It may feel like years have passed, but as of today we are just over two months on from the Iowa Caucuses, and three months on from the start of the Labour leadership contest.
For a time, Senator Bernie Sanders looked like the inevitable Democratic nominee in the United States, as Joe Biden faltered and no other candidate could command the support required nationally to provide a serious challenge to him.
In the UK, the Labour Party spent four and a half years under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, following his meteoric rise from a career of backbench obscurity, during which he appeared to be completely unassailable.
How rapidly things change.
Within the space of a few days apart from one another, Bernie Sanders ended his campaign for President leaving Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee, and the Labour Party rejected “Corbyn continuity” candidates, or the closest to which were standing, to elect Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner as their leader and deputy.
The new left lost. However where some have simply drawn a line from the left’s losses in the 20th Century to the left’s losses of the last year and said “QED”, I think this misses the point.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the new left loses because of a fundamental cultural problem in their movement that makes it virtually incapable of reaching out to people outside it.
Following some of the poorer Coronavirus coverage, you would be forgiven for being sceptical of drawing too much from international parallels at the moment.
After all, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are very different men. Whereas Corbyn’s loss in the General Election was due to a litany of personal, moral, and organisational failures, the failure of the movement that raised him to find a replacement and hold the leadership was not inevitable. Bernie Sanders meanwhile, does not have half of the weaknesses Corbyn did; he is a very effective communicator, did not share the moral failures that plagued the Labour Party under Corbyn, and had a policy platform popular with large swathes of the party’s base.
But watching the movements behind both begin to process their defeats online in recent days, it has become clear that they are philosophically, organisationally, and culturally very similar. Almost identical in fact.
Despite both figureheads coming from a more 20th Century economic-industrial socialist background, their movements are mostly millennial, urban, green, tech savvy, and educated. No clearer was the difference apparent than during the various unresolved policy battles between the trade union left and Momentum, the group formed to support Corbyn’s leadership, under his reign.
The unions being the historical, organised wing of the blue collar working class formed the Labour Party for the explicit purpose of winning power and representation, organising on the ground in work places, party meetings, and campaign centres to bring the party to people on the front line. They represented the Labour Party’s moderate wing for most of the 20th Century exactly for this reason, and largely follow the same mould in the States.
Where a unionist may prioritise support for industry, infrastructure investment, and employment rights, a new left activist (not to be confused with the counter-cultural movement of the 1970s) may prioritise carbon reduction, nuclear disarmament and electoral reform.
But it’s the cultural similarities that link the Corbyn and Sanders movements and makes them distinct from everything that came before them.
Social media and technology lies at the heart of how the new left communicates, organises, and thinks. Distrustful of the mainstream media, it’s how candidates and activist groups get most of their messaging out. Distrustful of other factions, even within their own parties, it is how they recruit. Distrustful of authority, it is also how they prove themselves and gain influence.
For all the talk of the globalisation of communications, the new left is the left at its most insular. It is defined by a philosophy of how to live morally, but almost more importantly, how to prevent others living immorally. It is a philosophy defined by the individual, not the collective.
Outside of election time, proving yourself in a political movement that idolises flat power structures is about projecting yourself online. Media outfits like Novara, Skwawkbox, and the Canary sprang up to reinforce these beliefs and harass those who disagreed or criticised them. Meanwhile these groups encouraged promising activists to join NEON, an organisation designed to train them to be combative on traditional media.
This approach to messaging and the press inevitably results in the condemnation of individuals that do not fit the mould online, and the over-simplified expressions of belief so as not to be condemned yourself. Those most adept at this go viral, and get hired.
All of this is to say that the culture of the new left is inherently oppositional. In the US this perhaps isn’t surprising as for the last century they have had almost no representation on the national stage at all.
As a Senator, Bernie Sanders became famous for his use of constitutional devices like the Filibuster, which gives immense power to individual Senators to block the majority from passing a vote. The American left has more often fought its political battles in the courtrooms than on the floor of Congress.
But part of the reason the left is so unsuccessful in the Democratic Party is the persuasive argument that they wouldn’t be able to deliver on their plans if they did win anyway, given these tools could immediately be used against them. Bernie Sanders indicates he still supports the Filibuster, despite the fight to overcome the incredible difficulty to change anything in American politics being the raison d’être of the Democratic more centre-left and moderate tendencies (and one of the defining differences between Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).
Even now, the oppositional culture of the American new left is already leading to some activists publicly announcing their intention to abstain in November’s election, while others appeal not to the need to beat Trump but the need to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a liberal justice as a reason to hold their nose and vote for Biden.
The UK doesn’t have the same constitutional problems as the US, but the culture stems from the same social media roots. A new group, Forward Momentum, has already laid the blame for the movement’s defeat in the leadership election on Momentum’s power structure being too centralised, too closely intertwined with traditional trade union networks and influence.
Unlike the US, the new left in Britain’s oppositional, condemnatory attitude had led many of the party’s previous older, small-town, working class voters to not only think it was out of touch with them, but that it actively resented them. The fracture was internal too, as without Jeremy Corbyn at their head the coalition of new left and old trade union left that had sustained him fragmented completely.
The cultural problems at the heart of the new left are intrinsic and self-sabotaging. The social media networks that gave them voice and presence in a post-crash political landscape are also responsible for them remaining oppositional and unsuccessful.
Politics is still won by those that expand their tent, reach out to those who previously opposed them, meet people half way, and both listen and lead them. This is almost uniquely well understood by Boris Johnson, whose reaction to his election victories in previous Labour strongholds was as humble as it was celebratory.
More moderate left wing forces have won for now in the Democratic Party and the Labour Party, but they cannot rest on their laurels. Social media isn’t going away, and just as left wing parties have relied on young activists to counteract the strength of the right’s financial advantage, and if the new left’s cultural stronghold persists online then moderate or soft left victories could quickly turn sour.
To neutralise the threat, more moderate wings of the left need to find a way to end the enduring new left culture on social media, while offering other pathways into the party that avoids the cycle of projection and condemnation that defines the new left. In Labour’s case this would inevitably closely involve the unions, while the humility shown by Biden to Sanders supporters is a clue to the model that will be adopted in the Democrats.
If the left is to win again, it is not good enough for those who understand the cultural toxicity of the new left. It must also end its domination over the young. For all of Momentum’s talk of “holding Keir Starmer to account”, the left cannot win from a position of antagonism, whether to voters externally or its leaders or members internally.
It will be the job of Labour and the Democratic Party to turn a philosophy of how to live into a philosophy of how to govern, and how to win.