The rise of Corbyn and Mélenchon have similar roots, but the Labour leader has to contend with problems that the French left does not have
The French presidential elections were instructive. Mainstream commentators are desperate to portray the situation in France and elsewhere as a battle of progress and liberalism against the forces of populist reaction. In fact the most important feature of the election was the collapse of the established centre. Neither of the parties that have alternated in power over the last few decades, the Republicans or the Socialist Party, got into the final round, and the Socialist Party vote collapsed to 6.4%.
The centrist Macron managed to portray himself as a new kid on the block, despite his establishment origins and backing and ministerial service in two Socialist Party governments.
While the two-round presidential system gave Macron a big majority in the end, what the first round revealed was polarization. The fascist Front National vote grew significantly and the vote for the radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon shot up from 11% in 2012 to over 19%, twice the percentage rise achieved by the fascist Marine Le Pen. Mélenchon’s inspiring campaign showed that a dynamic, radical, class based operation (he talked of soaking the rich and ended every speech by saying ‘long live the working class’) can channel anger at bitterness in this globalised world at least as effectively as the right.
We shouldn’t allow the incessant media attacks on Corbyn to obscure the fact that Corbyn’s rise has indicated the same thing. It is not just that he has won the hearts and minds of Labour’s membership or that hundreds of thousands joined Labour in response to his leadership bid, making Labour the biggest party in Europe bar none. Polls show the majority of young people support him and they in particular are flocking to register to vote because of him. Huge numbers of people are turning out to cheer Corbyn at short notice wherever he turns up – from the big urban centres of Manchester, Cardiff and Sheffield to less likely spots like Worcester and Leamington Spa.
Corbyn’s campaign faces a number of obstacles. Any left wing campaign is going to be attacked by the media – but Corbyn has had to suffer a genuinely shocking level of vilification across the media spectrum. He has some problems that Mélenchon did not. Uniquely in Europe, the left surge in Britain has taken place within the existing social democratic party, and this has created a number of challenges. Most obviously where Mélenchon’s team could just formulate policy and strategy and implement it decisively, team Corbyn is constantly up against resistance and sabotage from within his own organisation.
There are large numbers of Labour MPs attacking him more or less openly on the campaign trail. There was a battle with the right wing in Labour over the manifesto, resulting in a document not as radical as it needs to be. Opponents in the party are working hand in hand with the media, making it very hard for the leadership to communicate their policies to the wider public anyway. The scale of their treachery is shown by the fact that in the middle of an election campaign they are happily briefing the press about plans for a right wing break-away should Corbyn refuse to resign after the election.
Just as serious, Corbyn has had to contend with the fact that Labour’s record over the last few decades has been bad enough to drive lots of working people away. The memory of Blair’s war lies and and his love affair with neoliberalism lives on. Look at a graph of rising inequality from the 90s and you can’t spot the moment the Tories went and Labour came in. The line just keeps on rising. No wonder Thatcher claimed Tony Blair as her most important legacy. Locally things have been just as bad. In council after council Labour has perpetrated savage cuts on its core supporters. Fighting as he is from within a mainstream party with these kind of chronic credibility problems, it is hard for Corbyn to project the fact that he actually represents a break with the past.
The disappearing party
The dynamics of the election have worked somewhat differently for the right. The collapse of the Ukip vote in the recent council elections is welcome confirmation that we don’t have the same kind of committed radical right political current that has developed in France over the last few decades. Overall this is a very good thing. In the short term it has provided an important electoral boost for May and allowed her to tack further to the right. The fact she is a newcomer as leader and that she can pose as the guarantor of Brexit have given her a further boost to compensate for her useless media performance and her evident unease when interacting with human beings. It is an indication of long term problems that her campaign is being so personalized and that the words ‘Tory’ and ‘Conservative’ appear to have been banned.
In the next four weeks we need to bend all our energies to maximizing the Labour vote. There is everything to play for. In France, the Melenchon camp is proud of its 19% vote. We also need to recognize that it is already a major achievement that something approaching 30% of the electorate are planning to vote for the Labour Party with its most left wing leader in history. Whatever the outcome, the election will only be the beginning. Whatever happens on 8 June, on the 9th we will need to be strategising about how to turn this minority into a force that can shape societies’ future.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.