Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign, but the conditions that gave rise to his popularity haven't gone away, argues Katherine Connelly
Bernie Sanders’ suspension of his campaign to become the Democratic presidential candidate is a big blow for the left. As Kate O’Neil argued on Counterfire earlier this week, the social distancing measures in place because of the Coronavirus proved a massive hindrance to a candidate who relied upon popular mobilisations. This comes at a time when Sanders’ programme, especially on free healthcare, has never appeared more urgent.
There are very significant differences between the American Democratic Party and the British Labour Party – not least that the fact that the trade unions founded the Labour Party with the aim of representing the working class, while the Democrats are explicitly a party of big business; historically they were the party of the slave-owners.
Nevertheless, there are parallels between what has happened in the Democratic Party and Labour. In both cases a socialist candidate tapped into huge grassroots support, articulated a popular message of social change and shook the political establishment inside and outside their parties.
That political establishment worked tirelessly to undermine them. In 2016, the Democratic establishment (in the form of the superdelegates) rallied around Hilary Clinton to stop Sanders gaining the nomination. In Britain, the right-wing of the Labour Party contributed to the vilification of Corbyn in the press (arch-Blairite spin doctor Peter Mandelson boasted that he worked “every single day” to undermine Corbyn) and pressured Labour into a disastrous position on Brexit in the 2019 election.
Now the Labour Party is back in centrist hands, with Knight of the Realm, Queen’s Counsel and former Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer at the helm and a shadow Cabinet largely composed of the anti-Corbyn, Labour right. The Democrat nominee is now, by default, Joe Biden, former Vice-President under Obama’s presidency who has been accused of sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour towards women.
The establishment may believe it can heave a sigh of relief, perhaps they hope we will despair. What they fail to understand is that Corbyn and Sanders’ popularity was an expression of widespread disillusionment in centrist politics, the cosy neoliberal consensus of the dominant political parties which oversaw widening inequality and plummeting engagement with electoral politics.
From the anti-capitalist ‘Battle of Seattle’ in 1999, to the global anti-war demonstrations, the Occupy movement, the anti-austerity movement and most recently a growing environmental movement, millions of people in the US and the UK (as elsewhere) have been actively engaged in demanding a different kind of politics.
Centrists defend their attack on the left because they claim they are able to produce someone more “electable”. But even on these terms, it fails. Clinton lost the election to Trump in 2016. Starmer was noticeably absent as the biggest social crisis of our times hit this country. Since being elected leader, he has pledged to work “constructively” with a Conservative government whose woeful complacency, failure to test and failure to provide workers with protective equipment has led to unnecessary deaths – now on a huge scale.
The UK government briefings would be laughable if the results were not so tragic – bearing no resemblance to reality.
Today we were told that 938 people lost their lives to the Coronavirus in the last 24 hours – the highest figure yet. Then the mantra from the Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivering today’s government’s briefing: the government is following a step-by-step action plan, following the scientific advice. The figures, in case Rishi Sunak has not noticed, are escalating as a result of government ineptitude. Being forced by public pressure to close the schools, vacillating over whether to heighten or weaken the lockdown, failing to provide the key measures – mass testing and protective equipment for all key workers – is not consistent with a step-by-step action plan.
Then, he cited the Prime Minister’s illness as evidence of how “indiscriminate” the virus is. What a crass insult to all the people who have died without access to ventilators, to the key workers – doctors, nurses, bus drivers – who were not provided with adequate protective equipment and died, to the people being pressurised into signing “do not resuscitate” forms. The virus might be indiscriminate, but the treatment is not. Johnson was moved into Intensive Care in case he needed a ventilator, he won’t be asked to sign his life away.
The arrival of Coronavirus in the UK has starkly revealed the inequalities in British society and the profound damage of a system that places profit before people. It reveals how urgent social transformation is. It would be wrong to conclude that the removal of Corbyn and Sanders from the forefront of electoral politics means that is not possible.
The barriers placed before Corbyn and Sanders reveal just a glimpse of how the establishment would have reacted had they achieved high office. The extent to which they would have been able to enact social change would have depended upon the strength of support from a movement outside parliament – because that is where working-class strength lies, in our ability to organise collectively. The same remains true today. The conditions that gave rise to the advance of Corbyn and Sanders have not gone away. It remains the job of mass movements in the US and the UK to fight for change.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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