A northern pink tide? Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders test the prospects of internationalist left populism

Along with attracting younger voters, both Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have used movement-building to different degrees to create campaigns that are very different both from those opposing them now but also from any that came before.


Despite attempts by mainstream news outlets and bought politicians to prevent it, since at least 2015 throughout the English speaking world, but especially in the U.K. and the United States, there has been a revival of left-wing populism. Despite the fact that the main leaders on the left in both countries are men in their 70s who self describe as socialists, it’s younger generations who seem most ready to vote for them in the hope of pushing their respective country’s politics in a more socially and economically just direction.

After failing to secure the majority needed to go forward with an early election three times, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government finally got its wish on its fourth try late last month, allowing a snap election to be called in the U.K. for December 12thth. The short time frame, as opposed to the endless primary and election season in the United States, may at first appear to limit the chances of opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn to win enough seats to form a government, even in alliance with other, smaller parties.

Revealing a main attack line against the Labor leader, within what seemed like hours of the election being announced, charges of antisemitism within the Labor party resurfaced, targeting Corbyn for either a) being one himself or b) not being willing enough to do anything about it in terms of his party. Although it’s important to admit that some critiques on the left can steer close to reviving traditional tropes and that these kinds of framings must be rooted out from any party or organization that considers itself progressive, it’s dangerous in the extreme to conflate legitimate criticism of the actions of right-wing Israeli governments with hatred of Jewish people.

John Bercow, a former conservative MP and speaker of the house who is also Jewish was recently asked if he thought that Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-Semite and his answer is worth quoting, “… I myself have never experienced antisemitism from a member of the Labor party, point 1, and point 2, though there is a big issue and it has to be addressed I do not myself believe that Jeremy Corbyn is antisemitic. That’s my honest view.”

Even more absurd than accusing a lifelong anti-racist campaigner like Jeremy Corbyn of antisemitism are the accusations sometimes directed at Senator Bernie Sanders that he is a ‘self loathing Jew’, which I saw most recently raised at his Climate Crisis Summit in Des Moines, Iowa by an audience member. That such an insult would be leveled at a man who lost family members in Nazi death camps is hard to believe but also par for course for the cynics on the right and in the so-called center who too often trade in such libels for political gain.

Obviously troubled by this, the Vermont Senator recently penned an op-ed for the progressive Jewish Currents magazine, where he wrote, “Opposing antisemitism is a core value of progressivism. So it’s very troubling to me that we are also seeing accusations of antisemitism used as a cynical political weapon against progressives. One of the most dangerous things Trump has done is to divide Americans by using false allegations of antisemitism, mostly regarding the U.S.–Israel relationship. We should be very clear that it is not antisemitic to criticize the policies of the Israeli government.”

While antisemitism accusations have once again been revived by the British press, more likely to harm the Labor party’s chances with voters is the endless Brexit debacle that led to a second early election in as many years and has paralyzed British politics since 2016. While Corbyn has received widespread criticism for his plan, which entails negotiating a deal after his election and then putting it to the public in a second referendum, this seems like a sensible position in a country so divided by the issue.

While the right-wing British tabloid press acts as if democracy itself is at stake in regards to leaving the European Union, the simple fact of the matter is that the leave campaign won the vote by just 4% and often lied about what it would entail.

The Labor party’s position on a second referendum on Scottish independence has also enraged the pro-union U.K. press, despite Corbyn saying it will not happen in the first term of a Labor government, perhaps risking the support of the Scottish National Party (SNP) that could help him form a government. Instead, his stated plan is to put money into Scotland, likely on the assumption that the ending a decide and change of austerity would make Scottish voters return to voting Labor as they did overwhelmingly until 2015.

Further muddying the waters for Labor, the Brexit party led by Nigel Farage, who has showed typical bravery by deciding he will not stand for election himself but still somehow lead the party, has promised not to field candidates in 317 electoral districts already represented by Conservatives, focusing its energy on Labor seats. However, by putting 100s of Brexit party candidates in areas that are currently held by Labor, there is a chance that they will split the right-wing vote with Conservatives in these electoral districts, potentially helping Labor to hold these seats and making a Corbyn government more likely.

Along with attracting younger voters, both Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have used movement-building to different degrees to create campaigns that are very different both from those opposing them now but also from any that came before.

In the British context, Corbyn’s continued leadership owes something to a grassroots group called Momentum, which formed after he won the Labor leadership. The group, which is considered ‘controversial’ by establishment figures, has also produced viral videos that appeal to younger voters who might not be represented in polling, which, could, as in 2017 when it failed to show the strength of the support for the party, be wrong about Labor’s prospects.

Corbyn’s relationship with Momentum is once again bearing fruit, as the group has already raised more money for grassroots efforts than it did during the whole campaign in the last election in 2017.

As Momentum activist Laura Parker recently explained, “Boris Johnson only needs a handful of billionaire backers who want to keep business as usual – we’ve got thousands of ordinary people across the country who want real change and are willing to give what they can to make it happen. This really shows how up for the fight our activists are.”

Momentum has drawn on the experience of various parties and campaigns but may have taken the most from Bernie Sander’s insurgent run for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidency in 2016. Although it’s casually dismissed when it’s mentioned at all, the truly unique thing about what Sanders has accomplished is growing a dedicated base of activists who can be deployed for more than just campaign events as we’ve seen when his supporters have been mobilized to stand alongside striking teachers and Amazon workers in the United States.

However, the attendance and level of enthusiasm shown by supporters at three recent events in Iowa that can be viewed on the candidate’s Youtube page should give pause to those who think that he will do badly in the Iowa caucuses on February 3rd, 2020. In fairness, the presence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at these events was obviously a draw, but almost unreported on, the Vermont Senator has been bringing out crowds as large as we saw last time around in much more crowded field.

It could very well work in the Sanders’ movement’s favor that the Iowa caucuses demand more citizen participation than the early primaries that follow them, a task Sanders and his supporters seem more than up to.

Of course, an earlier Corbyn victory could help create a new ‘pink tide’ like we saw in Latin America at the beginning of this century, one that, as the only force capable of standing up to rather than cohabiting with the far-right ethnocentric nationalism sweeping the globe, finally asserts the internationalism necessary to battle the severe crises we all face as global citizens.


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