What should we make of Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpectedly strong showing in June’s British election? Is it the beginnings of an insurgent left-wing campaign becoming genuinely electorally potent? Is it a sustainable realignment on the British left and an end to the centrist triangulation of New Labour? And what international lessons might be learnt from the phenomenon?
In recent years the advanced democracies have seen a wave of insurgent parties and movements of the left: from Syriza in Greece, to Podemos in Spain and the rise and rise of the ‘socialist’ Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders in the United States. But progressive populism has been matched if not eclipsed by anti-elite populism of the right – most notably from Donald Trump but including Victor Orban in Hungary, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France.
How should we understand these developments? Is this part of a wider new politics, a new normal? In this context, what chance does moderate politics have to be relevant and successful?
A few years ago if someone was to tell you that Jeremy Corbyn would become the leader of the British Labour Party, you’d probably have scoffed. If someone predicted that in a General Election in 2017, not long after his own MPs tried to ditch him repeatedly, he would emerge from the campaign seen as a victor, you would probably have been sceptical. While Labour finished as the second largest party in parliament, it increased its share of the popular vote to 40%, and resulted in 32 more seats and a hung parliament. It was the first time Labour had made a net gain of seats since 1997, and its increase of nearly 10% in the popular vote was its largest since 1945.
It is worth recalling that at the start of the General Election campaign, polling was suggesting a defeat for Labour with the parliamentary party much reduced and a landslide victory for the Conservatives with a majority of between 110 and 174 MPs.1
At about that time the wheels started to come off the Conservative campaign but it wasn’t inevitable that Labour would benefit. Jeremy Corbyn managed to do something all politicians dream of: cutting through directly to the electorate, gaining momentum and credibility, especially among the young.2 He seemed authentic, sincere and not cut from the same cloth as the professional political class.3 After years of austerity, he suggested that there were fairer policy alternatives and, in contrast to Theresa May, seemed approachable, empathetic, kind and, crucially, much less frightening than the assault on his character, credibility and abilities by large sections of the mainstream media had suggested.
By being almost universally underestimated he also managed a second trick – hitting the sweet spot when it was too late for others to recover.
The rise of populist parties of Right and Left
Insurgent politics are not new in advanced democracies but in recent decades the media focus has been on the populist Right rather than the Left. Was this because the insurgent Right has been more powerful or because there is more fear of right-wing populism than left-wing populism in the mainstream media?4
In the 1990s and early years of this century, the populist Right wasn’t just in the headlines. It also made it into government. In 1999 the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) split the duopoly of mainstream left and right, and became junior coalition partner in a European Union member state. This was the party of Jörg Haider, who infamously described the employment policies of Adolf Hitler as “orderly”, and rode to electoral success on an anti-immigration and anti-elites agenda5.
At about the same time, the charismatic Pim Fortuyn was making electoral progress in the Netherlands. While he rejected comparisons with other right-wing populists, his outspoken views on multiculturalism, immigration and Islam put him in similar ideological territory.
In France, Jean Marie Le Pen of the National Front made it through to the second round of the 2002 Presidential Election. Populist and far-right parties also made big electoral gains in Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and even Scandinavia.
During this period across Europe, notwithstanding the growth in ‘Green’ politics, there simply wasn’t a mirror image development in social democratic or left politics. It was the time of electorally successful centrists like Tony ‘Third Way’ Blair or Gerhard ‘Neue Mitte’ Schroeder. It was also the time of the centrist Democrat President Bill Clinton in the United States.6
Having been in office through much of the 1990s and into the new century, centrist social democrats lost to the pendulum swing effect of politics. Centre-right leaders took over in Britain, Germany the United States and elsewhere. This followed evident tiredness, lack of ideas, delivery and momentum from the moderate Left, but issues like immigration, and, in the case of UK Labour, the Iraq War legacy, also took their toll. It was evident then, as it still is in many countries now, that there has been little renewal or new thinking.
By the late 2000s the political and economic world was rocked by the global financial crisis, and its impact was felt most across southern Europe – in Portugal, Spain, Italy and, most notably, Greece.
In Greece the sovereign debt crisis was so severe it led to 12 different rounds of spending cuts, tax rises and reforms being enacted. Debt levels reached the equivalent of €30,000 for every Greek citizen. Social tensions were so extreme that there were nationwide protests and riots.
At the start of the crisis the party in power was the Greek Social Democrats (PASOK). Their unpopularity in dealing with the crisis became so problematic that in the space of six years they shrank from being the largest parliamentary party to the smallest. While PASOK implemented painful austerity measures it shed votes to the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) who became the leading party on the left and subsequently formed Greece’s government. The eclipse has been so complete it has been dubbed ‘Pasokification’, the decline of the mainstream social democratic party and the simultaneous rise of far-left and far-right alternatives. The neo-fascist Golden Dawn, after all, is now the third largest party in the national parliament.
The journalist Paul Mason spent 22 days on the campaign trail, as Syriza became Europe’s first far-left government in modern times, and captured a good insight into the transformation of Greek politics. In his article ‘Hope begins today’: the inside story of Syriza’s rise to power, he interviews its charismatic leader and now Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and sees “an anti-austerity message delivered with youthful plausibility win over a nation”.7
In Spain, the impact of the global financial crisis was linked to a domestic housing bubble of gargantuan proportions and unsustainable GDP growth. The banks in Spain were able to hide losses and earnings volatility, mislead regulators, analysts and investors, and thereby finance the real estate bubble.
The human cost was devastating. In one-year alone two million people lost their jobs. Spain had a total of four million unemployed, the same number as France and Italy combined. By March 2012 Spain’s unemployment rate reached 24%, twice the Eurozone average. At one point youth unemployment was recorded at over 50%.
During this time in Spain the insurgent left party Podemos (We Can) emerged out of popular protest movements against inequality and corruption. Led by the charismatic young academic Pablo Iglesias it did politics differently and built a new kind of electoral coalition:
“Podemos’s irreverent style has obvious appeal to Spain’s disgruntled youth. Iglesias sports a hipster goatee as well as his trademark ponytail. He prefers jeans and open-necked shirts to the classically cut suits favoured by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The party maintains a slick social network presence. Iglesias’s Facebook page compares Spanish politics to the television show Game of Thrones”.8
While establishing itself as the third largest party in parliament Podemos however failed to form a governing coalition with the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the Centre Right remains in power – albeit only by its fingernails.
Insurgent politics has also been particularly successful in Italy but difficult to categorise. The Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle) is considered to be populist, anti-establishment, environmentalist, anti-globalist and Eurosceptic. It has surged in recent years to win more votes than any of the other political parties but has more recently moved backwards in municipal polls, especially in Rome where its inability to deliver better governance has cost it dearly.
All of these three parties challenged the political elites just as the establishment was floundering with the financial crisis, and failing to understand the scale of the social problems being suffered by people as a result of the economic downturn and impact of deep austerity cuts.
In Greece and Spain, Syriza and Podemos ran on a ‘hope agenda’ that things can and must be better for society, something that resonated especially for many young voters in countries with mammoth levels of youth unemployment. Using a mixture of traditional grass roots activist campaigning and clever use of social media, it worked.
Corbyn and Sanders – new momentum for the Left?
Recent years have demonstrated across Europe that there is now the norm to have more than one party on the left and right. This has been helped by proportional electoral systems that have allowed Green and left-wing parties as well as those on the populist and extreme right to gain parliamentary footholds. It has not been the case in the United States and United Kingdom, or more correctly England. In both countries their winner-take-all ‘first past the post’ rules have protected catch-all mainstream parties. Largely the party establishments have held sway in all of these parties against occasional challenges, but the recent progress of the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders and the anti-Blairite Jeremy Corbyn in the UK is of a new order.
During the presidential primary races for the Democratic nomination the 75-year-old Vermont Senator confounded experts by securing an astonishing 43% of pledged delegates. Despite having the backing of the party establishment and overwhelming support of elected Democrats, Hillary Clinton lost the hearts of younger and more progressive members of her party as they turned out in droves to hear Sanders speak and to volunteer for his campaign.9
Similarly Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015 despite only a minority backing from parliamentary colleagues, but galvanised a new and growing membership that warmed to his outspoken social justice message and embraced his understated authenticity.10
Despite the political orthodoxy that elections are won in the centre ground, both candidates were unashamedly true to their deep roots on the pre-Third Way left, and made pundit-defying advances across the electoral map. But it was Hillary Clinton that secured the Democratic nomination and, although Jeremy Corbyn confounded his critics by boosting the Labour vote and depriving the Tories of their majority, he was still defeated in the popular vote and seat tally by Theresa May, despite her running one of the most inept campaigns of modern times.
Nevertheless, there has definitely been a ‘Corbyn effect’ in England, seen in opinion poll leads since the elections and felt in popular culture, including the Glastonbury Festival where he was cheered by the huge crowd singing ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn!’. The impact has been seen especially among young people, who have registered to vote in huge numbers, and on social media, where viral postings backing Corbyn have been watched by millions.11
It apparently does not matter that both Corbyn and Sanders, and for that matter other leading left politicians, look and sound unconventional; in fact that is probably part of the appeal. Undoubtedly it is looking and sounding true to yourself and your beliefs, and being personally sympathetic that matters more. Going against all conventional political wisdom about the damage caused to divided parties, there is an argument that the internal opposition from Labour MPs to Corbyn actually bolstered his position with supporters, especially the newer membership.
Defeat for the populist Right
On the surface, recent elections in 2016 and 2017 have halted the populist Right. Despite media predictions of potential victories in Austria, the Netherlands and France, each pretender to office fell short – albeit in the case of Austria’s Freedom Party presidential candidate by just 50.3% to 49.7%.
In the Netherlands, it was widely believed that the Islamophobic, Eurosceptic, far-right leader Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) could become the largest party. However, the moderate centre-right leader Mark Rutte stopped this in a muscular campaign. He held off the predicted surge by Wilders in the election, which incidentally saw the biggest defeat for the centre-left Labour Party in the history of Dutch politics.
In France, domestic and international election coverage was largely focused on the far-right National Front (FN) and its candidate Marine Le Pen. In a split field from extreme left to far right, the centrist Emmanuel Macron emerged to win the first round ahead of Le Pen, and comprehensively defeated her in the second round. His newly established On the Move (En Marche) movement subsequently went on to win an absolute majority in the National Assembly within weeks of him becoming the youngest French head of state since Napoleon.
These elections confounded the sense of inevitable progress by the populist Right. Nevertheless, the challenge has not gone away. Austria was less than 1% of the vote away from having the first far-right head of state in Europe since the Second World War. The editor of Vienna’s Die Presse, Rainer Nowak, wrote: “Above all, the past few months and the results have clearly shown what potential the FPÖ can have as a protest movement against the existing system”, and went on to warn that “the republic has once again mobilised resources to prevent the FPÖ at the top. This will not work again”.12 In the Netherlands, Wilders didn’t win, but his party went from third largest to second. The Dutch journalist Christiaan Paauwe described the result as a “pyrrhic victory” and added: “Don’t be relieved by the Dutch election – it’s done nothing to stop populism in Europe”.13
However, what does seem new is that there is a new generation of mainstream politicians who are prepared to take the fight to the populist right and left, and win. There are even the beginnings of a model.
During the 2017 French presidential elections, the most positive debate and polling feedback was for the insurgent left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In the popular vote he eclipsed the official Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon and received the same kind of plaudits as both Sanders and Corbyn: authentic and ground-breaking. Like them though, he also failed to win the election.
The winner was the centrist Macron who had served as a minister under the outgoing socialist President, François Hollande, but resigned to set up his own centrist movement.14 Distancing himself from traditional party politics he collected endorsements from left, right and centre and powered to victory. In subsequent parliamentary elections his movement ran a gender-balanced list of candidates made up in large part from civil society, not the world of politics. Despite a low turnout his movement (En Marche) won a substantial majority in the National Assembly.
That approach is now being copied elsewhere with apparent success. The Austrian centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) has been rebranded as a movement in the image of its 31-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, and is announcing a new range of outside candidates.15 Only weeks away from a General Election his party has powered from third spot into the lead ahead of both Social Democrats and populist Freedom Party. While hardly a sustainable long-term political strategy for good governance, it has clearly seems to be working as an electoral tactic to win at the ballot box.
Germany goes to the polls as well this autumn and it would be a genuine earthquake if Angela Merkel does not win – despite once high hopes for a breakthrough by the Social Democrat Martin Schulz that now seem a distant prospect. It is even possible that the outcome may deliver a Merkel-led coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). ‘Mutti’ (Mother) Merkel is in a totally different category to both May and Clinton, with personal and competence ratings so high and resilient she has successfully weathered incumbency flak, including over her pro-refugee policy from the populists of the Alternative für Deutschland.
Since the international financial crisis and painful austerity policies in many countries there has been an electoral boost for the Left, which in some cases has eclipsed traditional moderate social democrats. Yet only in Greece has that led to electoral victory while elsewhere, from France to Austria and Germany, a more muscular centrism is in the vanguard.
Wealth inequality, intergenerational unfairness, immigration and the impact of rapid technological changes with its likely knock-on consequences for both white and blue-collar jobs will test policymakers for years to come, so the potential for populist parties of right and left remains potent. The jury remains out whether a more decidedly left agenda can reach and sustain a large enough electoral coalition to win power. However, even Tony Blair now says: “There have been so many political upsets, it’s possible Jeremy Corbyn could become prime minister and Labour could win on that programme”.16
What is too early to judge is the longer-term potency of the activist Left and the increasing number of voters who have supported the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Is it, as some would believe, just a product of anger and pain caused by austerity, globalisation, environmental challenges and automation – or is there a genuine hope of a better, fairer more optimistic future and a prospectus that can win power in a general election?
In addition to the social and economic challenges being confronted elsewhere, Britain faces the prospect of leaving the European Union. Far from having ‘strength and stability’ the minority centre-right premiership of Theresa May seems hopelessly out of its depth, unprepared and outgunned when it comes to Brexit.
Curiously Labour and Jeremy Corbyn have little distinctive to say at all about the largest political, economic and governmental challenge since the Second World War. Perhaps that’s the reason Labour has opened the door slightly on single market membership (for a transitional period). Ironically, given the rhetoric about providing a genuine alternative to the right, on this defining question of our time the Corbyn Left is aping the Tories. You couldn’t make it up.
In a time of extreme political volatility, what was previously unimaginable is now possible.