Since the last general election held in the United Kingdom, the ruling Conservative government’s grasp on power has become ever more tenuous, and with a series of Tory defections in August and September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost his majority in Parliament altogether. While the next round of elections is not scheduled to take place until 2022, Johnson has voiced his intention to hold elections before the end of the year in an attempt to regain a Conservative majority.
Analysts have remarked on this ploy with skepticism, with many describing the potential upcoming elections as the most unpredictable in recent British history.
Amidst all this uncertainty, particularly after the unmitigated failures of the May and Johnson governments to secure a Brexit deal, comes the real prospect of a Labour victory and the rise of opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn to parliament’s highest office.
Corbyn’s career might be described by some as an unlikely one. First elected to represent Islington North in 1983, Corbyn was long viewed as a fringe back-bencher, yet in a 2015 upset he secured his party’s nomination as opposition leader.
Much has been said of the rise of right-wing nationalism in the later half of the 2010s. From the success of the Brexit referendum to the election of politicians like Donald Trump in the U.S., Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the far-right has seen a number of electoral victories. In some states, leaders already in power have taken increasingly nationalist turns, like Ergdogan in Turkey and Netanyahu in Israel. Yet as political strength has coalesced on the right, so too has it risen on the left.
The unexpected relative success of Bernie Sanders in 2016 or left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s victory in Mexico’s 2018 presidential election point to a growth in global progressive politics.
Figures like Corbyn and Sanders seem very much cut from the same cloth. Both self-described democratic socialists long seen as political outsiders, the two politicians have proposed much more openly socialistic economic programs beyond even what some would call traditionally acceptable discourse, especially in the United States. That is not to say the two are identical — Corbyn is considerably further left on a number of issues, particularly foreign policy, where the MP has gone so far as to float the idea of disbanding NATO.
Among the opposition leader’s proposals are combating tax avoidance, investing in the nation’s infrastructure with a focus on green energy, public ownership of utilities and establishing a national education service, not dissimilar from rising leftist stars in America.
In regard to Brexit, which most would no doubt see as the most pressing issue facing Britain, Corbyn has been accused by many as vacillating on his actual position — claims which bear some warrant.
While Corbyn has emphatically ruled out a no-deal Brexit and asserted that it is Labour’s desire for a second referendum on the issue, he has evaded questions as to whether he would support leave or remain if such a referendum were to take place. However, it should be noted Corbyn led Labour in campaigning against Brexit in 2016.
The increasing success of Corbyn and others must be viewed through a wider lens, however, and the domination of neoliberalism in past decades is of greatest interest. The rising tide of neoliberal politics was not absent from the U.K. Far from it, the United States and United Kingdom took quite similar trajectories in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
While Ronald Reagan crusaded against big government in the U.S., Margaret Thatcher did much the same across the pond, slashing public spending, lowering taxes and attacking trade unions. When the Democratic and Labour parties went on to regain power in their respective countries, they did not have the teeth they once had. Indeed, both the Clinton and Blair governments would retain many of the small government economic policies of their predecessors.
The unfortunate effects what these moderates called the “third way” have been most keenly felt through the economic crisis of 2007–2008. In the wake of the Great Recession, the Tory government of David Cameron adopted an austerity plan similar to policies throughout Europe at the time, cutting back welfare programs and general public spending while raising taxes in an effort to run a more balanced budget.
The programs have helped tighten the government’s deficit, certainly, but the evisceration of social spending they spearheaded has been ruinous. Rates of child poverty in the U.K. have risen over this past decade, and cuts to community planning departments have been linked to a dearth of affordable housing.
In a special report for the United Nations, Professor Philip Alston of New York University’s Law School summarized the policies as such: “Great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping.”
It seems many throughout the world, and especially in western democracies, have come to realize that neoliberal economic theory and the politics which arose from it have left the middle and working classes behind. This has been true both in this country and in Britain. Both nations have seen a sharp rise in income inequality since the 1980s, with a 27% decrease in middle-income households in Britain specifically. Across the world, it has become fairly obvious that the trickle down of wealth predicted by supply side models has never come to pass.
If there is any takeaway from the increasing success of movements on the far right and especially on the left, it is that the international political climate is increasingly turning away from the neoliberal paradigm that has reigned supreme these last few decades.
The political polarization we see in our times might be seen as the natural backlash against the third way. On the right, a new brand of politician, typically peddling in nationalism, xenophobia and general demagoguery has arisen.
On the left, a heartening return to the proactive, progressive social and economic reminiscent of such politicians as Franklin Roosevelt in the United States or Clement Atlee in Britain is underway.
The purveyors of more centrist politics remain entrenched in political establishments throughout the world and will no doubt continue trying to stave off challenges from the left.
Far-right demagogues also continue to wield a concerning degree of power.
But, through Corbyn and others like him, some semblance of a truly progressive way forward has finally presented itself.
Kyle Chin, FCRH ’21, is a political science major from Malverne, N.Y.