Sanders and Corbyn: Birds of a feather?

Abdallah Schleifer
Abdallah Schleifer
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The most extraordinary political events in the United States and UK in 2015 involve two men at the far left of their once-leftwing parties: Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Both were relatively obscure in their respective parties at the start of 2015, and are now major personalities.

When Ed Miliband resigned as leader of the UK’s Labour Party, which meant electing a successor, Corbyn was a relatively isolated militant socialist MP in a party that while nominally to the left of the Conservative Party, had strayed far from its socialist origins. This predated Tony Blair’s long run as Labour prime minister, and was successfully pursued by him as he privatized the rail system and other nationalized industries.

Corbyn unambiguously opposed Blair’s New Labour and its goal of an “aspirational society” replacing the old Labour goal of social justice. More than any other long-serving MP, Corbyn repeatedly defied his own party, voting against legislation that weakened or dismembered post-war socialist institutions.

When he announced his candidacy in June, he barely secured enough nominations from his fellow MPs to get on the ballot. Most of them saw Corbyn as a leftwing eccentric whose candidacy would make the campaign for party leadership more interesting to the public. None expected him to be a serious candidate, much less win.

Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leadership was anchored to similar concerns that suddenly stirred up an extraordinary following among British voting-age youth, as was happening in America.

Abdallah Schleifer

Sanders’ relationship to the Democratic Party leadership was seemingly even more marginal. He was a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, serving first in Congress for many years then in the Senate. As a Senator, he formally allied himself with the Democrats, but remained in name as an independent. When Sanders announced his Democratic candidacy for the 2016 presidential election, few seasoned politicians took him seriously.

Welfare state

He has focused on transforming the welfare state that Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt established during the Great Depression in the1930s. Instead of Congress and the presidency regulating Wall Street, the latter figuratively speaking had come to regulate Congress over the past 25 years.

This has meant increased tax cuts for the wealthy, but no improvement in real wages for the poor and middle class. This has been the main thrust of Sanders’ campaign, as well as his insistence that rising tuition costs, particularly in the once-free state universities, is having a crippling effect on society.

Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leadership was anchored to similar concerns that suddenly stirred up an extraordinary following among British voting-age youth, as was happening in America. Tens of thousands of predominately young voters, inspired by Corbyn’s campaigning, joined Labour and flocked to his rallies, as did the affiliated trade unions whose members were also able to vote. After a four-month campaign, Corbyn - the marginal, unreconstructed socialist - secured nearly 60 percent of the vote against four other candidates.


In America, Sanders has drawn the biggest crowds in the first phase of what will be a long campaign for the Democratic nomination against the favorite Hillary Clinton, who was so confident of victory that she barely bothered to seriously campaign until a month or so ago. Opinion polls put Sanders even, and for a while ahead of Clinton in the first two states where registered Democrats will go to the polls in the spring of 2016.

As for Corbyn, he has won his first campaign, and if he can hold on to the Labour leadership, he will lead his party against the ruling Conservatives in the next parliamentary elections. Sanders is unlikely to prevent Clinton from securing the Democratic nomination, but he will have a more enduring effect.

Most Labour MPs dislike or even despise Corbyn, and are committed to undermining his leadership. He has never hidden his belief that Britain should be a republic, not a monarchy, but he says he would not push for a republic because he knows how popular the queen is.

However, when all stood to sing the national anthem “God save the queen” at a memorial service more than a month ago, Corbyn stood but did not sing - an act that no doubt offended many, if not nearly all British voters.

Sanders, on the other hand, is respected by all his colleagues for his integrity. In the face of the surprising support he has acquired with Democratic voters, Clinton has shifted significantly to the left over the past few months, adopting many of his campaign promises and direct rhetoric as her own.

The age group that most strongly supports Sanders - 18 to 35 - does not share its elders’ Cold War fears of socialism, and has embraced his program. They are the future of the Democratic Party.

Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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