From the Archive: The march of the mavericks: Corbyn, Sanders and Trump

Labour leadership candidate, Jeremy Corbyn (Photo: Christopher Thomond for the Observer)

It’s hard to deny that Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are all from the fringes of their respective nations political elite. Yet each is now finding themselves in a position of prominence which they could only have dreamed of just a few months ago.

In Britain, the Labour party elections to decide who should be the next party leader have been thrown into flux following the surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn. The rank outsider, he was only added to the ballot so as to ‘widen the debate’. Mr Corbyn started the contest with odds at around 100/1, yet as his campaign has progressed, so his odds have shortened considerably to 3/10 making him the outright favourite.

Aside from whether you may agree with the specific politics of Mr Corbyn, which are consistent with the Labour party of the 1970’s, the groundswell of grassroots support which has propelled him in the polls has been clear and startling. Those who support Mr Corbyn are from a range of backgrounds, from those who were pushed out of mainstream politics by the Labour/SDP split in the 1980’s, to students who have been hit hard by austerity and anyone in between. Such diversity perhaps belies a reason for Corbyn’s support other than mere political affiliation.

What Corbyn is also seen to embody by many is clear principles

What Corbyn is also seen to embody by many is clear principles. The demand for a politics unclouded by the compromise of the centre ground has grown across Europe and America since the economic crash of 2007/8. In Europe this has taken the form of non-mainstream parties, from the left-wing Podemas in Spain and Syriza in Greece, to the right-wing UKIP in Britain and National Front in France. America’s rigid two-party system makes the rise of viable other parties almost impossible. This means the American electorate has taken to looking at the fringes of the two parties to escape the centrists.

Corbyn is perhaps the most surprising of the three, appearing as a non-mainstream candidate within a very mainstream political party on a continent where the creation and success of non-establishment parties has become normalised. It suggests that the grassroots of the party didn’t move to the political centre with Tony Blair and New Labour in the late 1990’s as many had imagined. But, perhaps, political affiliations aside, Jeremy Corbyn stands out from the other Labour leadership hopefuls as being both unwilling to compromise his principles and by being unburdened by any history of having a government position and record to defend, making him appealing to activists who find the vague nature of centrist politics unsatisfactory.

This is a defining feature for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump too, neither is overly burdened with having a governmental record to defend and both are unapologetically straight talking. What is perhaps most evident in each of the three cases is how supporting a candidate who could win a general election has come second to supporting a candidate who is comfortable being principled.

It is undeniable that elections are won in the political centre

It is undeniable that elections are won in the political centre. The swing states in America and swing constituencies in Britain are all decided by voters with no particular party affiliation. In Britain, whilst Mr Corbyn might well prove to be a serious adversary against Mr Cameron over the ballot box, an evermore left-leaning Labour party under his leadership is very unlikely to win over those swing voters. This is especially true since Britain’s chancellor, George Osborne, used his most recent budget to drag the governing Conservative party toward the political centre, nabbing Labour manifesto pledges on the way.

Across the pond, Bernie Sanders, a veteran Senator from Vermont has emerged as one of only eight candidates currently vying with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination for 2016. This compares to a packed Republican field of over twenty. Sanders stands out among all of the candidates, Republican or Democrat as drawing some of the largest crowds at his rallies. His support, much like that of Jeremy Corbyn, comes from the young and voters who have become disillusioned with an increasingly partisan and gridlocked Congress.

Donald Trump’s success, despite how much Sanders and Corbyn might protest, is a product of similar political forces, which have propelled the two veteran left-wingers to prominence. Trump has emphatically declared his dislike of political correctness; with outlandish attacks on Mexican immigrants, who he declares rapists and criminals, and women, describing a debate moderator as having “blood coming from her wherever”. Such statements would be career suicide for any other politician, but Trump’s star has continued to rise, he is currently Republican front-runner by some margin.

What all three represent is the surprising and continued influence of the disillusioned grassroots, where corporate interests and political machinations have oft been considered to be the real forces behind elections.  None of the three may yet win their respective votes, but a re-energised grassroots in both countries could be beneficial, allowing a new generation to engage in politics.


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