This is Part III in a multi-part series that features original commentary on the state of leftist movements in Europe from political disrupters Winnie Wong and Claire Sandberg as they schlep their way across the continent. The two were embedded in US Senator Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign in various official/non-official capacities, and are continuing their version of the political revolution.
The British seaside town of Brighton was lit last week during the annual Labour Party Conference and The World Transformed, the parallel conference put on by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's grassroots organization, Momentum. From the moment Corbyn took the stage in a packed nightclub on Sunday night, to his closing speech on Wednesday in front of a huge convention center audience, the mood was both triumphant and determined.
In late April, just a few days after the UK general election was called, the two of us were in Madrid at a conference with Podemos, the left-wing Spanish political party. A number of Brits were there with us, and many of them were not optimistic about Labour's chances for gaining seats. At that time, polls showed Corbyn's personal popularity at negative 40 points, and Labour was projected to lose 100 seats to the Conservatives.
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If the election result had mirrored the polls at the beginning of the race, it would have banished the British left to the wilderness for an entire generation. Not only would such a massive Conservative landslide have dashed any hopes of ending the crippling public sector cuts and neoliberal economic policies that have been hurting working class Britons since 2008—it would also have spelled a certain leadership challenge to Corbyn, and the return of the Labour party to control by the centrist wing of the party epitomized by former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"If the election result had mirrored the polls at the beginning of the race, it would have banished the British left to the wilderness for an entire generation."
Instead, in the space of six weeks, Corbyn made possibly the most remarkable comeback in modern political history, and on June 8, Theresa May's Conservative party actually lost seats and said good-bye to their majority in Parliament. And Corbyn succeeded in firmly shifting his own party from a pro-capitalist, pro-war, pro-austerity institution back to its roots as a party of the people fighting for democratic socialism.
The success of Bernie Sanders' political revolution in the U.S. opened up space for the kind of campaign Corbyn ran this spring—with the largest political rallies since the days of Winston Churchill, viral social media memes and videos, and a massive grassroots door-knocking campaign. And now, with his dramatic surge in popularity that has only increased since the election, Corbyn is going further and being even bolder.
Addressing the conference in his final speech, Corbyn invoked the tragedy of the Grenfell tower fire, in which 80 working class people died in a fiery inferno, and vowed to not only end budget cuts to the public sector, but to dismantle thirty years of destructive neoliberal economic policies and create a new economic model that will work for the many and not just the few. "Grenfell is not just the result of bad political decisions," he said. "It stands for a failed and broken system which Labour must and will replace."
At the core of Corbyn's plan for creating that new system is bringing major industries currently being run as private monopolies back under public and democratic control—water, energy, the mail service, and the railways—through a combination of nationalization and municipal worker cooperatives. And the people of the UK are ready for that plan to be enacted. In a nationwide pollreleased just a few days after the Labor Conference, by huge margins voters across Britain said they favor nationalizing water, electricity, the postal service, railways, and other industries.
"The political center of gravity isn't fixed or unmovable, nor is it where the establishment pundits like to think it is."
In response to this bold new agenda for a more equal, just, and democratic society, neoliberal centrists have expressed distaste and fear. Even if Corbyn's policies were desirable, opponents say they would be impossible to achieve.
But these naysayer "Centrist Dads" don't understand what Corbyn understands. "The political center of gravity isn't fixed or unmovable, nor is it where the establishment pundits like to think it is," Corbyn said during the conference. "It shifts as people's expectations and experiences change and political space is opened up."
Former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said that her greatest achievement was succeeding in forcing her opponents to think and act on her terms—the terms of neoliberal capitalism.
Now, in pledging to undo 30 years of neoliberalism, Corbyn is not only proposing to undo Thatcher's legacy by ending destructive neoliberal policies, but to actually replace the logic of Thatcherism with what he calls,"a new common sense about the direction our country should take."
Back in the US, Senator Sanders is doing the same thing by creating a new consensus in favor of universal health coverage and economic populism. While the Labour conference in Britain was in full swing, Bernie was leading the charge to defeat Republicans' latest attack on the Affordable Care Act and at the same time advancing the case for a Medicare for all single-payer system.
"These movements started to dream together, laying out bold and different visions of the future….and credible pathways out of crisis."
What will eventually propel both leaders into power—and more importantly, establish a new paradigm in the west for a fair society for the many, not the few—is the will be the power of grassroots social movements. In her keynote address to the Labour Conference, author and activist Naomi Klein reminded the audience that there would have been no Bernie Sanders without Occupy Wall Street, no Podemos without the Indignados (Spain's Occupy movement), and now, no Jeremy Corbyn without Momentum.
"These movements started to dream together, laying out bold and different visions of the future….and credible pathways out of crisis," Klein said. "And, most importantly, they began engaging with political parties, to try to win power."
Corbyn and Sanders, and Podemos's Pablo Iglesias in Spain, are democratic socialist politicians lifted up by young people precisely because they present ideas for representative democracy in ways that are relatable and logical, and because they take their inspiration from movements larger than themselves. When Jeremy Corbyn supporters reiterate his clarion call of a Britain "For The Many", what they are really saying is, "we are the 99 percent and we're broke." When Bernie Sanders thunders, "enough is enough," his supporters know he means the same thing.
People powered movements unencumbered from the traditional hierarchies which have dominated our institutions for decades are accelerating a new model of participatory politics, one which can transform occupied squares into electoral victories.
Winnie and Claire are now headed Madrid, where the Spanish government is in crisis following conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's brutal crackdown in the province of Catalonia. Follow Winnie and Claire on Twitter at @waywardwinifredand @clairesandberg.