What can be learned from Corbyn and Sanders?

Dom Cradick is Vice President of the ACT Branch of the National Union of Students and Vice President of ANU Labor Left

There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the left is experiencing victories around the world which it has not experienced in decades. Whether these are symbolised in electoral gains or mass ideological shifts that change the nature of national discussions, the left is definitely back. There is now a mainstream debate about the impacts of neoliberal policies – something that until a few years ago was unimaginable. Despite all this global success, it presents an extreme identity crisis to the Australian left as they struggle to find a coherent direction that replicates the triumphs abroad.

Arguably, the two most similar countries to Australia (in terms of political systems) which have experienced this surge are the United Kingdom and the United States. While left-wing surges across Europe and other countries have been marked by new political parties that have had no experience in government entering the sphere (Podemos in Spain, Die Linkein Germany, and until 2015, SYRIZA in Greece), the opposite is true for the UK and  US.

The left’s energy in the US was directed to the then potential Democratic Party nominee Bernie Sanders. An explicit and avowed socialist for his entire political life as an independent Senator, he recognised that the only chance for mass mobilisation of the left came in the form of an existing dominant political institution – the Democratic Party. Only the Democratic Party has the structure, recognition and resources to achieve momentum. The governing committee of the party did everything they could to prevent Bernie from winning the primaries that would have allowed him to be the actual Democratic nominee and they ultimately succeeded – at the expense of losing the election that matters most. Bernie Sanders has now asserted himself postelection as the voice of the American left in the Democratic Party, controlling the direction of this large and motivated group. It would not be unwise to predict that this group will be responsible for electoral victories in the future.

An almost parallel situation exists in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn, also a prominent left-winger, won his leadership bid due to similar mass mobilisation and engagement of the general public. A lifelong member of the Labour Party, he too acknowledges that genuine left-wing change comes in the form of an institution that has lasting governmental experience. Before the June 9th election, his leadership was plagued by constant undermining from his parliamentary colleagues and horrendous treatment from the media, even from supposedly left-leaning papers such as the Guardian. The result of the election speaks for itself, Jeremy Corbyn has severely weakened the Tories ideologically, which has a lacked a coherent direction since then. Riding on a wave of popular approval, Corbyn has presented himself, ironically, as a strong and stable alternative to the Tory regime.

In Australia, both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are being celebrated by the left here. Greens members and those from the array of small socialist groups have all been energised by their successes but have failed to admit how their ideological success can be replicated here. They deny that the Australian Labor Party is the vehicle to achieve a leftist transformation of society. The range of excuses can essentially be condensed into one thought: “There is no one in the ALP who is like Corbyn or Bernie”. This is an interesting thought to entertain. The proposition centres around the personality of these leaders rather than the policies they represent. Corbyn and Sanders are still subject to party member democracy that dictates the policies taken to elections (the same in the ALP). A good example of this is Corbyn’s renewal of the UK’s nuclear weapons program – something he is adamantly against but must concede as per party policy. Party members influence policy, while leaders represent the embodiment of this policy. The refutation of the ALP by personality factors is hypocritical from those who supposedly believe in collective action and substantive policy over personality.

It is important to note an important structural difference to that of the ALP and its international equivalent institutions: party discipline. Bernie Sanders was at liberty to express his positions before he ran for the Democratic nomination as he was an independent but also after he became a Democrat, as the party tolerates dissident voting. This is something that was important in fostering Jeremy Corbyn’s own reputation – his principled approach came into conflict with his own party’s stance on more than 500 occasions. This level of dissent is not tolerated in the ALP – MPs and MLAs face expulsion when voting against the party’s stance. While it could be argued that this shows a commitment to solidarity, it certainly makes it harder to observe ALP MPs individual stances on issues.Perhaps we now need to have a serious conversation in the Labor Party about the institution of non-binding votes for elected members of parliament: something along the lines of the “three-line whip” system of British Labour, where backbench Labour MPs exercise the freedom to speak and even vote against certain policies and motions put forward by the leadership in parliament if they do not agree with the position being taken. This was an idea floated by Labor Left Senator, Doug Cameron in the pages of Challenge in 2011.

This should not be confused as the ALP having no one comparable to Corbyn or Sanders. Moreover, the proposition is an answer to the wrong question, it is not “Does the ALP have anyone like Corbyn or Sanders?” but more “Which political institution is most likely to replicate their success?”.

Greens members and other political groups may still deny the answer is the ALP and insist it is themselves. But this denial is not a failure of recognising how Corbyn and Sanders’ successes can be implemented in Australia – it is an implicit defensive response as it poses an existential threat to the non-ALP left.

The Greens have experienced no electoral success in the USA, but have in the UK, so there is comparability there. The Greens in the UK have become irrelevant since Corbyn – their vote from 2015 to 2017 dropped by more than half and party membership from 2015 to 2016 (latest numbers available) dropped by 27%. Indeed, the Australian Greens have been polling pretty poorly since the last election and an open war between the centrist tree tory faction represented by Richard Di Natale and the genuine left, lead by Lee Rhiannon has broken out. It has exposed severe issues with their party’s‘democracy’, particularly how consensus voting is easily manipulated. Admittedly, the suggestion that the Greens moving to the right will result in electoral gains -particularly while the ALP is moving to the left - by Di Natale’s allies is bizarre. The real takeaway, however, is that the Greens’ internal processes are not robust and cannot handle the mass mobilisation of the left that is needed in this country today.

If the Australian left is serious about achieving radical change, it needs to show unity and get around the only institution which has the capacity to do so. Participating in the Australian Labor Party’s democracy by way of membership is far more useful to the cause than moralising from the outside.

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