It is claimed that the UK Labour establishment is in panic over opinion polls and endorsements indicating that left-wing leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn is the frontrunner in the leadership election. Former leadership candidate Chuka Umunna has fronted criticism of Corbyn in an attempt to temper left-wing Labour members with realism, yet this might not be enough. Corbyn’s level of support arguably reflects a wider shift in centre-left values worldwide. In this environment, there are signs that primary voters are moving away from mainstream options in favour of their ideal candidates. Hillary Clinton’s strongest challenger in the Democratic primaries is independent, self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is running on a left-wing platform similar to Corbyn, and is performing far better than anticipated. Both candidates are fuelled by grassroots campaigns with strong youth support. In that sense, Corbyn’s obvious parallel is Tony Benn’s close challenge to Labour deputy leader Dennis Healey in 1981.Corbyn and Sanders are, like McCarthy and Benn, transformed from rebels to serious contenders. Sanders’ campaign has similar vigour to Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign against President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, in which a narrow Johnson victory in the New Hampshire primary caused him to drop out. The outcome of these elections depends more on how their mainstream opponents respond to the new political environment.
So far, the Labour leadership election campaign has been lacklustre and often limited to the ad-nauseum repetition of words such as ‘aspiration‘ that have stripped of meaning to a degree that it wouldn’t be entirely surprise the public if the main candidates are either clones or alien replicants. Though Liz Kendall has arguably had more success articulating a coherent, down to earth narrative than other mainstream candidates Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, Corbyn has been the main beneficiary of this, probably because he has claimed the mantle of idealism. Corbyn acts as a Tony Benn-like figure representing a grassroots socialism and whose appeal contrasts with the image of professionally-designed, poll-driven, focus-group tested, policy and talking points communicated in pure political speak synonymous with the downside of New Labour. Likewise, Hillary Clinton is hindered by a long-entrenched image as an inauthentic, calculating politician in opposition to the curmudgeonly but passionate Sanders who has taken up the abandoned mantle of idealism which Obama had used to defeat her in 2008. In any case, what worked for Tony Blair in 1997 and Bill Clinton in 1992 might not succeed in 2015. In a world of austerity, ongoing inequality, mass data collection, drone strikes, and failed military interventions, there is an arguably greater passion for figures like Corbyn, Sanders, and others who articulate an passionate idealism rather than those who stake out calculated, strategic, tested positions. Candidates must acknowledge the limits of an overly cautious, professional approach.
The basic challenge of whoever wins is to achieve what Ed Miliband failed to do: channel empathy and articulate policies that make a meaningful difference in peoples lives in a way that captures an idealistic desire for change. For Burnham, Cooper, Kendall, or Clinton in America to win, this means communicating with authenticity and empathy rather than gimmicks and orthodox solutions. UK Labour MP Simon Danczuk cites Andy Burnham’s idea of more regional accents in shadow cabinet as a patronising, cosmetic solution that doesn’t address a deep distrust of politicians. Danczuk proposes that leadership candidates should listen, communicate authentically, and relinquish greater power to local government and service users for communities to find solutions to unemployment, poverty, and education that reflect their needs. This approach articulates both idealism for political change that is also pragmatically grounded.
If Burnham, Cooper, Kendall, Clinton or any centre-left politicians worldwide disagree with radical opponents, they would be better served with an authentic, pragmatic idealism rather than dismissal. If they cannot do this, then candidates like Corbyn and Sanders become – at least by default – the best candidates.