Right place, right time

On Monday I bade farewell to the sunny skies of England and traded them in for the gloomy weather in France. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.


On Monday I bade farewell to the sunny skies of England and traded them in for the gloomy weather in France.

There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

This week I’m meeting a lot of colleagues from Agora offices all over the world at Château de Courtomer, a castle in Normandy about a three-hour drive from Paris.

As I’m writing this it’s started to snow, so bringing my sunglasses was a bit optimistic. A jumper would’ve had more use.

Though we’re quite isolated from the rest of civilisation, even in the French countryside we can’t escape the world completely.

The rise of Donald Trump is one of those topics everyone seems to have written on their conversation starter cheat sheets. It’s something no one really seems able to wrap their head around.

Sixteen years ago The Simpsons aired an episode set in the future predicting Donald Trump would one day become president with the winning slogan ‘America, you can be my ex-wife!’

At the time the idea was absurd enough to have comic merit. At the moment it’s painfully close to becoming reality.

“It’s definitely going to happen,” an American colleague tells me. “Donald Trump will become our next president. Nobody likes Hillary.”

We’ll find out in November.

One person who still does like Hillary Clinton is George Clooney. He recently admitted he’d thrown the likely Democratic frontrunner a fundraiser that had raised an ‘obscene’ amount of money.

Justifying his actions, Clooney commented he’d only done it hoping the next Democrat president would put an end to such practices.

I’m not sure about this. It very much sounds like bribing a politician to stop taking bribes.

In any case I’m not convinced Clinton is the right person to expect radical reform from. I suspect she’d be a ‘let’s keep things the way they are’ kind of president. Of course there’s something to say for that being preferable to a president you have no idea what to expect from.

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Unlikely coups

Many media outlets have compared the rise of Trump to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. I only subscribe to that in the sense that the success of both seemed very unlikely up to a few years ago.

A few months back I read a book about this called Comrade Corbyn: A very unlikely coup by Telegraph journalist Rosa Prince. It’s basically the black box of the Labour leadership election as it attempts to explain the improbable election of the 66-year-old leftie.

Up until recently the hard left seemed to have little backing in the Labour party. What’s more, far more charismatic candidates from this wing like Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone hadn’t been elected in the past.

So what changed?

Well, the voting system certainly had a big impact. Previously, Labour leaders were chosen by three groups that all had a third of the vote: individual Labour party members, the Parliamentary Labour Party, and affiliated societies and trade unions.

Previous party leader Ed Miliband changed the voting system after beating his Blairite brother David in the 2010 Labour leadership election. The right wing of the party believed Ed had owed his success to the influence of trade unions, which they considered disproportionate.

To ‘remedy’ this, Miliband installed a ‘one member, one vote’ system and opened up the election to registered and affiliated supporters.

This compromise to the Blairites was initially believed to favour candidates from the party’s right. Ironically, it paved the way for someone on the far left to take control.

Of course, critical errors made by Corbyn’s uninspiring opponents Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall played a considerable role too.

Different climate

Still, the rise of Trump and Corbyn seems for the most part a case of ‘right place, right time’.

Trump, after all, had made shy attempts to run for president before, in 1999 and 2011. Yet at those times he couldn’t find enough support to give it a serious go. Years later the climate proved more open to the idea of a President Trump.

Similarly, Corbyn’s unlikely to have won more than a few percentage points if he’d stood a few years ago. But after the New Labour era and the shock Tory victory in the 2015 election, which some blamed on Labour not being left-wing enough, many of its supporters were keen to turn the party back into a real left-wing party.

Though Labour members and MPs more to the centre like to hold on to theories that communists and Tories infiltrated their party’s election to rig the outcome, it’s not enough to explain Corbyn’s landslide victory.

Nor is it a coincidence that left-wing Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has exceeded expectations across the pond in a country without a big socialist tradition.

Indeed, the vast amount of support Trump’s received in the US primaries is perhaps the clearest example that the political climate in the West is changing.

For years voters have substituted people with blue ties for people with red ties and vice versa without seeing any discernible difference. They’re fed up.

To express their discontent they’ve resorted to voting for politicians further and further away from the centre in the hope it’ll lead to real change.

Trump and Corbyn therefore seem to be in the right place at the right time. Whether that will be enough for them to go the distance and be elected leader of their countries only time can tell.

All I can say now is that May 2016 clearly isn’t the right time to go to Normandy.

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