The British Bernie Sanders

maxresdefaultWhat’s British for Bernie Sanders? Why, Jeremy Corbyn, of course. Corbyn is much more extreme and the political systems in which they operate are different, but both are challenging the assumptions their party establishments.

Britain has a parliamentary system. Being prime minister has as much in common with being Speaker of the House of Representatives as it does with being president. Traditionally, party leaders were chosen by MPs, just as members of Congress choose the leaders of their respective caucuses. But parties have democratized, and taken different routes to do so. The Labour Party’s has been a tortuous one. After three decades using an electoral college in which MPs, party members, and labor unions all had separate sections for voting it is this time using one member one vote. Leadership candidates still need to be nominate by MPs, but any paid up party member can vote in the election. 

No-one was expecting Jeremy Corbyn to be a candidate. He is an old-fashioned left-winger from the 1980s, a decade for which most on the left in Britain – as in the US – have no particular nostalgia. Like the Democrats, Labour was deeply divided in the 1980s and experienced three crushing electoral defeats, though, strictly speaking, the first was in 1979. 

To be a candidate, Corbyn needed to be nominated by 35 MPs, and he had nowhere near enough support. But supporters of other candidates kindly decided to nominate him anyway. Some thought it would be good for the debate if there was a far left candidate in the mix. Others were thinking tactically. Supporters of Andy Burnham – the most left wing of the mainstream candidates – thought Corbyn would motivate the left, who would transfer their support to Burnham when Corbyn was, inevitably, side-lined. 

That it has not worked out like that is putting it mildly. Constituency parties and unions have rallied around him. Party membership has surged, with many joining just to vote for Corbyn. Some are former members who became disillusioned with Tony Blair’ “New” Labour. Others are entryists from far-left parties like the Socialist Workers Party. Still others are Conservatives, who think Corbyn’s election would be riotously funny and guarantee Conservative victory for years to come.

Polling elections in voluntary organizations is notoriously hard. It is hard to know who is entitled to vote, let alone who will, but one poll recently gave Corbyn – one of four candidates – 53% of first preference support, some 30 points ahead of second-placed Burnham. Liz Kendall, of the moderate Blairite wing was far behind in fourth place. This poll may be wildly inaccurate, but there is certainly a real chance that Corbyn could win. He promises to abandon Britain’s nuclear weapons, leave NATO, nationalization of industry. He blames “American expansionism” for the crisis in Ukraine. For thirty years he has been a little known backbench MP – no ministerial office; no significant committee role; and a regular rebel against his party. Now he could be its next leader. No-one, certainly not Jeremy Corbyn himself, thought this a realistic possibility just a few weeks ago. 

The actual vote is not until September 12th. Labour may listen to successful former leaders such as Tony Blair and, uh, no-one else. But Corbyn’s campaign has changed the party as it bubbles with an odd nostalgia for the period of its most crushing defeats. 

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

%d bloggers like this: