In 2008, the taxpayers of the United States, Britain, and most other Western countries were forced to take on new collective debts to bail out financial sectors that were about to collapse. After assuming these debts, voters in places such as Britain elected governments that imposed years of austerity, while incomes barely increased (if at all). At the same time, climate change continued largely unchecked, and the pay of those who caused the crisis in the financial sector remained astronomical.
Will voters really endure cuts to public services again, having taken on a whole new round of debt to soften the economic blow of the coronavirus shutdown? Boris Johnson’s landslide victory over Corbyn in December was fueled by a pitch to voters to end both the Brexit chaos and the previous decade of austerity. He promised more money for health care and the police, and no tax raises. Without austerity, how will Johnson balance the books? Think tanks in Britain are already debating the answer, and one called for a new “social contract” between business and the state centered on tax. But after such a sudden economic implosion, will voters seek only moderate tweaks to the system, or will they consider more radical reform? The former British Conservative cabinet minister David Gauke told me that a move toward more communitarian politics and a bigger state is inevitable.
This is not an argument for Corbyn, Corbynism, Sanders, or the Bernie Bros. While in the U.S. Sanders is technically still in the running for the Democratic nomination, here in Britain, today is the day the curtain finally falls on Corbyn’s stewardship of the Labour Party. His record is bleak. In 2015, he inherited a party that, in the same year, had suffered its largest defeat since 1983. Today, he hands it over in markedly weaker condition, having led Labour last year to its worst result since 1935. His tenure, forever tainted by the revival of anti-Semitism that happened on his watch, lasted longer than most thought possible, because of the surprise general-election result that came in 2017 when he oversaw a late surge in the poll to rob the Conservative Party of a majority. Three years on, however, the reality is that the result blinded Labour to its overall loss in the election. Celebration of the 2017 result distracted from the party’s ongoing existential crisis, its voters largely found in urban England, and its working-class and Scottish base quickly vanishing. The narrow margin of the 2017 loss, it emerged, owed more to specific circumstances than to momentous trends moving the party’s way. Unable to see its own faults, and convinced of its own righteousness, Labour condemned itself to the crushing defeat that followed two years later.
Corbyn and Sanders were—and are—flawed politicians (Corbyn more obviously so than Sanders). Their historic baggage, ideological obsessions, inability to build a genuinely broad coalition of support, and, in the case of the Labour leader, failure to adequately tackle racism in his party (the kindest possible description of Corbyn’s behavior) made the pair in some ways uniquely unsuitable to stand for the leadership of their respective parties and countries.