A British Trump?

Photographer: Carl Court

What Trump Has in Common With a British Socialist

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Jeremy Corbyn is a rumpled, 80s-style socialist trying to pull the U.K. Labour Party to the left. Donald Trump is a flashy celebrity tugging at the hearts of the U.S. Republican right. How can it be that people are suddenly divining similarities between them?  

In nearly every way the two men -- one a business tycoon with the brash manner of a circus ringmaster, the other a tweedy socialist throwback -- are polar opposites. What unites them is that they have come from nowhere to lead their respective party leadership races, to the horror of their party establishments. And that choosing them would probably prove suicidal at the next elections.

It seems implausible that either party will actually make that choice. If they do, that would unite Trump and Corbyn too. They'd provide a necessary dark night of the soul, compelling the parties to reconnect with the voters who decide elections.

Labour lost an election in May because its leader at the time, Ed Miliband, tacked too far to the left and lost in generally conservative England. Corbyn makes Miliband look a closet Thatcherite, so he's no antidote to that problem. He'd like to renationalize the railways, mail service and energy companies. He'd like nationalize some banks, only properly this time, so the government wouldn't just own shares in them but run them. He'd also restore spending on welfare and boost it on infrastructure.

With what, given the U.K.'s still large public debt and deficit? For that he has a catchy idea called "Peoples' Quantitative Easing," which would entail ordering the Bank of England to print money for use directly on public spending. He'd also raise the top rate of income tax, perhaps as high as 60 percent, as well as increasing corporate taxes. Oh, and on foreign policy he's for unilateral nuclear disarmament and once called Hamas and Hezbollah "our friends."

Corbyn is more serious than Trump and may have a better shot, given the relatively narrow pool of activists and labor unions that will decide on a party leader. He has been brave and right at times -- for example in opposing the U.K.'s involvement in the Iraq war. But "Corbynomics" were tested to destruction in 1970s Britain. They led to chronic stagflation (high inflation coupled with high unemployment) and subpar growth. That makes Corbyn unelectable, and probably the best Labour Party leader the Conservative Party could hope to compete against.

This is what happened to Labour in the 1980s. The party was captive to the policies Corbyn proposes and spent 18 years in the political wilderness as a result. In 1980 it chose Michael Foot, a man rather like Corbyn in style and beliefs, to lead it. A radical minority, Militant Tendency, ensured that Labour's political center of gravity couldn't move to the electable center. It took a series of election defeats for Labour to break that tyranny and choose Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to lead it back to power in the 1990s.

This is why so many Labour stalwarts are horrified by Corbyn's rise. Blair has said that that if Labour activists are following their hearts in backing Corbyn they should "get a transplant." Nobody can quite believe the party would be stupid enough to repeat the mistakes of the 1980s. And yet Labour's party base loathes Blair and might just go with Corbyn. If so, it may again be a necessary disaster for the party.

The U.S. political system is very different from Britain's, of course. The Republican Party may not have the White House, but it's hardly in opposition: it runs the House and Senate. Yet Republicans, too, are being dragged from the political center, by the party's Tea Party minority. They are losing traction with the electorate on issues with electoral importance, such as immigration. And if you want an example of willful self-harm, look at John Boehner's struggle to stop his own party from shutting down the Federal government in 2013.

For Republicans to win with Trump in 2016, a majority of Americans would have to imagine a man in the White House who defines the term loose cannon and offers policies such as deporting 11 million illegal immigrants, at the potential cost of tanking the economy. They'd have to think: Good idea. If the Republican Party chooses Trump anyhow, the resulting car crash might just prove the kind of sobering event it, too, would need.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Jonathan I Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net