HEROIC TRADE UNION STRUGGLES in the US and the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s have long been a source of inspiration and shaped my worldview. But for the first time in more than 35 years since my initial arrival in Britain, I returned to London sensing that socialists in the Labour Party have positive lessons to learn from left activists in the US.
Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House has spurred a resistance of sorts ranging from some pillars of the neo-conservative establishment through to former Obama administration officials.
But the opposition to Trump also includes a growing left wing, which has flooded into and begun to transform the once highly marginal Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Since 2016 the DSA’s membership has increased more than eightfold to over 50,000.
In terms of ideology the DSA is itself a ‘broad church’, but has largely coalesced around the figure of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, whose 2016 presidential candidacy spurred the organisation’s dramatic growth. Sanders declared on 19th February that he’s standing again, but in sharp contrast to his underdog status against Hillary Clinton, Sanders is now at or near the head of a crowded pack of Democratic candidates currently in double figures. Of course, Sanders’ frontrunner status, combined with the meteoric rise of DSA-backed congressional representatives, especially Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has sparked reams of critical commentary in the editorial pages of such newspapers as the New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post, generally associated with the Democratic Party establishment.
The ‘Bernie 2020’ campaign is hardly surprised by attacks from the ostensibly liberal wing of mainstream US media, which has never been prepared to accept key Sanders’ policies such as universal healthcare, free college tuition and redistributive taxation. The ultimate source of anxiety for media moguls and US corporate boards isn’t, however, so much Sanders’ programme, which other leading Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have at least partly embraced. The real fear is that a Sanders’ candidacy becomes a lightning rod for discontent within the US working class that transcends ethnic and racial divides.
Leading figures in the Sanders campaign including Bernie himself appear to recognise and welcome that potential. There are strong indications that the Sanders campaign will offer a platform for extra-parliamentary activity and become a focal point for a social movement that could challenge both Trumpism and the Democratic Party status quo. And here real lessons are on offer for the Corbyn leadership and socialists in the Labour Party.
Sanders has readily identified himself with the ongoing teachers’ revolt across schools systems in much of the US, swiftly offering a message of support to striking Los Angeles teachers in January and spurring other Democratic hopefuls to do likewise. Bernie also gave very public support to a recent strike by some 1,700 members of the United Electrical (UE) Workers in Erie, Pennsylvania, a small blue-collar city and former Democratic stronghold that went for Trump in 2016. The workers, employed in a locomotive plant recently acquired by Wabtec, a subsidiary of the giant Westinghouse corporation, have been resisting attacks on terms and conditions, leading to a two week long strike.
Sanders didn’t simply tweet a message of support. He offered a platform to a local UE representative at his own presidential campaign launch in Brooklyn. His campaign texted hundreds of the region’s identified Bernie supporters, urging them to build practical solidarity with the striking UE members.
In addition, the Sanders rally in Chicago featured a young African-American woman, who is a leading figure in the city’s Black Lives Matter campaign and a key opponent of a new $95 million police academy which is backed by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and virtually the whole of the local Democratic establishment. These politicians are most unlikely to endorse Sanders for President anyway, but by reaching out to Chicago’s young black activists the campaign is cementing a base both for the electoral campaign and any eventual Sanders presidency.
In the UK for all the impressive canvassing mobilisations in marginal seats in 2017, the sorry reality is that we have thus far failed to build a vibrant social movement around the Corbyn leadership. There are numerous reasons, not least the relative weakness of union organisation and militancy.
Nevertheless, the 2017 general election campaign hinted at what was possible with Jeremy proving a barnstorming campaigner, capable of attracting large crowds and generating widespread enthusiasm for the party’s manifesto.
Reviving this approach with rallies across the country, featuring not only Corbyn but local campaigners around school funding cuts, defence of the NHS, opposition to deportations and supporting strikes, where they occur, could help create an atmosphere where the demand for a general election becomes meaningful - as well as laying the basis for the sort of social movement that would be essential to defending a future Corbyn-led government.
Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP