Hey Democrats: Take a Hint from Labour and Ocasio-Cortez and Try Moving Left

Democrats can’t win by mimicking left rhetoric—it’s going to take an actual left platform.

Tobi Thomas

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn greets supporters during a rally on May 18, 2017 in Southall, England. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

On July 18, House Democ­rats unveiled their new cam­paign slo­gan ahead of the 2018 midterm elec­tions: For The Peo­ple. At first glance, the mes­sage may appear sim­i­lar to For The Many, Not The Few,” the title of the man­i­festo put for­ward in 2017 by the UK’s Labour Par­ty, led by Jere­my Cor­byn. And while both slo­gans place the pub­lic as the cen­ter of polit­i­cal action, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty still has much fur­ther to go in com­par­i­son to Labour, which embraced a bold, redis­trib­u­tive agen­da as a means to grow its power. 

The Labour man­i­festo called for such poli­cies as nation­al­iz­ing rail and elec­tric util­i­ties, get­ting rid of tuition for pub­lic col­leges, ban­ning frack­ing, invest­ing in clean ener­gy, con­trol­ling rent increas­es and mas­sive­ly tax­ing the rich and cor­po­ra­tions. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment, mean­while, has so far steered clear of adopt­ing such unabashed­ly left proposals. 

Yet the recent pri­ma­ry vic­to­ries of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist can­di­dates such as Sum­mer Lee and Sara Innamora­to in Pitts­burgh and Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez in New York against pow­er­ful incum­bents with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic machine sig­nal that the ener­gy and enthu­si­asm with­in the par­ty lies on its left flank. These can­di­dates, along with many oth­er demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists across the coun­try, have run on plat­forms that are large­ly in line with Labour’s manifesto. 

In response to the vic­to­ries by can­di­dates such as Oca­sio-Cortez, many U.S. pun­dits and polit­i­cal insid­ers have either writ­ten off the rise of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism as mar­gin­al or warned against the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty embrac­ing extrem­ism.”

Such a reac­tion is famil­iar. Soon after UK Prime Min­is­ter There­sa May called for a sur­prise gen­er­al elec­tion to take place in June 2017, pun­dits across the polit­i­cal spec­trum repeat­ed a nar­ra­tive reduc­ing Cor­byn to a scruffy, une­lec­table old-school social­ist who would return Labour to the elec­toral obscu­ri­ty of the 1980s rather than a viable alter­na­tive to the Con­ser­v­a­tive sta­tus quo. 

The acci­den­tal leak­ing of the Labour Party’s man­i­festo dur­ing the 2017 gen­er­al elec­tion seemed to give Corbyn’s crit­ics anoth­er chance to accuse him of dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion and incom­pe­tence. How­ev­er, the leak end­ed up work­ing in Labour’s favor, as the elec­torate was able to under­stand Corbyn’s vision of a pro­gres­sive Labour-led Britain at face val­ue and with­out spin. The man­i­festo proved pop­u­lar: Labour’s poll rat­ings instant­ly rose, with 7 in 10 vot­ers wel­com­ing its pledges. 

The appeal of Labour’s man­i­festo lay in its bold vision that deci­sive­ly addressed the public’s mate­r­i­al cir­cum­stances and needs. It was as much an implic­it account­ing of the vio­lence of aus­ter­i­ty as it was an explic­it pol­i­cy plat­form for read­dress­ing it. Cor­byn end­ed up receiv­ing 40 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote, a swing of 10 per­cent from the pre­vi­ous elec­tion which equaled the largest increase in the vote-share by a Labour leader since 1945. Cor­byn won the hearts and minds of much of the British pub­lic despite fac­ing immense hos­til­i­ty from even his own MPs, lay­ing bare the dis­so­nance between the pol­i­tics of the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment and that of the gen­er­al population. 

Indeed, as Cor­byn stat­ed in his keynote speech at the 2017 Labour par­ty con­fer­ence, the polit­i­cal cen­ter of grav­i­ty isn’t fixed or unmov­able, nor is it where the estab­lish­ment pun­dits like to think it is,” before adding: we are now the polit­i­cal main­stream.” Today, sup­port for poli­cies such as rena­tion­al­iza­tion, tax increas­es on both cor­po­ra­tions and high­er earn­ers, and the strength­en­ing of work­ers’ rights rank high among the pub­lic regard­less of divides among gen­er­a­tions or polit­i­cal par­ties. Corbyn’s poli­cies are pop­u­lar even among those who are old­er and iden­ti­fy as con­ser­v­a­tives, prov­ing that pro­gres­sive val­ues can tran­scend the trib­al nature of par­ty politics. 

As has been proven among Labour in the UK, signs show that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic base in the Unit­ed States is mov­ing much fur­ther left than the par­ty estab­lish­ment antic­i­pat­ed, and the base has shown a yearn­ing for can­di­dates who actu­al­ly speak to their mate­r­i­al interests. 

Oca­sio-Cortez did just that, run­ning as a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist on a plat­form includ­ing Medicare for All, tuition-free col­lege and a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee. She defeat­ed Rep. Joe Crow­ley, a 10-term incum­bent, with 57 per­cent of the vote. Oth­er demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists have won elec­tions in states such as Vir­ginia, Mon­tana, Illi­nois and Ten­nessee. The poli­cies Oca­sio-Cortez embraced mir­ror that of oth­er demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists across the Unites States — and they are pop­u­lar among the Amer­i­can pub­lic: 59 per­cent sup­port Medicare for All, 52 per­cent sup­port a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee and 63 per­cent sup­port free college. 

This desire for a dif­fer­ent kind of pol­i­tics is also mea­sur­able in the strength of orga­niz­ing across the Unit­ed States. The mem­ber­ship of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) has increased expo­nen­tial­ly in recent years, grow­ing from 6,500 dues-pay­ing mem­bers in 2014 to over 47,000 today. In the UK, Momen­tum — a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist grass­roots move­ment estab­lished to sup­port Cor­byn after his elec­tion to Labour lead­er­ship — now boasts over 40,000 active mem­bers. Today, Labour remains steadi­ly ahead of the Con­ser­v­a­tives in opin­ion polls and is poised to make sig­nif­i­cant gains in the next gen­er­al election. 

While the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment remains far more ossi­fied and entrenched than Labour, espe­cial­ly when it comes to the pow­er of cor­po­rate inter­ests, the suc­cess of Cor­byn in the UK and can­di­dates such as Oca­sio-Cortez illus­trates that poli­cies asso­ci­at­ed with demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism will not alien­ate the major­i­ty of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic base. 

Ahead of the midterms, the Democ­rats need to go much fur­ther than sim­ply reveal­ing a new slo­gan. Labour’s suc­cess is root­ed in the party’s man­i­festo, which clear­ly and coher­ent­ly out­lines how soci­etal trans­for­ma­tion is pos­si­ble. If the Democ­rats wants to win, they need to insti­tu­tion­al­ize the cam­paign poli­cies and ideas that have already elect­ed grass­roots demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist can­di­dates over mon­eyed incum­bents with­in the par­ty machine. 

The polit­i­cal dynam­ics in the UK are dif­fer­ent from those in the Unit­ed States. How­ev­er, elec­torates in both coun­tries find them­selves fac­ing many of the same con­di­tions as a result of years of crush­ing aus­ter­i­ty. As a result, the pol­i­cy plat­forms of both Corbyn’s Labour Par­ty and U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists have been able to to achieve wide appeal. 

The rise of the party’s left wing has been key to Labour’s suc­cess and growth. The same can be true for Democ­rats, if they choose to learn the les­son — and seize the moment. 

Tobi Thomas is an edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue