New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Election 2024
  2. The Staggers
14 November 2016

What those comparing Donald Trump to Jeremy Corbyn have got right

The comparison is electorally wrong, but the sentiment behind it is correct. 

By Michael Chessum

Sometimes in politics it is necessary to believe something before you know it is true. For the past decade, the radical left’s insistence that the liberal centre was facing imminent collapse was such a belief. It felt at times like a fantasy concocted by ideologues, student radicals and old-fashioned socialists, as indeed we were. For those of us active in the labour movement, the related argument that bold, radical ideas are more electable than endless pandering and triangulation is not just correct – it is a necessary belief for something like Corbynism to exist.

Maybe, some of us secretly thought, the centre would hold. Maybe the conservative technocrats would find a way out and centrist social democracy would reformulate itself. For a brief moment, it looked like François Hollande and Angela Merkel would paper over the cracks of the European project. Greece would be given a dignified way out of its nightmare. Remain would scrape home. Hillary Clinton would scrape home.

Now the collapse has happened – and in the worst way imaginable. If you want a vision of the future, don’t just imagine Hard Brexit or Donald Trump in the White House. Consider the fact that on 4 December, Austria is likely to elect Norbert Hofer as its President – a man who has been spotted wearing Nazi symbols and has stated that “Islam has no place in Austria”. Marine le Pen’s victory in the French Presidential election in April is far from assured, but if the French National Front pulls it off there may not be much of an EU for Britain to exit. 

This march backwards, into a world of nationalism, nostalgia and authoritarianism, rarely comes to us in the form of uniformed street thugs, or even the newly respectable far right. Its defining feature – the scapegoating of immigrants for falling wages, housing crises and declining public services – is a core rhetorical set piece. This political establishment knows what it is doing: when Theresa May promises to scrap the human rights act, or reintroduce grammar schools, she is not just talking about policy or law, but she is promising to take us back to a time gone by. 

The past thirty years have witnessed a dramatic redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, alongside a firesale of social housing and the end of decent stable employment for millions. Since 2008, median wages have fallen by another ten percent in real terms. The formulation of these problems as an implicit yearning for the past has an objectively conservative function. It means that social deprivation and disintegration can be woven into a narrative that includes, and therefore blames, immigration, tolerance, and advances in civil rights. And yet even on the left, the main point of reference for a better kind of society is, for many, still the post-war settlement of the Clement Attlee government. 

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

The future cannot be allowed to become a toss-up between a bankrupt neo-liberal elite and a 1950s re-enactment society run by the far right. More and more, it is clear that it will fall to the left to provide the alternative. That alternative is primarily about material things – housing, public investment, higher wages, and a redistribution of the power and wealth of the financial system and the extremely wealthy. It is about the radical democratisation, not just of a broken political system, but of the economy as well. 

But just as crucial is a principled defence of the liberal advances of the past few decades. The left owes nothing to the politicians and parties who adopted wholesale the privatising, neo-liberal model of globalisation, and who, at least in the UK, happened to tie themselves to greater civil and individual rights and more open borders in the process. But for those borders to close now, in a blind dash to meet prejudices half way, does not just deprive people of hard-won freedoms – it gives further credence to version of reality proffered by the insurgent nationalist right.

To call this an alliance of the radical left with the liberal centre would be to understate the scale of the realignment that must take place. Just as so many of the radicals of previous decades became centrists, there must now be an entire generation of instinctive cosmopolitan liberals who find a home in a new, inclusive radical left.

For days now, a cry has been reverberating around much of the British left: “If Trump can win, Corbyn can.” The comparison is dangerous and the electoral calculation so badly wrong that it can barely be serious, but the deep sentiment it expresses is right – only Corbynism, or a force like it, can beat the new far right. To win, the left cannot rely on some generalised moment of turmoil; it must build an electoral base the likes of which it has never built before, made not by triangulating but by the clarity of its vision and the strength of its ideas and activism. There is a way out of the nightmare of nostalgic nationalism – we do not yet know it to be true, but we have to believe it.

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy