Recently, some friends and I were discussing the election of Ms Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the United States House of Representatives, after their recent election. She has been elected as a member of the Democratic Party, and yet is quite possibly the most left-wing Democrat in the chamber. A lot of articles have been written about her. Some have been about the merits of her strategy for getting elected, and her plans for change. Others have been about her dancing skills.

There are similarities between this and the reaction in the past to events such as Syriza’s election in Greece, Mr Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party and Mr Bernie Sanders attempt at the Democratic nomination for President. I thought this was a good opportunity to discuss whether there is a lack of appreciation of how change can happen. Or whether a “paradigm of change” is missing amongst those who would like to, indeed, effect some change in the world we live in, from arresting climate change to changing migration laws.

From Sanders to Corbyn to Ocasio-Cortez

In the Anglosphere in 2016, there was a lot of excitement and comparisons made between Mr Sanders and Mr Corbyn. However, those comparisons neglected to point out that Mr Corbyn had come to power in a top-down organisation. Mr Sanders had no organisation and still has no organisation that can elect people who would follow his programme. Mr Corbyn gained control of the Party secretariat, he could appoint people to the Shadow Cabinet as he wished, and he had the resources created by the yearly subscriptions of hundreds of thousands of people, as well as funds the government provides to elected parties. If you add in Britain’s electoral FPTP system, and doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, and compare that to the US Supreme Court and bicameral legislature, the difference is big indeed.

If Mr Corbyn is elected Prime Minister, he could legislate the Earth flat, as long he gets enough of his MPs to agree with him. Were Mr Sanders or a Ms Ocasio-Cortez to be elected, they would face much more significant obstacles to change, as President Roosevelt saw with his Second New Deal in 1937, being thwarted by the Supreme Court.

What about us Europeans?

Now where does that leave us Europeans? A lot of leftists were hopeful when Syriza was elected. Regardless of what one thinks of Mr Alexis Tsipras’ handling of government, perhaps what was not appreciated was that a majority in the European Council and friendly judges in the Court of Justice of the European Union are needed if you want to push forward your plans for change.

However, a great positive (or negative, depending on your view) is that most European countries have proportional representation electoral systems. Such a system allowed Podemos of Spain, and its leader Mr Pablo Iglesias, to get 8% of the vote in the Parlement Européen elections of 2014 and get 9% of the seats. Compare that with UKIP which got 12% of the vote and 0.15% of the seats in the 2015 UK General Election. The same applies to Syriza and La Lega, in Greece and Italy, respectively. The party structure was there and enabled them to expand quickly, due to their previous electoral performance. So when people would like to change/reform parts of the European Union, they should have a clear “paradigm of change”, based on the existing system.

Messrs Tsipras, Corbyn, Sanders and Iglesias have all been hailed as the next great hope, at one point or another. Their level of public support was and is variable. Mr Corbyn got elected by 0.5% of the UK population to his post and yet may become Prime Minister and be more powerful than all the others. Mr Sanders got the votes of 4% of the USA population during his campaign, and even if he had become President, would have been able to accomplish much less of his platform compared to Corbyn and his team. Mr Tsipras was elected and did not manage to accomplish what he had (over?)promised. Perhaps whenever someone is hailed as the next great hope, we should be careful to look at what system they are operating in.

Thank you for reading. Articles are, as always, incomplete, and it is up to you to start/enrich a conversation by commenting. I appreciate any feedback.


Nicolas Mavreas was born on what later became Europe’s eastern frontier, on the island of Cyprus. He lived through Europe’s enlargement and the turmoil of the early 2010’s. After completing his two-year compulsory national service, he went to the University of Cambridge to study. He observed the Brexit debate and result. Being a European in another member-state sharpened his awareness of the European “we” and spurred on a search to understand the European interest.

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