When it comes to elections in the United Kingdom, Americans would be excused for a diminished interest in the outcome. (Remember 1776?) But this year, democratic socialists in the United States are increasingly invested, some going so far as to root for one of the candidates for U.K.’s prime minister. For a variety of reasons, if Jeremy Corbyn — a lifelong socialist and leader of the country’s left-leaning Labour Party — wins on December 12, it could signal a win for U.S. democratic socialists, too.
“I think it’s important that the U.K. elect a Labour government, specifically because they are putting forth such an incredibly positive and radical vision [of democratic socialism],” Kristen Cervero, a 22-year-old socialist organizer and national co-chair of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), told MTV News.
That vision — outlined in the Labour Party’s new manifesto revealed by Corbyn last week — includes taxing the rich; protecting programs like “right to food” and national care services; decreasing or even eliminating the cost of education; introducing rent controls in big cities; and publicly funding health care. Corbyn also has a few positions unique to Great Britain, like keeping the country in the European Union rather than seeing Brexit through.
Since membership surged in 2014, the Labour Party now counts more people among its ranks than any other party, according to U.K. Parliament data. And while none of the major U.K. parties boast particularly high numbers of young members (the average age of membership ranges from 52 to 57), young Brits generally like Corbyn more than his competition. A recent YouGov poll shows that people aged 18-24 feel more favorably toward him than they do to Boris Johnson, the current prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party. Nearly every other age group favors Johnson.
Over 4,000 miles away in the U.S., Cervero was also moved by the Labour Party manifesto Corbyn presented. Such policies “kind of keep us going,” she said of her DSA peers. Ultimately, she believes that if Corbyn is elected, “cross-Atlantic working class solidarity would dramatically change.”
Socialism is a growing ideology in the U.S., where 56,000 people identify as members of the DSA, up from 6,200 in 2015. According to a Gallup poll, 18-29-year-olds in the U.S. are more likely than any other age group to think positively about socialism — but they’re not totally sold on it. The same poll found that they feel only a few points more favorably about socialism than capitalism, which is something of a death knell for the latter: Capitalism’s popularity among young people has plummeted 23 percent in the past eight years, while their view of socialism has stayed relatively stagnant.
If you ask a boomer what they think of socialism, you may hear echoes of misinformation and propaganda left over from the Cold War, a hostile and open rivalry between the U.S. and the communist Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) that led some people to conflate socialism with communism. (The confusion might have something to do with the fact that the U.S.S.R. called itself the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.) But communism isn’t socialism: Under communism, the government owns both property and the means of production, whereas under socialism, individuals still own property but share the means of production, with the latter managed collectively via a democratically elected government. Even so, the anti-communist movement known as the Red Scare had lasting effects: A Hill-HarrisX poll released in May found that respondents 65 and older were more likely to conflate socialism with negative connotations.
But those connotations seem to resonate less with millennials and Gen Zers who came of age in an era characterized by Occupy Wall Street and cascading ecological crises.
“I don’t really think about the Red Scare ever,” Tawny Tidwell, a 33-year-old elected member of DSA’s National Political Committee and an organizer with the North Brooklyn Branch of NYC DSA, told MTV News. “The Cold War was over by the time I was a toddler. I think that people my age and younger don’t really have those associations.”
For them, socialism means a chance at minimizing uncertainty for working people in a world that trades long-term instability for short-term corporate profit — forgiving student loan debt, providing universal health care, and lessening the burden of income inequality while mitigating the worst effects of the climate crisis. And organizations like the DSA and the Labour Party are working increasingly across international borders to open other people up to the potential of what socialism can look like when a democratic government helps shape its policies.
Enter Grace Blakeley, a 26-year-old British economist on the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum, who has been touring the U.S. for weeks to galvanize transatlantic solidarity among what she calls the “Anglo-American left.” Her new book, Stolen: How To Save The World From Financialisation, outlines a vision to address the mirroring “problems” she says have undercut both the U.S. and the U.K.’s working class throughout the various iterations of capitalism. And she isn’t surprised that people in both the U.K. and the U.S. might be turning to socialism more frequently as a means of survival.
“The links between the British and American left are based on the knowledge that we face many of the same problems,” Blakeley told MTV News, calling both economies “highly indebted financialized societies that were decimated by the financial crisis — where you’ve had wage stagnation, productivity stagnation, a whole bunch of the same sorts of problems. There is a burgeoning movement, particularly amongst young people, saying the only way to solve these things is to deliver democratic socialism.”
That move towards a more socialist government could come to a head with the December 2019 elections in the U.K. and the 2020 elections in the U.S., where two democratic socialists — Corbyn on one side of the Atlantic, and Bernie Sanders on the other — now lead in approval ratings among young people in their respective countries. More people under the age of 30 voted for Bernie Sanders than Trump and Hillary Clinton combined during the 2016 election, according to the Washington Post, and today he’s one of the leading candidates for voters aged 18-44. If Corbyn gets elected, activists hope that the example of a country so similar to the U.S. choosing a socialist leader could put an end to lingering skepticism around Sanders’s electability in an American general election.
Sanders’s own public statements have suggested he’s also aware of the synchronicity between the U.S. and U.K. left. “What has impressed me — and there is a real similarity between what [Corbyn] has done and what I did — is he has taken on the establishment of the Labour Party, he has gone to the grassroots and he has tried to transform that party … and that is exactly what I am trying to do,” the senator said in 2017 of his pitch to move the Democratic party further left. In turn, many of Sanders’s positions — like Medicare for All, free college tuition, and fighting income inequality by taxing the very rich — have become baseline expectations for other candidates seeking the support of young American voters, who are overwhelmingly more progressive than every other age group.
Some have followed suit by leaning fully into the socialist label, ignoring conventional wisdom that the word could scare away more moderate voters. Two members of the DSA — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Minnesota — are now sitting in the House of Representatives. And even Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend mayor who is routinely criticized for his temperate plans, has pointed out that detractors are likely to call Democrats “a bunch of crazy socialists” no matter the viewpoint or policy — so activists and politicians alike argue they might as well get progressive anyway.
Yet domestic electoral wins are hardly the main impetus behind the emerging transatlantic left, compared to a growing realization among activists that global issues like income inequality and the climate crisis can only be fought on a global scale for meaningful change to take hold. To do that, socialists everywhere are leaning on each other for pointers. Take the Green New Deal: Presented stateside by Senator Sanders and Representative Ocasio-Cortez, the legislation serves as a way to combat the climate crisis while increasing jobs and decreasing wage inequality — but it was originally created in the U.K. in response to the financial crisis.
“There’s been a real kind of intermingling of ideas, of movements,” Blakeley said, adding that the groups have also shared ideas and goals regarding socialized medicine. (The U.K. has had universal healthcare since the end of World War II, while the current system in the U.S. regularly leaves many Americans on the brink of financial ruin.) “I think there’s a lot that these movements can bring to each other, and we are starting to learn how to organize across borders,” Blakeley added.
Sanders seems to agree. “These are not American issues, or British issues – these are international issues,” he said in 2017. “Our job is to create economies that work for working people – that uplift the poor, not make the very richest almost unbelievably rich while leaving everyone else behind. This is a global issue and we must address it.”
If some politicians and constituents aren’t ready to have that conversation, young people are. Johnson is still leading Corbyn in the polls overall, but Sanders remains one of the top candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2020. And even if the results of the December U.K. election don’t go as they hope, young socialist activists will continue to push elected officials and liberal parties further to the left, and won’t give up fighting for their platforms.
Blakeley, for her part, sees a turning point in the near future for socialists worldwide. As she told MTV News, “I think the U.S.-U.K. relationship is just the start of that.”