Corbyn to Sanders - it's time for Left in India to see a revival
The winds of change are blowing strongly.
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The impressive performance of the Labour Party in the snap election to UK’s Parliament held earlier this month has enthused left-wing activists and supporters globally. The Labour Party was projected to get only around 26 per cent of the popular vote in the opinion polls just after the elections were announced in April. When the results came out on June 9, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour won 40 per cent of the popular vote, bettering its voteshare by over 10 per cent since the 2015 election and gaining 30 additional seats in parliament.
Although it could not win a majority, the Labour succeeded in truncating Theresa May’s Conservative majority in Parliament. While the Conservative Party’s voteshare also witnessed an increase from 37 per cent to over 42 per cent, the largely young support base of the Labour has triggered optimism over achieving greater heights in the near future.
Momentum for Labour
Three factors stand out in the Labour’s inspiring electoral feat. The first involves Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which made a significant break from the neoliberal Blairite legacy, and firmly re-established its progressive and pro-people credentials.
The second relates to the Labour manifesto — titled “For the Many, Not the Few” — which promised increased public spending on job creation, education, healthcare, housing and social security to be funded by enhanced taxes on the richest five per cent, corporations and finance capital alongside renationalisation of the railways, mail service, water system and energy supply.
This clear-headed response to the global economic slowdown, caused by the depredations of speculative finance and giant corporations alongside nation-states which remain beholden to them, has helped in galvanising popular support from the working people and the unemployed.
It is not surprising that sections of the working class, which had voted for the far-right and racist UKIP in 2015 and the Brexit in 2016, have swung back to supporting the Labour in 2017, with the UKIP vote collapsing from around 12 per cent in 2015 to below 2 per cent in 2017.
Left is right.
Despite successive terror attacks in Manchester and London in the run up to the elections, the electorate refused to be swayed by hate campaigns and paranoia.
Corbyn’s consistency in opposing US-led militarism, despite its embrace by Tony Blair and the Blairites, from the Iraq invasion in 2003 to the recent missile strikes against Syria and his insistence on according centrality to the UN in dealing with the global menace of terrorism, has set the Labour on a sound moral ground.
The third factor consists of the phenomenal rise in support for the Labour among the British youth. As per a YouGov survey, among first time voters of age-group 18-19 years, a whopping 66 per cent voted for the Labour and only 19 per cent for the Tories; within the 20-29 years age-group 62 per cent voted Labour and among 30-39 year olds, 55 per cent voted Labour. In contrast, 58 per cent among the 60-69 years age-group voted for the Tories.
Labour’s new found support within the youth owes significantly to the grassroots movement, Momentum, which came into being during Corbyn’s bid for Labour leadership in 2015. This movement attracted the youth towards the Labour Party, helped Corbyn in warding off challenges from the Blairites and radicalised the Labour base.
The Momentum, which explicitly stands for wealth redistribution, participatory democracy, putting people before corporate interests, ending all forms of discrimination and reversing privatisation, today has a network of 150 local groups, 23,000 members and over 2ooooo supporters across Britain.
It derives inspiration from similar grassroots movements against neoliberal austerity, which led to the emergence of the SYRIZA in Greece and the Podemos in Spain.
Winds of change
The idea of organising a movement of the youth to radicalise and reform the entrenched social democratic parties within the advanced countries, which over the past three decades have been corrupted from the top — both ideologically through compromises with neoliberalism and politically, through crony capitalism and big corporate financing — has been gaining traction following independent Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the presidential primaries of the Democratic Party of the US.
Not only did the Sanders campaign against glaring income inequalities and the malfeasances of the Wall Street succeed in energising the youth and students, it also raised over 200 million dollars from small public donations without receiving campaign funds from the big corporations.
In the end, Sanders lost the race getting around 43 per cent of the popular vote and securing 1,865 delegates in the Democratic primaries against Hillary Clinton’s 55 per cent of popular vote and 2842 delegates.
Given the ossified structure of the party system in the US, the Sanders’ campaign was a welcome relief. It brought the class question back into the thick of American politics, which together with issues of gender, racial and inter-national justice can form the core of ideological-political resistance to the far-right Trump regime.
How far the Sanders effect will succeed in reforming the Democratic Party in the US remains to be seen, but what is indisputable is that the neoliberal consensus within the erstwhile social democratic parties has clearly been shattered.
The winds of change are blowing strongly. These winds of “Democratic Socialism”, generated in the Sanders’ campaign, reached the shores of Britain through the Labour Party’s campaign.
In fact, several key organisers of the Sanders’ campaign actively advised the campaigners for Corbyn on the use of social media, fund raising and converting "clicktivism" into real grassroots activism and door-to-door campaigning.
That this new democratic-socialist energy on the Left is not limited to the Anglosphere was seen during the French general elections, held in April 2017.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Senator from the Socialist Party, had quit the party in 2008 to form the Left Party. Contesting as a Presidential candidate of the Left Front (in alliance with the French Communist party) in 2012, he secured 11 per cent of the national vote. In 2017, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) secured 19.5 per cent of the popular vote in the first round, finishing fourth behind the pro-EU neoliberal Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent), far-right Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) and the conservative Francois Fillon (20 per cent).
Once again, it was the increase in its appeal within the youth that helped the Left to expand its base in France.
Mélenchon’s policy platform included constitutional changes to curb the powers of the presidency and enhancing those of the legislature, expanding labour rights, renegotiation of the EU treaties, moving towards 100 per cent renewable energy, imposing controls on finance capital, raising the minimum wage and reversing the privatisation of common goods and public utilities.
While this agenda could get the support of just around one-fifth of the French electorate, it is noteworthy that the Socialist Party was decimated with only six per cent voteshare, implying that the left-minded, progressive sections consolidated behind the new Left platform.
Further growth of the resurgent Left in France will partly depend on its success in winning over sections of the anti-EU constituency that rallied behind Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric, like the Labour’s success in denting the UKIP’s base.
This has to be done not by pandering to hate politics though, but by combating it and exposing its vacuousness and irrationality. The noteworthy point, however, is that the new trend within the Left in France has not followed the American or the British script of trying to reform entrenched parties like the Democratic Party or the Labour in a democratic-socialist direction. What seems to be working in France is a break away from the mainstream altogether, in search of a new democratic-socialist alternative.
Lessons for the Indian Left
The exciting and positive developments within the Left spectrum in the politics of the advanced countries offer some general lessons, for left-wing parties and activists everywhere, particularly in India, where the Left has been on a downslide now for almost a decade.
First, the Left needs to make a break from the corrupting influence of neoliberalism and be forthright in its critique of the existing order dominated by finance capital, giant corporations and a subservient state.
Second, the Left has to be oriented more towards movement-building and grassroots activism rather than status-quoist parliamentarism, in the name of fighting the right wing.
The far-right itself is a reactionary movement; it cannot be countered effectively by solely relying on parliamentary tactics, without making serious attempts at popular mobilisations.
Third, it has to shed ideological dogmatism and embrace the democratic aspirations of today’s youth, by evolving a democratic and participatory vision of socialism, rather than remaining nostalgic about the authoritarian, centrally commanded regimes of the twentieth century.
This also involves dismantling the archaic organisational structures of the Left — which throttle dissent and protect status-quoist non-performing assets — by allowing diversity of ideas and initiatives to thrive within it. If new ideas are not allowed within, they will naturally evolve from the outside.
Much has been made out of the age-profile of the Left leadership in India to highlight it’s disconnect with the youth. It needs to be noted in this regard that Bernie Sanders is 75 years old, Jeremy Corbyn, 68 and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 65. Their character and the ideas they represent have mattered much more to the American, British or the French youth than their physical age.
Clearly, upright personalities and upfront politics matter more to the youth than age. There is no reason to believe that the Indian youth would fail to respond to a fresh dose of new Left ideas.