Letter from America – Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: February 19, 2016 Last modified: October 25, 2016

Comparisons of British and American politics often throw up superficial similarity. Nonetheless, the primary polling in the United States and Labour Party results in the United Kingdom do show some fascinating resemblances, as well differences.

Last year, few would have predicted the striking successes of Bernie

Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, two aging parliamentary backbenchers, in ­mobilising generations of voters who had seemed to have abandoned electoral politics.

Even for supportive optimists like myself, the degree of success has been a continuing revelation and a reproach to the somewhat jaded cynicism with which I have guarded my political hopes over the last decade.

In particular, while in Britain the concept of socialism was not anathema, except to the Express/Mail/Telegraph regiment of retired colonels, New Labour had certainly redefined it away from any radical approach to change.

It had become a vaguely aspirational term of good will towards Labour’s traditional constituencies, but ideologically it had completely bought the trickledown theory. If we let the banksters do their stuff, then all of us will benefit in the end.

In the US, of course, socialism was the stuff that fashioned McCarthyite nightmares. It was thoughtcrime to hint that socialism had any redeeming features at all. So what happened? Primary polls showed large numbers of Americans actually like the idea of socialism.

Indeed, many of the people who were otherwise inclined to show their dissatisfaction by supporting Donald Trump or the Tea Party were prepared to go the whole hog and support Sanders. Young people, women, educated people, blue-collar workers, all liked the idea.

Above all, Sanders won the support of women voters in the teeth of Hillary Clinton’s expedient feminism, which they seem to have realized is about the uplift of one woman only.

Sanders did far and away the best in demographic ranges that grew up after the Cold War and missed the pervasive anti-socialism of the era.

Interestingly, Hillary Clinton and her Third Way supporters have been relatively muted about Sanders’ socialism. Since they have thrown anything else they can at him, one must assume that their expensively-commissioned focus groups have suggested that this would not work.

Pathetically, their attacks have, if anything been based on questioning his radicalism – albeit in easily rebuttable ways. He was insufficiently rigid on gun control, allegedly had not been as involved in the Civil Rights Struggle, had not been pro-gay enough. Most of these attacks have boomeranged, because the Sanders rebuttals contrast his consistent stands with the wonkish and expedient prevarications of both Clintons.

Insofar as it is possible to be a “member” of the amorphous Democratic Party, Sanders was certainly not one. He stood for Mayor, for Representative and for Senator as an independent democratic socialist.

Yet Hillary and the Democratic oligarchy decided that it would just give him more publicity to challenge his credentials to run in the Primary. One suspects they regret it now.

But no matter how much he has challenged the Clinton New Democratic sense of entitlement, the Democratic politicians have not resorted to anything on the scale of the backstabbing personal and political attacks that Corbyn has had to withstand from the New Labour MPs and the old New Labour apparatus. If, as seems increasingly possible, Sanders wins the nomination, polls show him best placed to beat any likely Republican nomination.

The secret of Sanders’ success is the same as Corbyn’s. Neither of them evade like Blair or Clinton. He answers questions and states firm and unspun positions.

As he showed on LBC when asked whether he would offer Ed Miliband a cabinet position, Corbyn does not wait for some Peter Mandelson clone to whisper the appropriate prevarication in his ear. Instead, he answers. And people on both sides of the Atlantic appreciate that Hillary’s “No we can’t” does not inspire voters – but goes down well with bankers.

We have had too many magnificent defeats on the left, so I sincerely hope that both Sanders and Corbyn succeed. But even if they do not, they have taught us all a lesson about sincerity and commitment that we should build on for the future on both sides of the Atlantic.

The nearest thing to a natural socialist reservoir in the US has been the minorities. If black voters realise that Sanders is actually expressing their aspirations, it seems increasingly possible, he can win the nomination. Martin Luther King had a dream – not a feasibility study worked out with bank lobbyists.

For him to get this far has moved the ground under American politics. If he is nominated, polls show him best placed to beat any likely Republican nomination. It would be genuine earthquake.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune’s UN correspondent