As a recent arrival to Britain from the United States, I was a bit relieved to leave behind the political dumpster fire of a Trump presidency and Democratic Party in disarray. A novice to the British political system, I have spent time observing the landscape, particularly on the left. I will be the first to admit that I have much to learn and understand – including the puzzling existence of an unelected House of Lords and lack of a constitution – but my initial impression about politics is that, while Democrats may be facing trying times, I now know that things could be worse.
On the surface, the Democrats and Labour are experiencing similar identity crises. They both have centrist establishment wings whose politics are perceived to have contributed greatly to populist disasters like Brexit and Trump. They both have old, anti-corporate curmudgeons carrying the torches for their left wings. However, while I can appreciate the temptation of equating the two, there are important differences, particularly regarding the factions in power and the way in which the leadership of the left wings of each party has operated.
With the Democratic Party still reeling from a contentious primary election – a contest in which many believe Bernie Sanders was treated unfairly – and a disastrous general election loss, many expected the Sanders wing to take complete control. Rather, the Party elected Tom Perez (an Obama administration alum and ally of the Clinton political machine) as its new chairman over the candidate endorsed by Bernie Sanders. Upon winning, Perez immediately appointed Sanders’ preferred candidate as his vice-chairman. Perez and Sanders subsequently embarked on a nationwide unity tour. These signs hardly point to a Sanders effort to tear down the Party. Part of this may be due to his circumstances and inability to secure sufficient power thus far. Though I believe he also has a good idea of the necessary Party composition for it to gain governing power once again. The balance of power within Labour is obviously much different.
While they are brothers in socialist philosophy to a certain degree, the political approaches of Sanders and Corbyn are far from mirror images. Sanders has been on a career path that demonstrates a desire to govern in a diverse and relatively conservative country through building consensus around his progressive ideas. He served as a mayor and worked his way into leadership roles on influential committees in both the House and Senate prior to his run for the Democratic nomination for President. And while he has been very tough on the Democratic establishment, Sanders has not set out to completely disown former Democratic administrations; had he done so, I certainly would not have cast my vote for him in the primary election. Clearly he is very interested in shifting Democratic priorities (some dramatically), but he has set out in a way that has given him an actual opportunity to create a winning coalition. Corbyn has yet to demonstrate much of the same.
According to recent polling, it is reasonable to say that Corbyn has largely been out of step with the majority of the electorate. Nevertheless, he seems intent on lecturing his party and the rest of the country on the merits of his politics. Tony Blair (are we allowed to speak his name?) previously wrote about the importance of tone in achieving policy goals. He noted that shifting tone could make something palatable for the electorate and, practically speaking, result in a distinction without a difference for an ultimate policy goal. Corbyn seems to be either unable or unwilling to attempt walking this tightrope in order to move his agenda. But whether he likes it or not, this is a necessary undertaking for those that wish to govern. We can have endless debates about the progressive bona fides of our leaders. However, the reason that the likes of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama are subject to criticism from the left fringes of their parties is because they put themselves in the position of governing. If Corbyn does indeed want a Labour government, then he likely has no choice but to take actions that expose him to similar criticisms from those that have the luxury of remaining ideologically pure from the backbenches.
Similar to the Democratic Party, I do not think that the ultimate values and goals of the left and right of Labour are quite as disparate as billed. Those with progressive values are all seeking policies in line with social democratic philosophy. Unfortunately for Corbyn and his followers, they are alone in believing that their current message is going to result in a path to the majority. Progressives like Blair, Clinton, and Obama understand that an approach to social democratic policies must utilize innovation and creativity in thinking – the type of political innovation that led to Labour and Democratic governments in the past.
After viewing the state of Labour, I can at least take comfort in the relative stability of my Democrats. If you are a member of Labour, I imagine that is not something you want to hear from a member of a party that has been systematically defeated at all levels of government and displayed stunning incompetence that led to the election of Donald J. Trump.