|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 204 Dec/Jan 2016/17
US lessons for Corbyn
In the days after Donald Trump won the US presidential election tens of thousands of workers and young people took to the streets across the US on protests, in many cases led by Socialist Alternative, the co-thinkers of the Socialist Party, to express their opposition to the racism and misogyny of the billionaire winner.
Protesting against Trump will be an essential part of building the resistance to his reactionary anti-working-class programme. His election, however, is inevitably also leading to widespread discussion on how to create another weapon crucial to his defeat: an effective political alternative. Learning the lessons from Trump’s election will be vital not just in the US but internationally, including for supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain.
Throughout the Democratic Party primaries, Hillary Clinton and the party’s establishment ran a massive campaign to argue that only she – and certainly not Bernie Sanders with his call for ‘democratic socialism’ – could successfully defeat Trump. Her failure to do so is a clear demonstration of the failure of the pro-capitalist politics that until recently dominated not just the Democrats but also New Labour.
The opinion polls at the time and since showed how much more popular Sanders was than Clinton. One, commissioned two days before the election, suggested that Sanders would have beaten Trump with a bigger margin than any presidential election since Ronald Reagan in 1984. But for the leadership of the Democrats, one of the two parties of big business in the US, it was unthinkable to allow Sanders to win the nomination. This was not because he was unelectable but precisely because he might have won by a landslide, triggering a popular movement with raised expectations that would not have been met by Sanders’ limited programme, and could have threatened the existence of the capitalist system. A Trump presidency, much as his unreliability scares them, is far preferable to that.
In the same way, the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party would welcome an early general election, because they believe, not necessarily correctly, that Jeremy Corbyn would be defeated and they could then depose him. From their point of view, a strengthened Tory government would be a price well worth paying for successfully ditching Corbyn.
The pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party and the leadership of the Democrats have been intertwined for decades. Under prime minister Tony Blair, president Bill Clinton was the first ever overseas head of state to attend a British government cabinet meeting.
Unlike Labour, historically, the Democrats have always been a capitalist party. However, from the years of the New Deal in the 1930s, it had promoted some social welfare measures. Bill Clinton set out to scrap all that, and to ‘out-Republican the Republicans’ by becoming a party that pursued blatantly anti-working-class, neoliberal policies, while maintaining a more socially progressive veneer than the Republicans. This strategy was then adopted lock, stock and barrel by the Blairites. Blair even told the Financial Times (16 January 1997): "I want a situation more like the Democrats and the Republicans in the US. People don’t even question for a single moment that the Democrats are a pro-business party. They should not be asking that question about New Labour".
He achieved this goal but now, in both the US and Britain, anger at the consequences of a capitalist system in crisis, and with politicians who defend its interests, has creating turmoil within both parties. The disgust at having their cosy corporate world disturbed was shown clearly in Bill Clinton’s leaked speech to a wealthy donors’ dinner in October 2015. He referred to the Labour Party getting rid of its "best hope", the Blairite David Miliband, and then, disdainfully, accuses it of having "practically got a guy off the street to be the leader of the British Labour Party". He goes on to conclude that this was "reflective of – the same thing happened in the Greek election – when people feel they’ve been shafted and they don’t expect anything to happen anyway, they just want the maddest person in the room to represent them". By maddest, it has since been clarified, he meant angriest!
The goal of the Clintons and the rest of the Democratic Party establishment is to defend capitalism and to prevent the anger of the men and women ‘of the street’ having any effective political voice. This too is the goal of the Blairites who remain desperate to defeat Corbyn. Socialists aim to create an effective mass political movement of the working class and impoverished that can bring capitalism to an end. This can only be achieved by clearly opposing Clinton, Blair and their ilk, rather than compromising with them. Unfortunately, when given the chance by the Huffington Post to respond to Bill Clinton’s comments, Jeremy Corbyn’s office merely said he had "no response".
On a much bigger scale, having been defeated in the primaries by the rigged Democratic machine, Bernie Sanders mistakenly played by its rules. Instead of standing independently, as Socialist Alternative urged, he endorsed Hillary Clinton. By doing so he immediately increased the chances of Trump making it to the White House. The anti-austerity movement in Britain needs to learn the harsh lessons from this experience.
Clinton was a profoundly unpopular candidate. Polls showed 59% of voters had an unfavourable view of her. This was not, as some on the left in Britain have claimed, primarily because she was a woman, but because she was rightly seen as being the epitome of an establishment politician with a long record of acting on behalf of Wall Street. This was the woman who, along with her husband, has made more than $120 million in speeches to the moneyed elite.
In a typical address to Goldman Sachs she reassured them it was an "oversimplification" to blame the global economic crisis on the financial system. She backed TTIP, praised austerity, and supported Barack Obama’s proposed increase in the retirement age. During the presidential election, under pressure from Sanders, she was forced to put on more of a left face but this rightly did not wash with millions of Americans. They understood that, as she had mused in one speech to Wall Street, she had "both a public and private position" on contentious issues and would continue to support pro-capitalist, anti-working-class policies in office.
For many workers, fear of Trump was not enough to compel them to hold their noses and vote for Clinton. Turnout was lower than any presidential election since Bill Clinton’s final victory in 1996. There was not, in fact, a major shift to the Republican candidate, who got around the same percentage vote as Mitt Romney in 2012. Nonetheless, some white workers who had previously voted for Obama when there was mass enthusiasm for the change it was hoped he would represent, this time went for Trump.
Taking the poorest workers, those earning under $30,000 a year, even in the 2012 election, 63% voted for Obama and 35% for Romney. In 2016, 53% voted for Clinton while 41% voted for Trump. The main reason there was a shift towards Trump among this layer was not his racism but his promises to stand up for the working class. Nonetheless, his election has given confidence to the forces of bigotry and racism.
There is no doubt that an independent Sanders campaign – running on his slogans of opposition to racism, a $15 an hour minimum wage, putting 13 million Americans to work via a massive infrastructure campaign, free education and affordable housing – could have won many of those who protested by voting Trump and mobilised millions who boycotted the election. In Britain, too, Corbyn’s stand on a similar programme could potentially win many of the five million voters who abandoned Labour in the Blairite years. However, this will only be achieved by building a mass party that stands for the working-class majority and clearly opposes the pro-capitalist politicians, rather than seeking unity with them.