Has radicalism become fashionable?
The Australian Leftist writer, John Preston, below says that centrism is no longer the way to win elections. He makes a reasonable case for radicalism instead but I think he is wrong. I will say why at the foot of the article
The popularity of Corbyn and Sanders in the UK and US and the elections of Trudeau in Canada and Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza Party in Greece, and even the success of the Scottish National Party in the recent UK, would appear to offer an alternative theory.
What appealed to UK Labor and the progressives amongst Canada’s voters, and is appealing to Democrats in the US, is strong leadership coupled with high idealism backed up with deliberately progressive rhetoric, if not actual policy.
The diminutive member for Islington North, Jeremy Bernard Corbyn, was universally written off by the UK Tories, the centrist Labour movement and the British press as being much too strongly rooted in his social-democratic roots to become a credible leader of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom.
Corbyn’s philosophy is firmly based around poverty and social inequality. He advocates the re-nationalization of the railways and public utilities and has championed unilateral nuclear disarmament, free university tuition and an unashamedly green agenda of significantly increased renewable energy targets and the phasing out of the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels.
An unabashed “socialist” in the traditional sense, Corbyn barely gained sufficient nominations from Labour MPs to secure a spot on the leadership ballot, but then rapidly rose to lead the polling for the leadership of the Party for the duration of the campaign and went on to achieve a resounding – some would say ‘landslide’ – victory securing nearly 60 per cent of first round voting.
After announcing his candidacy for the Democratic Presidential Nomination in April 2015, Bernie Sanders has made consistent and occasionally remarkable in-roads into an apparently unassailable lead by US political royal and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
While at least as unlikely a candidate as his UK counterpart, the rise and rise of this self-confessed socialist, peace campaigner, former conscientious objector and avid critic of the moneyed classes in a notoriously pro-capitalist and conservative United States is remarkable.
In a February 2016 Huffington Post poll, Sanders’ is polling at 36.8 per cent in an aggregated poll of 29 polling organisations monitoring the 2016 National Democratic Primary. To be polling at nearly 37 per cent against an establishment candidate like Clinton (who is, admittedly, at 50.2 per cent) is nothing short of astonishing.
The net effect for Clinton has been a refocusing of her social justice rhetoric, with an increased emphasis on the very same policy positions that Sanders has been espousing. Following the struck match result in Iowa and the apparent 60 per cent to 40 per cent victory to Sanders in the New Hampshire Primary, income inequality and the minimum wage will inevitably feature in Clinton’s stump speeches in the lead up to the South Carolina primary, notwithstanding that she currently holds a pretty comfortable 63.2 per cent to 33.3 per cent lead according to the polls.
Justin Trudeau’s recent victory in Canada’s general elections delivered the largest-ever numerical increase in seats recorded for the Canadian Parliament. Trudeau took the Liberal Party of Canada from a lack-lustre third-position with 36 seats to a victory that saw the party secure nearly 40 per cent of the popular vote and 184 seats in a commanding mandate to form a comfortable majority government.
In the aftermath of the Paris tragedies of November 2015, Trudeau’s commentary was scrupulously measured and cautious, in stark contrast to comments by Hollande in France, Cameron in the UK or the more aggressive protagonists among Australia’s conservative political and media.
The 50/50 split by gender, reinforced by a multi-ethnic and multi-faith cabinet has led the 29th Canadian ministry to be dubbed one of the most diverse of any western democracy. Right out of the blocks, Trudeau’s ministry has begun work on shifting the taxation burden away from the middle class towards the rich, and significantly increasing the Syrian refugee intake to 25,000.
When questioned on the make-up of his cabinet, and in particular why there were 50 per cent women, Trudeau’s now famous reply was “because it’s 2015” – a statement clearly tilting at his progressive agenda.
While arguably more center-left than his UK and US brethren, Trudeau is a self-declared feminist, is resolutely pro-choice on abortion, supports the legalization of marijuana and is a champion of religious freedom.
Perhaps more pointedly, Trudeau’s foreign policy agenda revolves around peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and the reduction of Canadian troops in foreign (particularly Middle-Eastern) conflicts.
Trudeau is, by any measure, a long way from the hardline conservatism of his predecessor, Stephen Harper, and has been pejoratively labeled as: shaggy-haired; gaffe-prone; subject to depthless impetuosity; and, above all, a democratic-socialist in the bleeding-heart liberal mold.
The outstanding success of the Scottish National Party in the recent UK general elections (notwithstanding the re-election of a conservative government) has made the SNP the third-largest political party by membership and overall representation in the UK House of Commons.
The party’s success as a social democratic party is built on much the same basis as Trudeau’s Liberals in Canada and Corbyn’s platform with UK Labour – the environment, social justice, progressive taxation, affordable social housing and an intriguing anti-nuclear stance (Scotland has four nuclear power stations and two nuclear-capable military bases (Clyde and Neptune) which provide significant employment opportunities for Scottish workers).
A potential (although not predicted) coalition of SNP and UK Labour would cause significant headaches for the UK’s Tories at the next UK general elections in May 2020.
In Greece, Tsipras’ Syriza party has had a more checkered but nonetheless revealing history. In reaction to crippling austerity measurements that Syriza claim were being imposed by Germany, Tsipras came to power with a modest 36 per cent of the vote.
In the snap election of September 2015, Syriza was returned on much the same margin despite the failure of Tsipras’ coalition government to achieve the progressive policy outcomes that it had originally sought a mandate for.
On the other side of the political divide, the inexplicable rise of real estate tycoon and reality television personality, Donald Trump, as the front-runner for the Republican (GOP) Presidential Nominations also challenges the centrism theory.
Trump (on 35.5 per cent) is comfortably ahead of his nearest rival, Ted Cruz (18.5 per cent), and is well ahead of the rest of the most ultra-conservative cadre of GOP candidates in United States history.
The increasing momentum of social-democratic movements and their counter-weights around the world makes a considered study of mass-appeal politics and policy in the Australian context a worthwhile exercise.
The rise and rise of Corbyn and Sanders from the left and Trump et al. from the right, suggests that more extreme policy, coupled with decisive leadership and populist policy is at least as likely a recipe for electoral success as the centrist line.
For the Australian Labor Party, rather than shying away from a progressive social democratic platform and strong, idealistic leadership, the strategists at Labor’s National Secretariat may need to offer an alternative to Dyrenfurth’s ‘more vanilla’ centrist mantra and give the electorate a real alternative to garner success at the ballot box in 2016.
As perhaps befits a conservative, I am more cynical than the writer above. I believe that policy plays a secondary role in any election. People elect a person, not a platform. An attractive personality, like the Gipper, will win every time. And Tsipras (Greece) and Trudeau (Canada) are clearly attractive personalities. Even Sanders is, in his way. He at least conveys sincerity. British Leftist, Jeremy Corbyn, by contrast, is not an attractive personality and his popularity ratings are making the Conservative party very happy
And Trump most definitely fits the mold of a popular personality. He has very little in the way of firm policies at all. But what he says and the way he says it sounds good and cheering to a lot of people. People do like a strong leader and Trump oozes strength and confidence. Tsipras and Trudeau also convey great confidence and self-assurance. And what did Mitt Romney convey? Nothing.
And the rising star in Britain's Conservative party -- Boris Johnson, said in some polls to be the most popular man in England -- is nothing if not self-confident and is an attractive and cheerful personality generally. So if Britain votes to leave the EU, he will most likely become Prime Minister overnight. Johnson is heading the "leave" vote while the present PM wants Britain to stay in the EU.
The House of Commons has the power to change Prime Ministers at any time. I am betting that a lot of Americans wish that Congress could toss Obama out. In Britain, Parliament can do exactly that sort of thing. The supremacy of Parliament is a pretty good idea. Britons fought a civil war to enshrine it.
Policies do matter but they are secondary in winning elections