What can the Left Learn from Corbyn’s Stunning Election Performance?
Former Sanders Campaign Digital Organizing Director Claire Sandberg speaks to the Real News after spending the past month working in the UK to defeat Theresa May. Correction: Sandberg was the former Digital Organizing Director for the Bernie Sanders campaign.
JAISAL NOOR: This is the Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor coming to you from the 2017 People’s Summit in Chicago. It took place just after Jeremy Corbyn’s historic election performance in the United Kingdom. We’re now joined by someone who was there for the last month involved in the campaign to defeat Theresa May, the leader of the Conservative Party.
Claire Sandberg, you’re a long-time activist. You were involved in Bernie Sanders’ campaign. You spent the last month over in England working to defeat Theresa May and she was supported by some people from United States, namely Jim Messina who worked on Obama’s 2012 campaign. Can you reflect on first of all the victory that Corbyn had winning a historic number of seats, the most seats in something like 60 years, and the fact that May was supported by some people that worked for President Obama isn’t really defending the status quo in a way.
CLAIRE SANDBERG: Yeah, well first, I think that just for American audiences, it’s hard to overstate just how big of a turnaround this was. Corbyn was extremely unpopular and Labour was expected to suffer massive losses. People were looking at long-time labor incumbents, losing their seats, and Theresa May and the Conservatives winning 100-seat majority.
At the beginning of the campaign, it seemed like it was maybe just going to be possible to try to blunt that landslide. Then, you saw this absolute turnaround, just a colossal defeat for May who her gamble in calling the election has been proven to be a disaster. The biggest increase in vote share for the Labour Party since 1945. I think it really all comes down to the release of the progressive Labour manifesto, which gave people a positive vision for what society could look like.
It’s interesting to see that not only were there people within Labour and within the Democratic Party who were hoping for Corbyn to fail so that they could successfully mount a leadership challenge to him and this is within the Labour Party, there were a lot of people who were before the election even began and then after it was called saying Corbyn will never win. This is why at the day after the election, we need to start rebuilding a new party or talking about breaking away, starting a new formation. Beyond even that within the Labour Party, you had Jim Messina, a Democrat from the US going over to work for the Conservative’s Theresa May who is a Trump ally, who in the final days of the campaign said, “Let’s throw human rights laws out the windows to stop terrorism,” and is promoting a regime of brutal austerity and cutbacks to the public sector.
I don’t really know what to make sense of it. I don’t know how to explain how someone like Jim Messina who ostensibly stands for at least liberal values of fairness and equality and freedom could go and work for someone who says that she would like to censor the Internet and attack many basic freedoms along with promoting increased corporate power and austerity. It’s really hard to understand.
JAISAL NOOR: You talked about the release of the Labour manifesto, Corbyn’s manifesto, which outlined a very different vision than what the Labour Party stood for and what the policies that England has implemented for the last several decades. Another turning point were really, the terror attacks in Manchester and in London that happened while you were there. Generally, those kind of attacks are a boon for the right because they can say that we’re going to go hard on terror, but Corbyn really used it as an opportunity to set himself apart on foreign policy. He talked about the Western influence in the Middle East, he talked about ties to Saudi Arabia, which is a leading exporter of terrorism and really breaking from the past. He’s a long-time leftist when it comes to foreign policy, but he double downed after those terror attacks, and it seemed like the people of England are ready for a new path on foreign policy. Can you talk about that as well?
CLAIRE SANDBERG: Yeah, I think that it was notable that even after two terror attacks in just two weeks, and three attacks in just the beginning of 2017 alone that many voters who some people would classify as far right, who had previously voted for UKIP, in areas that voted to leave where it was expected that those votes would all go to the Conservatives, and UKIP didn’t actually even have candidates stand in those areas, many of those voters actually went to Labour instead.
I think that’s really notable. I think it comes back to the fact that a lot of people just across the political spectrum understood what Corbyn was saying about how the foreign policy and interventionist foreign policy has consequences for terrorism at home, and that there are some concrete reasons why they’re seeing people from Libya in the UK participating in terrorism and that it’s time to look at some of the root causes.
Along with that, Corbyn also opposed austerity on the police forces. There are 20,000 fewer police officers now than there were in 2010 in the UK under Theresa May’s regime of austerity. People see, they’re disturbed when they read that some of these people who participated in the attacks were known to the authorities, but weren’t being monitored in any way because the police didn’t have the resources to do that.
The right-wing press has not let up in trying to paint Corbyn as being soft on terror. I mean they’ve done everything, but actually call him a terrorist because he talked to Sinn Fein in the 80s and 90s, the Irish Nationalist Party. I think that many voters saw that for what it was, which was a cheap political attack that didn’t really bear any relevance to the actual threat. Maybe because the UK is actively dealing with terrorism, it’s much more of a daily reality, the threat of terrorism than it is here. I don’t think that those kinds of attacks land as well as they would hear, and I think people are more open just to better arguments frankly.
JAISAL NOOR: I wanted to also ask you about what the implications are for the United States. It’s had some impact, there’s been some reaction. I want to read you a book by David Axelrod who asked former President Obama, “Are you worried about the Corbynization of the Democratic Party?” Mr. Obama responded, “I don’t worry about that partly because I think the Democratic Party has stayed pretty grounded in fact and reality.” It seems like Obama doesn’t want to face his own failures. Essentially, many people would argue that his mission is not grounded in fact and reality. It’s about maintaining the status quo and not upsetting the people that he serves, the powerful interest that he and the establishment of the Democratic Party serves. I wanted to get your response to that.
CLAIRE SANDBERG: Yeah. I think the Democratic Party is what’s out of touch with reality. If they think that they can keep offering the same status quo policies and business as usual politics and win, I mean this was the largest increase in vote share for Labour since 1945 and you can trace a direct line. It’s very clear that that was a pretty direct result of the release of that Labour manifesto and you can see the dramatic increase in support for Corbyn and for Labour coinciding just a few days after the release of the Labour manifesto. I can’t see how it could be more clearer than that.
People are frustrated that they have been living for 30 years with their wages falling, their benefits being cut, increased precarity, no social safety net, young people who are looking forward to a future of economic and equality, total precarity in terms of employment, and extreme climate change. People want actual solutions and they also want a message that is about holding people who are responsible for these crises actually responsible. You can’t do that if you’re just offering the same status quo politics and saying no one is actually responsible and you’re not offering policies that will actually fix things.
If the Democratic Party wants to, I fully expect that many people who are within the Democratic Party will project these lessons. I mean they seem very clear to many people that when you look at 72% youth turnout and see how critical that was in winning many of these key marginal seats that the policies that the young people are excited about and the politicians the young people are excited about should be an indication for where center-left politics should go generally. That feels like an obvious conclusion to me. There are vested interest that will keep them from embracing those clear conclusions. They don’t want to admit that everything they think they know about the world is wrong. It’s a difficult thing for people to do.
I think that the Democratic Party has to change if it doesn’t want to die. I think that it’s really wonderful to also see the Corbyn platform, the new Labour platform go beyond even what Bernie called for in saying that we need to have a robust public sector, that we need in the UK bring the railways back under public control, and to really fight back against the privatization. That’s something that we’re not even talking about here, how do we undo all of the privatization that’s occurred over the last 30 years.
JAISAL NOOR: Finally, this election has left a lot of people frustrated with the Democratic Party, and working on building an alternative or at least trying to take it over and make it actually responsive and work for the people.
In Baltimore, you saw a new progressive city council come in that passed a $15 minimum wage only to see it vetoed by the mayor there. That’s just one example. There was muted outrage in Baltimore because people supported the minimum wage overwhelmingly in Baltimore and the entire state, but they expected to be led down by elected politicians that branded themselves as progressives. At the same time, we’re also dealing with the Trump presidency. Want to get your final thoughts on do we work inside the Democratic Party to fix it and make it serve the people’s interest, or do we also need to focus on taking on Trump, and also focusing on creating alternatives if Democratic Party does rig another primary like what happened with Bernie Sanders.
CLAIRE SANDBERG: I want to win and I do think that we are in a two-party system. I wish that we were in a parliamentary system with proportional representation, then it would be a lot easier like Podemos in Spain to have a new party, a new kind of politics, and all of a sudden have a bunch of seats in parliament. We have this system and a big actually factor in the election in the UK was that a lot of smaller parties agreed to stand down or throw their support behind Labour so that the progressive vote wasn’t split, and that was a key thing in blunting the number of seats that the Tories could pick up. I think we have to be strategic.
JAISAL NOOR: Corbyn was also able to use the party infrastructure even though a lot of the party opposed him, he was able to use that massive infrastructure with one of the largest parties in all of Europe.
CLAIRE SANDBERG: Yeah, absolutely. I think unfortunately, there’s no substitute for just building a broad social consensus in favor of the policies that we need. That’s what we have to do. It’s a really big undertaking, but I think that’s what we have to do. We’re in a war for the common sense of society. There’s no way that we can actually win any of the major policy outcomes that we need to achieve by winning a narrow 50% plus one majority, which is what the current Democratic Party is thinking about. I think a lot of times when people try to imagine an alternative to the Democratic Party, they’re thinking along the same lines, how do we get 50% plus one of the people to add up, to be able to win, to make a few things happen. That’s I think the wrong way to think about it.
We have to try to convince actually a broad majority of the American people that our ideology and our ideas are right because we need their support to be able to bring about the very big changes we have to bring about so that we can stop catastrophic climate change and wealth and equality that is driving the breakdown of our society, and rebuild our infrastructure, and do all the things that we need to do.
I think that one of the biggest takeaways that I’m bringing from this UK election is that if you offer those kinds of policies and you have a strong message about who is really responsible for the problems, and you’re defining that core conflict in a way that is explained to people what’s really going on, I think that we can do that. We can bring the majority of people together around a truly transformative politics.
JAISAL NOOR: Claire Sandberg, thank you so much for joining us.
CLAIRE SANDBERG: Thanks so much.
JAISAL NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.