A fashionable way of understanding the contemporary left in the United States and Britain is to see them as a pair, rising and falling together. On this view, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party's leader and Bernie Sanders's recent surge in poll numbers are simply the latest in a series of developments that span the Atlantic. Reagan and Thatcher, Clinton and Blair, Sanders and Corbyn. The special relationship extends beyond diplomacy; it now comprises a common political fate, though the exact reasons for the symmetry have never been clearly stated.
This is an attractive view, aside from the obvious historical parallels. In the case of Corbyn and Sanders, there are strong surface analogies. Both are long time 'mavericks' (with all due respect to John McCain who relinquished that title in 2008), who for most of their careers have been to the left of their party on almost every important fiscal and geopolitical issue. They are old as first time head-of-state candidates go, are forthright public speakers, and avoid the political doublespeak characteristic of so many third-way liberals. Finally, and most importantly, their recent ascendance has been fuelled by young voters disillusioned with pervasive inequality, neo-liberal policies, and uninspired by alternatives within and outside the Labour and Democratic parties.
Unfortunately the Corbyn-Sanders analogy obscures more than it reveals. The analogy's strength comes from the personal similarities of the two candidates, whose temperament, convictions, and rhetoric are cut from the same social democratic cloth--even, on occasion, making reference to 'socialism'. Their political circumstances, however, differ in deep and important ways and these differences should shape our respective expectations of them. Some of the differences issue from familiar sources, such as the contrasting leader selection procedures in the two countries, despite the impact of the Collins report, and the varying scopes of the American and British welfare states. Others involve the relative health of their parties and the potential moves they could make should they win a national election. Inspecting the differences, then, will inform how we understand the significance of Corbyn's rise to the head of the Labour Party or a potential Sanders nomination as the Democratic candidate. And if we can grasp what their candidacies might mean, then we can develop correspondingly fair expectations of them. After more than thirty years of political retrenchment, social democrats finally have candidates whom they can genuinely be excited about. That makes it all the more important to adopt a view that avoids irrational exuberance on the one hand and wearied cynicism on the other.
Heading the party
Corbyn's rise to the head of the Labour Party was as swift as it was surprising. In the build-up to the 2015 ministerial election and in the months that followed Ed Miliband's defeat, Corbyn was virtually unmentioned as a potential replacement by major British media outlets. Attention was instead lavished on eventual candidates such as Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall, and those who withdrew or declined to run, such as Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt. Psephologists were similarly blinkered. ESRC and YouGov polls administered as late as mid-May failed to include Corbyn as an option, though they might still have managed to register the Corbyn effect, since the 'Other' and 'Undecided' categories in both polls were upwards of 50 per cent (Dore, 2015; Bale, 2015). By July, when Corbyn was officially a nominee, YouGov polls of registered Labour voters had him enjoying anywhere from 43 to 54 per cent of their support, foreshadowing his emphatic victory in September (Coates, 2015).
Changes to the leadership selection procedure further complicated matters, as a shorter election cycle and the move to a more primary-like system likely helped Corbyn more than his opponents. In particular, the 2014 Collins Report effected a transfer of power within the Labour Party. Previously, votes were split equally between the parliamentary party, party members, and trade unions and affiliated societies; under the new system, however, all votes were counted equally, empowering the rank-and-file. The friction between party elites and ordinary Labour voters is clear when comparing the results of the nomination procedure and the results of the broader leadership election. Under the new rules, a prospective nominee would need to get the votes of at least 35 MPs (15 per cent of the PLP) to make it to the ballot. At this stage when party elites enjoyed their greatest influence, Corbyn was at his most vulnerable and he barely made it onto the ballot, with only 20 of his 36 votes coming from MPs. Once past this initial hurdle, Corbyn enjoyed a remarkable Indian summer. Throughout the election cycle, he led most polls and...