Corbyn Envy on the British Right

And some Sanders envy here in the U.S.


Crusaders against greed
Archie Comics

It isn't surprising that people keep comparing Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party's new leader, to Bernie Sanders, the independent senator challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Both are socialist insurgents trying to take charge—in Corbyn's case successfully—of their respective countries' more left-leaning major political party.

But there are some significant differences between them, and they should be noted. Corbyn is much more radical than Sanders, in both bad ways and good. While Sanders preaches a Scandinavian-stye social democracy with more regulations and redistribution, Corbyn goes further, calling for renationalizing industries. On foreign policy, Corbyn is an anti-imperial, anti-NATO sort while Sanders sometimes supports American interventions abroad. Corbyn is also friendlier to immigration than Sanders is. Corbyn's critics often accuse him of being stuck in the 1980s; he certainly has a lot more in common with the '80s iteration of Bernie Sanders than the current model.

Another difference: Although Corbyn stands to Sanders' left, he managed to pull off an upset and win the leadership of his party. Sanders' chances of beating Clinton for the nomination are still pretty small, despite his strong numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Still, Sanders and Corbyn clearly have a lot in common. One undersung similarity is the envy Corbyn inspires in parts of the British right. Here's Peter Hitchens:

Jeremy Corbyn and his famous facial hair
David Holt/Creative Commons

If (like me) you have attended any of Mr Corbyn's overflowing campaign meetings, you will have seen the hunger—among the under-30s and the over-50s especially—for principled, grown-up politics instead of public relations pap….Mr Corbyn reminds mature people of the days when the big parties really differed. He impresses the young because he doesn't patronise them, and obviously believes what he says….

I dislike many of Mr Corbyn's opinions—his belief in egalitarianism and high taxation, his enthusiasm for comprehensive schools, his readiness to talk to terrorists and his support for the EU. Oddly enough, these are all policies he shares with the Tory Party.

But I like the honest way he states them, compared with the Tories' slippery pretence of being what they're not.

My hope, most unlikely to be realised, is that a patriotic, conservative and Christian equivalent of Mr Corbyn will emerge to take him on, and will demonstrate, by his or her strength of conviction, that there is an even greater demand for that cause than there is for old-fashioned leftism. In any case, I think any thoughtful British person should be at least a little pleased to see the PR men and the special advisers and the backstairs-crawlers of British politics so wonderfully wrong-footed by a bearded old bicyclist.

Hitchens is a maverick among conservatives—he shares some of Corbyn's dissident foreign-policy views, and he agrees with him about renationalizing the railroads—but he certainly isn't a socialist ideologue. His comments do not reflect a covert sympathy for Corbyn's worldview, just a bit of jealousy for Hitchens' counterparts on the left who have managed to put one of their own into a position of influence. That and a general desire to see the Overton window widened.

Sanders inspires sentiments like that in the U.S. too. There is no shortage of vocal conservatives in our election, but you still sometimes hear a plaintive I-wish-our-guys-would-be-that-bold, at-least-he-has-principles respect for Sanders on the right.

That longing for a wider range of debate came up in another British writer's reactions to the party fight. Unlike Hitchens, Brendan O'Neill isn't really a man of the right, though I sometimes see him classified as one; last I checked, he was an odd sort of libertarian/Marxist hybrid. It's safe to say, in any event, that Corbyn's kind of leftism is not the variety that interests O'Neill. And yet over the summer he found himself writing this about Corbyn's centrist critics:

Welcome to Parliament!

The essence of Corbynphobia was summed up in a newspaper editorial which claimed his growing popularity is a 'symptom of a bigger problem: Labour's drift from the middle ground'. So the middle ground is the only acceptable place in politics? The middle ground has become a kind of black hole, sucking in everyone and everything. The crisis of both right-wing confidence and left-wing ideas in recent years has generated a tyranny of middle-thinking, of safe, consensual ideas, where politics has come to mean little more than managing the economy and everyday life, and where argumentativeness has been recast as bullying. 'Abandon ideology all ye who enter here'—they should hang that at the entrance to parliament.

What gets presented to us as a soft, caring new politics of consensus is in fact an intolerant new conformism, as Farage and Corbyn have discovered. Refuse to elevate electability over all other concerns, refuse to sing from the same PC, mild-mannered, green-tinted, low-horizoned, post-politics hymn sheet as everyone else, and you'll become an object of scorn.

"Farage" is a reference is Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-EU, anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party (who is claiming Corbyn's rise will be a "huge boost" for his party). Hitchens alluded to Farage in his column too. It's a common comparison—it isn't unusual to see Brits saying things like "While their politics couldn't be more different, both Jeremy Corbyn and UKIPs Nigel Farage epitomise the anti-Westminster view that many in the general public hold."

Here in America, meanwhile, pundits love to go looking for common ground between Bernie Sanders and the closest we currently have to a Farage figure, Donald Trump. So I suppose that qualifies as a Sanders/Corbyn parallel as well.

(Postscript: Some of you have objected to the comparison in that last paragraph. So for the record: I'm well aware that the differences between Trump and Farage are even larger than the differences between Sanders and Corbyn. I'm just referring to the fact that both occupy the nationalist space in their countries' respective political landscapes.)