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Global Affairs

Rise of far-left armchair revolutionaries

Corbyn, Sanders and Melenchon profit from young voters' ignorance of past socialist failures

LONDON • Most national ballots are fought on domestic issues and Britain's just-concluded general election is no exception; Prime Minister Theresa May's spectacular failure to secure a parliamentary majority despite the fact that she was running 20 percentage points ahead of her opponents when the campaign started can largely be explained by her inept campaigning skills and her poorly conceived electoral manifesto.

But there is another aspect to the British elections which deserves attention because it may indicate a broader, global trend: The equally spectacular rise of Britain's opposition Labour Party which, despite the fact that it is riven with internal divisions and led by Mr Jeremy Corbyn, a far-left activist with no government experience and widely derided as a no-hoper, increased its share of the national vote by a staggering 10 per cent, the biggest such rise in Britain since World War II.

And what happened in Britain on the radical left of politics is not just another pendulum swing from one side of politics to the other, of the kind so familiar in Western countries over the past century of competitive elections. Instead, it may signify a more fundamental shift in the way left-wing political movements behave and seek to gain votes in an electoral landscape which continues to be dominated by populist individuals, rather than ideology.

The key problems which are on the minds of electorates in most industrialised countries are those on which socialists used to have an in-built advantage. Whether these include fears of job losses as a result of technological change, growing wealth disparities, rising social inequalities or spiralling medical costs associated with longer lifespans, all are problems which have preoccupied left-wing parties for decades, if not centuries, and on which their approach is generally perceived by voters to be more constructive.

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Also, most of the economic and political trends of the past decade should have boosted support for socialist parties. The financial crisis of 2008, gigantic fraud and bankruptcies at financial institutions due to the meltdown of investment schemes that nobody - apart from a handful of speculators - understood, and the broader backlash against globalisation; all appeared to strengthen the socialists' fundamental contention that market forces are not necessarily efficient creators or distributors of wealth, and that both require regulation and guidance from the state.

Curiously, however, left-wing parties ended up as the biggest losers from the latest political and economic crises afflicting industrialised nations. In Britain, Labour has been out of power since 2010 and, notwithstanding its progress at the latest elections, has no hope of returning to office until well into the next decade.

In France, the Socialists are in meltdown: They just lost the presidency and will be annihilated in this month's parliamentary elections. In Germany, Socialists have not been in charge of the government since 2005, and are badly trailing behind the centre-right coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel in the elections scheduled for later this year. In Spain and Italy, the Socialists have imploded.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

And in the United States, the Democrats are not in control of the two houses of Congress and the White House; as a favourite anecdote in Washington puts it, it is possible for someone to travel the width and breadth of the US, from Florida in the south-east to the north-western border with Canada near the shores of the Pacific Ocean without even once crossing into any territory run by a Democratic governor. Everywhere, it seems, socialism as an approach to government has never seemed more relevant but socialists, as politicians, have never been more marginalised.

URBAN LEFTIES

And yet, a certain brand of left-wing politicians can still electrify electorates. Think of American Senator Bernie Sanders, who last year attracted vast crowds of youngsters and seemed poised to steal the mantle of Democratic presidential candidate from Mrs Hillary Clinton; there are many in the US who believe that, had he succeeded in securing the Democratic nomination, he would have been in the Oval Office now, and the nearest Mr Donald Trump would have got to the White House would have been at a suite in his Trump International Washington hotel.

Meanwhile in France, Mr Jean-Luc Melenchon, a left-wing firebrand who wants to redraw the country's Constitution in order to nationalise most private property and proposes to tax any worker above a certain income at 100 per cent of all earnings, got the support of almost a fifth of the French electorate in the first round of the presidential elections; if the mainstream French Socialist party did not run a candidate against him, Mr Melenchon would have beaten Mr Emmanuel Macron and could have been French president today.

And then, there is Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has laid wreaths at the graves of terrorists, publicly expressed his hope that Britain's armed forces would be defeated, openly regretted the end of the Cold War and its consequences and voted against every piece of anti-terrorism legislation introduced in Britain, yet he attracted an unprecedented 40 per cent of the popular vote in last Thursday's elections. Had a mere two thousand votes gone in a different direction in a handful of constituencies, he could have easily been Britain's prime minister today.

It is striking how, despite the fact that they come from very different political cultures, these three "revolutionaries" actually share so many things in common. They all appeal to the young in vast numbers, despite the fact that they are hardly young: Mr Melenchon is 65, Mr Corbyn is 68 and Mr Sanders is 75.

Nor do they necessarily espouse causes dear to youngsters: Britain's Mr Corbyn, for instance, has had more wives in his lifetime than the number of women he initially promoted to senior positions in his "shadow Cabinet".

All the three revolutionaries come across as "ordinary folk" and present themselves as advocates of the "working man" despite the fact that this is exactly what they are not: They all live in considerable middle-class comfort in big cities and have a more extensive experience of far-left struggles in, say, Venezuela or Nicaragua than in sharing time with factory workers in a bleak industrial town in north-east England, or the mid-west rust belt of the US.

And all three are detested by the leftist mainstream parties they seek to represent; Mr Corbyn is the only one who actually leads a socialist party, although most of his colleagues would dearly like to get rid of him, or at least thought of getting rid of him until his unexpectedly good electoral performance last Thursday.

One reason for the relative success of such individuals is precisely that they are essentially urban lefties, appealing to a similar audience which sees nothing wrong in talking about the poor and dispossessed without actually visiting them. It is noticeable that Mr Sanders, Mr Corbyn and Mr Melenchon have all piled votes in big cities and among young urban middle-class voters who seldom bothered to vote before; Britain's Labour did particularly well in the elections last week in London constituencies, for instance.

But the biggest reason they are popular is because they are prepared to break with received wisdom by advocating what until recently would have been considered political suicide: policies such as punitive taxes on the moderately wealthy, nationalisation of public utilities and banks, and the spending of money as though it were going out of fashion or growing on trees.

And they can do so because a whole new generation of voters no longer remembers the failures of socialism or communism, or readily buys into the idea - which far-left supporters always put forward - that whenever a socialist experiment fails, it is because it was not properly applied.

It is striking that all three far-left candidates are unrepentant about some of the zany causes they supported in the past, and see no need to explain how they would fund their electoral promises, or why government bureaucrats would be better at running public utilities than private corporations. And few are asking them to provide such explanations because few remember the sluggish, socialist-controlled European economies of the past.

Would the armchair revolutionaries succeed in gaining power? For the moment, the answer must be in the negative; even Mr Corbyn who did well in his country's general election last week "proved wrong all those people who said he couldn't win an election by not winning an election" as Professor Matthew Goodwin, a British political expert, jokingly put it, referring to the fact that, although Labour increased its share of the vote, it is still far behind the ruling centre-right Conservatives.

Still, such far-left politicians are also proving that the safety of the Western world's mainstream established political system is far from assured; they are just as much a threat to the established order, open societies and global economic activity we enjoy today as their extreme right-wing opponents.

For extremes of the left and right often join hands, at the margins of politics.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2017, with the headline 'Rise of far-left armchair revolutionaries'. Print Edition | Subscribe