It’s not as easy as you’d think to find parallels between British and American politicians. Being a party leader in the UK parliament is almost nothing like being a US Presidential candidate. America’s far larger and more fragmented than Britain. Pennsylvania alone has 90 per cent of the land area of England, and four million more people live there than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. It’s probably better to compare the US to the EU rather than the UK, and the Republicans and Democrats to the fractious coalitions of regional groups making up the EPP and S&D in the European Parliament.
That said, I think there’s a clear parallel between Jeremy Corbyn and an “outsider” running in the 2016 presidential campaign. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders is firing up the left wing base and is proud to call himself a socialist.
He’s nothing like Corbyn, though.
Like “chips” and “pants”, the word “socialism” doesn’t mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic. Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act has been denounced as a “socialist nightmare” by Republicans, but the British translation would be “everyone in America is now forced to buy BUPA”. Sanders is calling for a ‘revolution’ that would see universal healthcare (including access to abortion), a much higher minimum wage than the current $7.25, preferring renewable energy over coal because of climate change, cuts to the military budget, and government committed to flashy infrastructure projects. Instead of staging that revolution, Americans could just move to David Cameron’s Britain.
The Presidential candidate who most resembles Jeremy Corbyn is not Bernie Sanders, it’s Donald Trump.
Bear with me.
No one has ever turned on the TV and been confused whether they were watching Trump or Corbyn, and this is not just a matter of personal grooming.
The key parallel between Corbyn and Trump is not with their politics, but with the state of their parties. Both the British Labour Party and the American Republicans ruled unchallenged – indeed, occasionally with the enthusiastic support of the “opposition” – in the 2000s. They fought the Iraq War, and then were holding the reins when the economy crashed just before an election. They paid the price at the ballot box. Both Labour and the Republicans assume they’re the natural party of government and that everyone shares their visceral hatred of the other party … but they’ve lost the general election twice in a row, even though their strategists swore blind they had it in the bag last time.
Corbyn and Trump rose exactly the same way. First, the ‘party establishment’ offered up a set of identical candidates. In a beautifully poetic metaphor for the Third Way era, Burnham, Kendall and Cooper, and Walker, Perry, and Bush gave consumers a choice, but only between functionally identical candidates reciting the same old talking points. Trump and Corbyn were both dismissed as a sideshow, by party and journalists alike. Everyone agreed their initial strong showing in the polls was an anomaly. They were the ‘heart’, but the ‘head’ would prevail. The outsider grabbed all the headlines, everyone waited for him to self-destruct. When it became clear new members were signing up just to vote for him, the party establishment saw this as rather unsporting, worried they were letting in undesirables, and briefly tried changing the rules. By now, it was too late for any ‘unity’ establishment candidate: the outsider was getting more support than all their candidates combined. That was it, game over. When actual results started coming in, it was clear he’d done far more than enough to trounce his rivals.
Another parallel is that neither Corbyn or Trump is really an outsider at all. They’re both acts from the eighties who’ve been here the whole time, white guys in their late sixties, now rediscovered by the Spotify generation. Their ‘radical, new’ solutions are word-for-word what they’d have told you in 1987: Trump will bang a boardroom table and cut a deal, greed is good, loadsamoney. Corbyn wants unilateral nuclear disarmament and nationalised railways, and must constantly be fighting the urge to call for the release of Nelson Mandela.
This isn’t some monstrous emergence of the ‘id of their party’ that the establishment now has to tame. The awkward fact on both sides of the Atlantic is that Corbyn and Trump didn’t need to fight the party establishment, they could ignore it and the establishment candidates wilted anyway. British and American voters picked the guy with the clearest message, with fire in his belly. It’s not Trump and Corbyn’s fault the bar has fallen so low that the best their parties have to offer is Trump and Corbyn.