New York Magazine


THE POLITICS OF Britain and the U.S. can have a strange, synchronized rhythm to them. Margaret Thatcher was a harbinger of Ronald Reagan as both countries veered suddenly rightward in the 1980s. Prime Minister John Major emerged as Thatcher’s moderate successor as George H.W. Bush became Reagan’s, cementing the conservative trans-Atlantic shift. The “New Democrats” and the Clintons were then mirrored by “New Labour” and the Blairs, adapting the policies of the center-left to the emerging consensus of market capitalism. Even Barack Obama and David Cameron were not too dissimilar—social liberals, unflappable pragmatists—until the legacies of both were swept aside by right-populist revolts. The sudden summer squall of Brexit in 2016 and the triumph of Trump a few months later revealed how similarly the Tories and the Republicans had drifted into nationalist, isolationist fantasies.

But what of the parallels on the left? What’s generating activist energy and intellectual ferment in both countries is an increasingly disinhibited and ambitious socialism. Bernie Sanders’s strength in the Democratic Party primaries two years ago was a prelude to a new wave of candidates who’ve struck unabashedly left-populist notes this year, calling for “Medicare for all” and the end of ice, alongside a more social-justice-oriented cultural message. Some, like the charismatic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have achieved national visibility as an uncomplicated socialism has found more converts, especially among the young. Moderate Democrats have not disappeared, but they are on the defensive. A fight really is brewing for the soul of the Democrats.

And so it seems worth trying to understand what has happened in the Labour Party in Britain in the past few years. In 2015, in a flash, Labour became the most radical, left-wing, populist force in modern British political history. Its message was and is a return to socialism, a political philosophy not taken seriously there since the 1970s, combined with a truly revolutionary anti-imperialist and anti-interventionist foreign policy. This lurch to the extremes soon became the butt of jokes, an easy target for the right-wing tabloid press, and was deemed by almost every pundit as certain to lead the party into a distant wilderness of eccentric irrelevance.

Except it didn’t. Today, Labour shows no sign of collapse and is nudging ahead of the Tories in the polls. In the British general election last year, it achieved the biggest gain in the popular vote of any opposition party in modern British history. From the general election of 2015 to the general election of 2017, Labour went from 30 percent of the vote to 40 percent. It garnered 3.6 million more votes as a radical socialist party than it had as a center-left party. Hobbled only by a deepening row over anti-Semitism in its ranks, Labour will be the clear favorite to form the next government if the brittle Tory government of Theresa May falls as a result of its internal divisions over Brexit.

This success—as shocking for the Labour Establishment as for the Tories—has, for the moment at least, realigned British politics. It has caused Tony Blair, the most successful Labour prime minister in history, to exclaim: “I’m not sure I fully understand politics right now.” It comes a decade after the 2008 crash, after ten years of relentless austerity for most and unimaginable wealth for a few, and after market capitalism’s continued failure to meaningfully raise the living standards of most ordinary people. When the bubble burst ten years ago, it seemed as if Brits were prepared to endure an economic hit, to sacrifice and make the most of a slow recovery, but when growth returned as unequally distributed as ever, something snapped. The hearing the hard left has gotten is yet more evidence that revolutions are born not in the nadir of economic collapse but rather when expectations of recovery are dashed.

Revolution is not that much of an exaggeration. In the wake of capitalism’s crisis, the right has reverted to reactionism—a nationalist, tribal, isolationist pulling up of the drawbridge in retreat from global modernity. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the left reacted in turn by embracing its own vision of an egalitarian future unimpeded by compromise or caveat. This is the socialist dream being revived across the Atlantic, and not on the fringes but at the heart of one of the two great parties of government.

Democrats should pay attention. Labour’s path is the one they narrowly avoided in 2016 but are warming to this fall and in 2020. It’s an English reboot of Clinton-Sanders, with Sanders winning, on a far more radical

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