On December 12 I was in the suburbs of Reading, a city just outside of London. Stood in the cold and rain all day, knocking on doors to get out the vote for the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn. Waiting for the exit poll my emotions fluctuated between giddy optimism and a profound sense of doom. Ultimately doom was the end result. The Labour Party suffered a crushing defeat, winning just 202 seats to the Conservatives’ 365. The energy of the Corbyn project that upset the odds in 2017 had dissipated. Boris only increased his vote by 1.2%, it was Labour’s collapse of 7.8% that handed us five more years of Tory rule.
Many on the left in Britain are now resting their hopes for the international socialist movement on Senator Bernie Sanders, whose insurgent campaign has drawn comparisons on both sides of the Atlantic. They both promise to fundamentally upend the political system and seize power from the 1%. A friend of a more centrist persuasion recently asked me, with thinly concealed exultation, “What is it with you and old white lefty men? Corbyn shows that even if these guys have good ideas, they are unelectable.”
There have been plenty of articles refuting the comparison, this was an election defined largely by Brexit. Indeed, of the 54 seats that Labour lost to the Conservatives, 52 had voted to leave the European Union. Brexit was certainly not the sole contributing factor, and Corbyn’s leadership, in particular the public’s general distrust and dislike of him, came up frequently on the doorstep. There is also the case of Scotland, which gave 48 of its 59 seats to the Scottish Nationalist Party and just one to Labour. In 2010 Labour received 41. This is electorally analogous to California forming a separatist party and granting its electoral votes to them rather than the Democrats.
Clearly a generalized comparison between the two campaigns is not of much use. However, as someone who follows both U.S. and British politics closely, there are lessons for the Sanders campaign in what to expect and how to strategize.
Most importantly, Sanders should prepare for a media onslaught if he does clinch the nomination. This is not to suggest, as some recent columnists have, that Bernie has yet to receive any scrutiny. As he has risen up in the polls, all of the criticisms from 2016 have reemerged: Bernie doesn’t care about race, Bernie Bros are sexists, Bernie’s plans are unrealistic. All of these have fallen flat and, so far, failed to halt his seemingly inexorable rise.
These attacks seem rather tepid in contrast to what Corbyn faced. If our tabloid press is to be believed Corbyn thought the death of Bin Laden was a tragedy, fed secrets to the Czechoslovaks during the Cold War, and commemorated the terrorists behind the 1972 Munich Massacre. It was not just the tabloids running suspect attacks. In the run up to the election The Times ran a piece citing anonymous senior Civil Service members who felt he was too physically and mentally frail to be prime minister. The issue is not that Sanders has yet to be vetted, but instead that he has yet to face mass disinformation.
We will be told that Sanders is a Marxist who will wreck the economy, crash the stock market, disregard property rights, and most damagingly be weak on, or even allied with, America’s enemies. His honeymoon in the Soviet Union and his trip to Nicaragua during the 1980s will be brandished as proof that Bernie hates America. Stories will circulate on Facebook and Twitter with out of context quotes. A negative story alone is unlikely to derail a bid, but enough accusations over time can make a man into a monster. Corbyn, a pacifist septuagenarian whose hobbies include cycling and making homemade jams was able to become a terrorist sympathizer who is against the Armed Forces in the eyes of much of the public.
The solution here, as far as there is one, is to stick to the message and not get distracted by such accusations. Too many Corbyn surrogates spent their time bickering on television and twitter about the latest negative story, which meant less time selling the party’s project. By the time the election was called, much of the damage had already been done. Bernie must stick to his vision to take on the millionaires and billionaires and deliver Medicare-for-all to the American people. He has wisely leaned into the narrative that the establishment is out to get him because of these goals. This helps him to simultaneously negate criticisms while selling his popular ideas.
Messaging was also one of the key differences between Labour’s relative success in 2017 and failure in 2019. The argument became fragmented, the success of the 2017 message was interpreted as the result of good policies. A holistic vision of ending austerity and giving power back to the people was abandoned in favor of a host of policy proposals. Free broadband, free bus travel, free university education was easy for the Tories to sell to the people as frivolous promises of ‘free stuff’.
People do not want to hear they will be given free stuff by the government, especially in countries such as the U.S. and the UK where narratives of “welfare queens” and “benefits scroungers” have stigmatized state assistance for the past several decades. Rather, Sanders must stick to what has brought him success so far, a clear, easy to repeat flagship policy that is framed in terms of power. Plans alone are not enough, but Medicare-for-all and “not me, us” are powerful narratives that should be hammered home with single minded determination until election day. Those that may be skeptical of individual policies are far more likely to buy into this message of inspiration.
All this said, Sanders is certainly better placed now than Corbyn was two months ago. He responded to Clinton’s suggestion that “nobody likes him” with good humor, quipping that his wife likes him on a good day. He has yet to rise to the bait, getting bogged down in debates on ‘Bernie Bros’ or whatever attack line is the flavor of the month. He is all together more competent at playing politics and has never strayed from his core message. When the attacks do come Sanders will do well to disregard the criticisms, mobilize as many volunteers as possible to counter the narratives his opponents will try to build, and most importantly stick to the message.