The last issue of the Shell contained an article on the unlikely success of radical left winger Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for election to the leadership of the British Labour Party. 

Corbyn was swept in to the position by the membership of the Party on a huge wave of support for his powerful rhetoric, authentic persona and populist promises such as ending austerity and making the rich pay more tax.

The article outlined the future problems the election outcome would cause for the Labour Party, and potential ramifications for the Australian Labor Party, should it continue down the same path of having Party members elect its leaders under a one member one vote system. And while he appears to be increasing his grip on power within the parliamentary party by gradually ousting Shadow Cabinet dissidents and maintaining his popularity amongst members, Jeremy Corbyn is not tracking well with British voters. 

According to the latest polls, which cover the relatively short time he has occupied the position, 60 per cent of voters think Corbyn is doing a bad job as Labour leader.

Plus, 45 per cent believe he has changed the Labour Party for the worse since his election (against 21 per cent who think he is making a positive difference), and the Party is doing even more badly in local council by-elections than before his election. 

The Party is deeply fractured along several major policy fault lines. A showdown over the future of the Trident nuclear submarine program is looming with the Shadow Cabinet irreconcilably split after Corbyn indicated he did not support the renewal of the program. 

However, his high approval ratings within the membership and the constraints of the Party Constitution with respect to removing an elected leader mean Corbyn will, in all likelihood, lead Labour to the 2020 election, which many predict will mean annihilation for the Party.
And as this edition of the Shell is finalised, an eerily similar scenario is being played out on a grander and even more unlikely stage – the United States Democratic Party primaries – a two horse race between former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the Independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders who declared himself a Democrat candidate late last year.

Although many of his policies such as universal health care and increasing the minimum wage would not seem overly radical to most Australian voters, in US political terms, Sanders is viewed as being as left wing as they come. He is a self-described democratic socialist (that in itself enough to scare many US voters), whose stump speech calls for a “political revolution” and rails against big business, Wall Street, big pharmaceutical companies and campaign funding reform. 

His rallies have a carnival, some say pantomime-like atmosphere and along with the “Bernie buses” and media contingent, the longer the campaign rolls on, the bigger they’re getting.

Similar to Corbyn who only entered the contest to ensure all segments of the Labour ideological rainbow were represented by a candidate, Sanders originally threw his hat into the ring to provide an alternative leadership perspective to Clinton who was widely viewed as a shoo-in for the position. 

And like Corbyn, Sanders’ message to Democrat voters has tapped into a rich vein of dissatisfaction with status quo, middle ground politics and, more importantly, reached out and engaged an often overlooked and notoriously apathetic demographic – young voters.
While somewhat surprising, Sanders’ popularity with younger voters can be attributed to his promises to abolish tuition fees at public colleges and universities, cut student loan interest rates and provide free college and university education to low income students – all funded by a tax on Wall Street speculators. Many students currently leave college with substantial debt (the average is US$29,000), have difficulty finding employment in their field of study and consequently work in low paid jobs for several years. Although unemployment has dropped substantially under Obama’s economic recovery program, like many countries youth unemployment remains stubbornly high. Sanders’ policies have shown that he has listened and understands this issue.

But more broadly, uncertainty around the economic future and a perception that previous generations have squandered their future economic prosperity and security have also been suggested as explanations for the surge of young support for Sanders. The voters known as “the millennials” grew up in the post 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Global Financial Crisis when they witnessed their parents’ financial insecurities and stresses. Sanders’ outrage and promises to take on those responsible for the GFC – Wall Street, the banks and the economic Establishment – are infinitely more appealing to many younger voters than his fellow Democratic candidate who is seen as part of the political establishment that is part of the problem. 

The similarities between Corbyn and Sanders are many: neither are young, Corbyn 66, Sanders 74; they have been politicians for several decades; they are largely on the outer with their political peers; their supporters describe them as “moral”, “ethical”, “honest”, “authentic” and “steadfast to their principles and beliefs”; they have a cult-like following, particularly among young people; their political opponents (Blairites and Clinton) are condemned for their support for the Iraq War, and they both started their campaigns as unbackable underdogs.
Incidentally but interestingly, Sanders has an older brother, Larry, living in Oxford, UK since the 60’s. At last year’s general election, he was an unsuccessful candidate for the UK Greens. Perhaps unsurprisingly his political manifesto is remarkably similar to the Bernie Sanders stump speech. The older Sanders would have been a close observer of the Labour leadership election and one can only speculate as to the advice he could have given his little brother as to how you can campaign as the underdog and come out the winner.

As yet there have been just three primaries, Iowa (where Clinton narrowly defeated Sanders), New Hampshire which saw a record number of young people come out to register a staggering 86 per cent vote for Sanders, thoroughly trouncing Clinton in the overall poll and, most recently, Nevada, which saw another narrow victory for Clinton – a State she had previously expected to win easily.

The next State to vote is South Carolina, followed by the crucial Super Tuesday on March 1 which covers 11 States.  We will know a lot more after that.

While it’s way too early to make a bold prediction that Sanders will do a Corbyn, with young America and momentum on his side, it would be foolish to say it couldn’t happen.

Should the unexpected actually happen and Sanders win the Democratic nomination he will undoubtedly face unprecedented scrutiny from the media and the judgement of mainstream America similar to that faced by 1972 Democratic Presidential Candidate Senator George McGovern. McGovern also won the nomination unexpectedly with a similar grassroots, student-led campaign but aside from a generally disastrous campaign, he was viewed as too left wing and lost the election against Richard Nixon – the second biggest landslide in American history.

But as we all know the Republican nominee contest isn’t exactly running to script either and there are far more potential surprises to await us as the primaries roll on over the next four months