Some time last year I had a conversation with someone comparing Bernie Sanders with Jeremy Corbyn. There were superficial similarities between them, with both being well to the left, both anti-populist, and both theoretically appealing to the great swathes of the politically disaffected. In the US, without Sanders as a candidate, most of the disaffected ended up in Trump’s court. The question was whether Corbyn, an incumbent leader, could go one step further than Sanders when the time came.
The time is now upon us with a British general election on Thursday, but my answer now is somewhat different what it was back then.
Last year I scoffed at the prospect of Corbyn ever becoming prime minister. The consensus was that he was unelectable and I had no reason to disagree with that. Sanders, by comparison, was eminently electable I thought – the pity was that he never got the chance.
The problem with Corbyn is that he appeared a narrow ideologue, passionate, idealistic and totally out of touch with practical realities – a bit like an Australian Green. If anything he was too left, too purely hardline without a skerrick of compromise in him. It didn’t help that he looked like a downtrodden history master with a bit of the bolshie in him. He was as far as you could get from the slick grove of New Labour (not altogether a bad thing).
Sanders, by comparison, was both passionate and idealistic also, but more practical. He was a better communicator, and roused large parts of America in the lead-up to the primaries with his message of change and hope. He was, like Corbyn, a different voice, someone outside of the political machine, and there was a great part of his appeal – but Trump was outside .
It appeared up to a few months ago that the critics take on Corbyn was broadly true. He had been utterly ineffectual in the campaign against Brexit, and trailed by a huge margin in the opinion polls. Now, a couple of days out from the election, he is well within striking distance. It seems a small miracle.
He has been greatly assisted in that his opponent, the Liberal Prime Minister Theresa May, is a very unappealing and largely unimpressive character. She took for granted that a big lead in the polls would translate into a big lead in the election, and campaigned accordingly. She has come off as shifty, evasive and a touch cowardly – which is pretty much your standard polly circa 2017.
Corbyn at least has been sincere. That is his virtue. There is no cant with him. He may be earnest, but what you see is what you get. And, unlike so many politicians today, he seems fully committed. He is a true conviction politician, and in an era of shifting opinions, policies and rhetoric that becomes very appealing.
May is of the old political order. It’s an order the electorate no longer trusts or really believes in. It’s the safer option, but it’s not something that anyone can really believe in.
Corbyn is of a different order. He is the disruptive candidate because he doesn’t hold with conventional wisdom, or with conventional platitudes. He is distinctly his own man and that is immensely appealing in an era of packaged messages and
Sanders is of the same order, but so too was Trump. Being different, going your own individual way, doesn’t automatically make it right.
I sit here writing this hoping that Corbyn gets up. It’s not that I agree with his policies – some I think are too extreme – but I admire his fervour, and believe strongly that the likes of him and Sanders offer an antidote to the soulless political dichotomy we have for so long been served with. That needs to be broken, and the election of a reasonable man outside of that might just be what it takes. (Trump is not a reasonable man, and unfortunately his presidency is far from an endorsement).
That’s it in a nutshell. You may not agree with Corbyn, but you have to admire him – which is the obverse of what many might feel about may, and her ilk.
I don’t expect Corbyn to win. I may be being cautious, but I tend to believe that while punters may flirt with the option of a Sanders many will end up ticking the box for the tried and worn out. But who knows, I could be wrong.