aligns with the left-wing of the Liberal Democrats. His solutions wouldn’t thrill the British Left, I can say that much – he’s reasonably hawkish on foreign policy and would never call Hamas amongst his “friends”. He wants to bring a healthcare system to the US that looks to me to be to the right of the one we have in Britain at present, and like most Americans of any political persuasion, would find the British Left’s shrieking about the NHS to be hysterical.
Sanders is actually part of a broader American tradition: the straight talking outsider who cuts through to reach an audience that feel they aren’t being heard. This is usually of a centrist nature (since American politics can be pretty right-wing most of the time), and indeed in most respects Sanders is a centrist by British standards.
Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party has much more in common with Trump becoming the Republican frontrunner – people tired of mainstream humming and hawing, angry at the actions of the present government, unite together in a wave of anger to put one in the eye of the establishment. Neither Corbyn nor Trump offer positive solutions to anything – they are both defined entirely by what they oppose. Thankfully, only one of them has any prospect of winning a national election.