Democratic Socialists Lost, but Their Ideas Have Won
Even though Bernie Sanders didn’t win the U.S. Democratic nomination and Jeremy Corbyn was beaten badly in Britain’s 2019 election, the movements their campaigns created will live on in left-wing politics on both sides of the Atlantic.
On a hot summer’s evening in August 2017, Jo Beardsmore and Adam Klug, two left-wing activists from the United Kingdom, excitedly got in their car and drove down the California coast, from the apple farm Beardsmore lives on in Mendocino to San Francisco. They were going to meet one of their idols—Becky Bond, a senior advisor on Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign for the U.S. presidency.
Beardsmore and Klug had recently been involved with the U.K. general election as part of Momentum, a left-wing campaign group formed in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s successful dark-horse run for the Labour Party leadership in 2015. At the outset Corbyn had faced odds of 200 to 1, but he shocked the entire political and media establishment when he won. Momentum wanted to build a mass movement behind progressive policies and thrust them into the British political mainstream. It also ended up defending Corbyn’s leadership from critics outside, and within, the Labour Party.
Momentum had been vital to the Labour Party’s surprise result in the 2017 election earlier that summer. Labour started 20 points behind, but come election day had dented the Conservative Party’s governing majority while pushing the most progressive policy platform the U.K. had seen from a major party in decades—pledging to increase taxes on high earners, establish public ownership of water and utilities, the abolition of college tuition fees, and increased health care spending. Many pundits on left and right at the time predicted the Conservative minority government that clung on to power would not last a full term and that Labour was the party in the ascendancy.
After the election, Klug, a Momentum co-founder, decided to take time off and went to stay with Beardsmore, who had lived in California since 2015 but remained close to U.K. activists and helped Momentum as a volunteer. Beardsmore and Klug had been comparing what was happening among the left in the United States with the U.K., and were taken with a book Bond co-wrote, Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything. “We both read it at the same time and we were both really struck by the parallels,” says Beardsmore. “And so we basically decided to track down Becky.”
Bond agreed to meet the two Britons for a drink in San Francisco. “I was kind of doing it as a courtesy,” Bond tells me. “But it was such an immediate and strong connection.” They ended up staying for dinner, then spending the rest of the evening together talking politics and activism. Over the two days of eager note-sharing, Bond and the two Britons realized they had encountered many of the same challenges in building upstart grassroots movements and that they could learn a lot from each other.
Bond was so enthused by meeting the Britons that just a few weeks later, she decided to travel to the U.K. Bond and Zack Malitz, who worked on the Sanders campaign, too, decided to use up their frequent-flyer miles and attend an event called The World Transformed in the U.K., which takes place on the fringe of the Labour Party’s annual party conference. Klug and fellow Momentum co-founder Emma Rees put them up.
During the four-day event, Bond met key figures from Momentum, as well as other left-wing activists. Afterward, Bond and Malitz started holding weekly Zoom meetings with their British counterparts, sharing experiences and ideas. A transatlantic alliance of left-wingers had been born.
This alliance would have a significant, if underreported, impact on left-wing politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Momentum activists from the U.K. would contribute persuasive canvassing techniques to the “Medicare for All” campaign in the United States—which by the time of the 2020 Democratic primaries was firmly in the mainstream—and share their experiences of trying to influence the Labour Party. Bond and her colleagues would also mentor the Britons and train staff in “big organizing” tactics, contributing to one of the most ambitious canvassing campaigns in British electoral history in the December 2019 U.K. election.
And for a time late last year, as Sanders seemed to be edging toward being the Democratic nominee and Corbyn’s Labour started to climb in opinion polls, it looked like two interlinked radical-left movements in both countries might actually win power.
Of course, things didn’t turn out that way.
In December 2019, Corbyn’s Labour slumped to a lopsided defeat against the Conservatives and he has since been suspended from his own party. And Sanders, after becoming the front-runner in the Democratic primaries for a few weeks at the start of 2020, was thrashed on Super Tuesday.
Despite both movements running huge grassroots operations that brought in large numbers of young activists and people not usually engaged with politics, they both failed to deliver on their early promise, leaving the questions: What went wrong, and what comes next?
After Sanders failed to win the Democratic Party nomination in 2016 and Donald Trump won the presidency, the people behind Sanders’s campaign didn’t want to see the movement they built just disappear. Bond and others rallied around two objectives: to do everything possible to defeat Trump in 2020 and to adapt what they’d learned to down-ballot races.
Bond’s Rules for Revolutionaries came out shortly after Trump won, co-authored by fellow Sanders advisor Zack Exley, who co-founded Justice Democrats, which would later support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful run for Congress.
Meanwhile, Bond and Malitz co-founded the Social Practice, a political consultancy for progressive campaigns and groups, as well as the Real Justice PAC, which has aimed to get radical reformers elected to the office of district attorney in cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco, where in 2019 voters elected Chesa Boudin—a former public defender—whose biological parents were incarcerated when he was a child. The Real Justice PAC also won in the county that includes Ferguson, Missouri, where police killed Michael Brown in 2014, sparking mass protests.
Relatively frequent local and midterm races have allowed Bond to hone and test different tactics since 2016. And since meeting Beardsmore and Klug in San Francisco, Bond has come to Labour’s party conference every year.
One of the first fruits of this relationship was what Bond called “solidarity work” on the issue of health care. Bond had been helping the biggest U.S. nurses’ union, National Nurses United (NNU), which was the first national union to come out in support of Sanders’s 2016 run and which had played a central role in his campaign’s grassroots activism.
While the NNU and its predecessors had been fighting for Medicare for All in the United States for 30 years, the Sanders campaign offered a slingshot to national viability. After Sanders lost, the nurses were determined to carry on the fight. They had a strategy for this; Bond helped provide the expertise. And some British activists, including Beardsmore, got directly involved.
Unlike other lobbyists for universal health care, the NNU believed in winning through talking to people face to face. To help with this, Beardsmore started to train the NNU volunteers in something Momentum had used successfully in the 2017 U.K. election: persuasive conversation.
Whereas canvassers traditionally just check which way people are voting and help get the vote out, persuasive-conversation training aims to turn first-time canvassers into effective persuaders at lightning speed. Momentum’s use of this approach in the 2017 election was widely credited with scoring Labour victories in close parliamentary races, as well as places where it was supposed not to have a chance.
While the NNU’s activists were already using their personal stories as nurses before they ever heard of Momentum, each time there’s a campaign in the U.K. or the United States, the strategy takes on a new iteration and tactics are tweaked, then shared back-and-forth. Building solidarity between the two countries is also key. Bond told me that U.K. phone banks have even been used to call Americans to dispel myths about the National Health Service—the publicly funded British health system—and demonstrate that it isn’t some impossible dream.
In February 2018, just six months after the two sides first met, Momentum co-founders Rees and Klug went to the United States to see the NNU in action, share lessons from the U.K., and give workshops. During their trip, the pair also traveled to Texas to experience Beto O’Rourke’s wild-card run for the Senate against Ted Cruz. The Britons attended a Real Justice PAC event in Dallas where left-wing activist, journalist, and Real Justice PAC co-founder Shaun King had attracted a huge crowd, predominantly people of color, to the event at short notice.
Rees recalls that King asked how many in the audience had a close friend or family member incarcerated, and nearly everybody put their hand up. He then asked how many people were angry about this, and received a similar response. “And how many people are actually doing something to change that?” King said. Far fewer people put their hands up this time. By the end of the event, much of the audience had been signed up to volunteer.
While King has been doing this for years, the approach happened to be nearly identical to what Momentum was doing in the U.K. with the likes of the Guardian columnist Owen Jones signing up volunteers around “Unseat” campaigns against specific entrenched right-wing members of Parliament.
Rees and Klug also got to witness the inner workings of the O’Rourke campaign. Malitz, the campaign’s field director, built one of the largest grassroots operations ever seen for such a race, adapting the volunteer-run infrastructure of the Sanders campaign to phone banks, texts, and direct messaging, as well as in-person canvassing that was distributed to every corner of the state.
Canvassers knocked on nearly 3 million doors, bringing districts previously seen as unwinnable into play. O’Rourke came very close to unseating Cruz, something seen as impossible at the start of the contest. (This November, Texas could turn blue in the presidential race; polls show Trump and former Vice President Biden to be neck and neck.)
Ahead of the general election in the U.K. during 2019, Momentum hugely expanded its operations from the small team that had fought the 2017 election, moving to larger offices nearer to central London to accommodate many more staff and volunteers at its headquarters.
Bond came to the U.K. half a dozen times last year. And in September 2019, when it looked the Conservatives would call an election in the U.K. at any moment, Bond was on a Zoom call with Momentum staff—advising the Britons on small-donation fundraising and not to be shy about asking for money—when they asked her if she could fly over to help in person. Bond got on a plane to London and arrived at Momentum’s headquarters on the eve of the general election campaign.
Apart from wanting to help Momentum, Bond knew that she could learn a lot from the U.K. election—to American campaigners, votes in Britain could feel like a dry run for the United States, particularly after how quickly the shock of Brexit was followed by Trump’s 2016 victory.
Tactics witnessed in Texas directly influenced the launch of such initiatives as Labour Legends, where Momentum asked supporters to take a week off work to volunteer.
Bond helped newly hired junior organizers manage volunteers on Slack—of whom there were more than 4,000 by the end of the campaign. Bond also had long discussions with the tech team behind My Campaign Map, a website Momentum launched to support canvassing efforts. A more rudimentary version of the tool in the 2017 election had sent volunteers to their nearest constituency with a close race. Now My Campaign Map aimed to avoid bottlenecks of activists and distribute them around different tight races, as well as enable cross-country trips to districts lacking volunteers.
But there were challenges. Unlike Momentum, the main Labour Party was not well prepared for the election. Bond points out that Labour’s dialer, the system for calling voters, was not up and running in the first two weeks of the campaign. The Labour Party had also been riven by infighting in the months preceding the election. This was partly due to centrists’ never having accepted Labour’s leftward turn; also partly to blame was Corbyn’s problematic leadership. He struggled to get a grip on the anti-Semitism crisis plaguing the party and dithered over calls for a second Brexit referendum.
Although Labour did climb in the polls as the campaign advanced, there was a sense of inevitability as Election Day loomed. In the final televised debate between Corbyn and incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which I watched on a big screen at Momentum’s offices, some of the Momentum staff were audibly exasperated that Corbyn didn’t go in for the kill. At one point, Corbyn called out Johnson for past “racist remarks” made in newspaper columns, but he avoided personally attacking him. A snap poll after the debate found that voters thought Corbyn was more trustworthy, but Johnson was more “Prime Ministerial.”
By Dec. 13, 2019, Labour was defeated and the gains of 2017 were wiped out in a Tory landslide. Corbyn announced he would step down once a new leader was chosen.
In 2020, Sanders supporters in the United States were also disappointed when he lost to Biden. Progressives on both sides of the pond had been beaten back.
There are big differences. Sanders did not preside over crises like Corbyn’s Labour—especially anti-Semitism and the question of Brexit. Sanders also didn’t have to manage the challenge of being leader of the party. But ultimately both movements failed to reach much beyond their left-wing bases, and the promised boosts in turnout from people who don’t usually vote did not materialize.
Although this transatlantic left alliance would seem to have ended in failure, its impact should not be underestimated. Momentum’s persuasive-conversation techniques were used in both Sanders’s and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential primary campaigns this year—and some elements were almost carbon copies of the persuasive methods at the heart of the Medicare for All campaign that the Britons helped design. (Medicare for All itself was widely seen as the No. 1 talking point in the Democratic debates this election cycle.)
Campaigns to unseat both establishment incumbents in the Democratic Party and vulnerable Republicans have proliferated.
But, as Momentum’s My Campaign Map showed, big structural challenges remain. “I think the tools basically did their job,” Jan Baykara said of the canvassing website he helped design. “The bigger issue was getting people out of London.” This was why they introduced a feature to organize road trips. “It was literally trying to get thousands of people to move home for a couple of weeks,” Baykara said. But both the Labour Party and Momentum only realized too late that mobilization wasn’t happening in the places they really needed.
Community organizing is a “years long project, not a six week thing,” Baykara said. The focus now should be on community power, not just election cycles—something that Momentum seems to recognize. When the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the U.K., My Campaign Map was retrofitted to enable volunteer groups to help those in need, and now enables users to search for and join local campaign groups on a number of issues—Momentum just launched a grassroots initiative against the wave of evictions coming in the wake of the pandemic.
Despite the electoral setbacks, there are some small victories. Sanders may not have won the nomination, but his movement is pushing the Democrats leftward. The party’s draft policy platform, released after Biden eclipsed Sanders, showed a lot of progressive influence. Even on foreign policy, Sanders’s advisor Matt Duss has said that Biden has clearly moved to the left. On this and other issues such as the Green New Deal, Biden has faced progressive mobilization in a way that former President Barack Obama almost never did during his eight years as president.
The picture is arguably a little different in the U.K. Keir Starmer became the new leader of the Labour Party in April, promising to uphold the party’s progressive policy platform. Since then, some on Labour’s left have been dismayed at what they perceive as a managed drift to the right. Starmer’s cabinet is certainly less left-wing than Corbyn’s. And in his annual Labour conference speech, he pitched so-called red wall voters who had turned Conservative by promising to put “family first” and emphasizing patriotism and security.
Starmer has also prevaricated on the progressive platform of his leadership campaign—key pledges already at risk include the tax increase on top earners and public ownership of rail, mail, water, and energy. One of Labour’s key backers, the trade union Unite, has since said that it will reduce its contributions to the party and distribute it to other left-wing groups, a clear warning shot to Starmer.
It’s true that Labour has recovered in opinion polls—and Starmer’s personal ratings when compared to Boris Johnson’s are far better than Corbyn’s. But amid the government’s chaotic handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, Labour are still slightly behind the Conservatives in an average of polls. And the fact is that, while the British public clearly disliked Corbyn, Labour’s progressive policies were popular when put individually to voters and could become even more attractive if the U.K. slips into a post-pandemic recession.
On Oct. 29, Starmer’s Labour suspended Corbyn from the party, after a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission condemned Labour’s handling of anti-Semitism. The reason for the suspension was Corbyn’s statement, which largely accepted the report’s findings but said the scale of the problem had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.” The left of the party is now reeling from the suspension and how to react.
Still, left-wingers and socialists have a stronger base now within the Labour Party and Democratic Party than they’ve had for decades. Progressives will want to protect their hard-won gains on either side of the pond—especially given the growing popularity among voters of many left-wing policies. But most will agree that the immediate task is to mount the most robust opposition possible to the right-wing governments of the United States and the U.K, which are both taking their old democracies into uncharted waters with every new authoritarian twitch they make.