Lessons From America

During the autumn of 2015 I spent some time in both Pennsylvania and Maryland. On reflection — especially since November — the trip seems a whole lot more interesting, and significant, than it did then. The trip gave me a grasp of some of the challenging issues facing the Democrats.

This was not a political trip, I was in the US to look at the way a number of States and Cities organised their arts and culture sectors. I was particularly interested in places that had some relevance to Birmingham and the West Midlands and so the visit concentrated on post industrial regions with large minority ethnic communities.

This area (especially the cities of Philadelphia, Pittsburg and Baltimore) were about as solid a Democratic homeland as you could expect to find. All of the administrators and politicians I met were Democrat. These were places where the big political competition was always the primary election for candidate, rather than the actual real-world election. In the 2016 elections the cities remained Democrat but in the suburbs and smaller towns voters threw away their historic political bonds.

Trump had not yet won the Republican nomination but he was everywhere. When in the US my personal survival strategy involves never ever switching on the TV in the hotel room, though on this occasion there was no need. Every TV in every hotel lobby, bar or restaurant was showing CNN and one person dominated. Trump’s tactics were rather basic but very clear. Each morning about 10.00 am he would say something extraordinarily outrageous and he would then dominate the new reports until the evening when the coverage of the political rallies would start. Throughout the day Trump’s opponents — Republican and Democrat — would be playing catch up, effectively dancing to The Donald’s tune. Trump seemed to base his strategy around either the laziness of 24 hour news editors or a lack of real editorial capacity to challenge.

On the last night of our trip my colleagues and I took out a group out who had organised our Baltimore itinerary for a thank you meal. Each one of our guests was a lifelong Democrat. I spent most of my evening talking to a fascinating woman, an academic with an impressive portfolio of community activity, who was a long serving and senior Democrat (Baltimore is next door to Washington). Since November I’ve though about this evening a lot and the more I think about the conversations the more significant I think they are for the future of progressive politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Surely, I asked, Trump would blow up? They weren’t counting on it. What’s more at this point in the campaign it was estimated that Trump had spent virtually nothing on marketing. He was being treated very seriously. They knew that Trump was ruthlessly exploiting the concerns that many people had about the ‘authenticity’ of politicians. Who did they all want to know about? Corbyn. They were fascinated at the apparent breaking of the conventional Labour machine. Might the once formidable Clinton machine, and the Democrat operation in general, suffer a similar fate?

At the time the first Clinton email ’scandal’ had yet to subside. I was told that the Democrats were worried and that plans were being made to parachute in an alternative candidate if Clinton was forced to withdraw. Who might that be? Kerry, Biden and Gore were all being seriously considered as candidates. But were they not all of the same age and political generation as Clinton?

The first problem they discussed with me was the Party’s failure over recent congressional elections. They had simply lost a generation of political leaders, especially those that had experience of political management. Did that matter? “We’re beginning to realise it does” came the reply.

Biden, I was told, would clean up if he stood as a candidate. He would suck up the vast majority of the black and hispanic votes in the country. Biden was judged to have far stronger support in these communities than Clinton. Why? Biden was considered to be properly authentic. “What you see with Joe is what you get.” My guide was a senior Black American activist.

The problem faced by the Clinton campaign, even then, was the ‘Clinton establishment’ and all that went with it and an almost monarchist view of the right to succeed. Many Democrats in the USA see the Clintons in much the same way as we see the Blairs. Both of these ‘royal families’ have adopted the same confusing mixture of business and charitable foundation operation. Here in the UK Bill Clinton remains something of a hero amongst progressives but as Francis Beckett and David Henke showed in 2015 (Blair Inc: The man behind the mask) this might be because Blair and Clinton carved up the world between them, each operating in a different part of the globe.

The email ‘scandal’ itself was not so much the issue as a growing notion that the Clintons operated in a different space to everyone else and played to different rules. There was an overwhelming sense that this mode of operation had had its day, or at least they wished that it had!

So why Hillary? Well, the history and image of the Clinton’s was simply too strong to resist. They had the power, the image, and the clout with donors. It was simply Hillary’s turn. Baring scandal, there was simply no other rightful candidate. And yet those I was talking to had very real reservations and concerns about the inevitability of the position that they found themselves in. Even twelve months before the ballot they were not at all confident. Politics was changing they told me and the Democrats had to change quickly, it’s just that had little clarity about their future direction and where it might lead.

While my hosts and guests were fascinated with Corbyn it is worth noting that this didn’t translate to Bernie Sanders. He couldn’t win they argued and US polls seem to show that was the case. Their fascination with Corbyn seemed to me to be grasping at straws, hoping there was a new and emerging political model that might prevail.

I’ve revisited these discussions a little since Trump’s election. Progressives may trumpet the popular vote as, yes, Clinton polled far more votes than Trump, but in a set political system the political machine simply failed. And it failed badly. My friends are vey clear that simply throwing money at a problem didn’t work last year and, most likely, is not guaranteed to work in the future. This was the first Presidential Election in a long time that didn’t break the expenditure record, simply because Trump spent so little. The machine is becoming less important than the clarity of message. And, of course, in the US system it is the Electoral Collage that determines the result and not a simple nation-wide majority.

It seems to me that progressives on both sides of the Atlantic are following the same path and that there is much to share along the journey. In reflecting back to these conversations there are lessons to be learnt for Labour here in the UK.

Firstly, we need put the Blair and Campbell year behind us. Yes, they were very successful in their time but the electorate has moved on and they see things in very different ways than many of Labour’s core activists do. Too many Labour activists look backwards and remain obsessed with their own turf. For example, Alistair Campbell remains a great figure for many — but we haven’t properly acknowledged the rise of the new Tory equivalents, ruthless operators like Dominic Cummings who ran the leave campaign; the ‘force’ is with them now. The soap-opera like glitz of the Clintons and the Blairs no longer cuts little ice with real voters.

Secondly, we need able politicians who are competent political managers. We should be wary of long periods of opposition. A focus on abstract campaigning is not enough — it certainly wasn’t during the Thatcher and Major years. We need to more carefully focus on the skills and achievements of our local government leaders, especially in the big cities. We should watch very carefully the work of the new regional Mayors for these are people who will be determined to make a difference. These political leaders are as much on the front line as our Parliamentary Front Bench. These are people who understand the importance of the machine but also appreciate that being seen as an effective fighter for your own community — for your own people — is even more important.

Finally, Labour — both left and right — have to get a better handle on the media, both traditional and new. We cannot simply treat the mainstream media with suspicion or disdain. We need front bench spokespeople who are media savvy, who see their jobs as taking every opportunity to harry and harass their opponents. We all know about Trump and Twitter and yet it was his use of traditional news media that was most significant in winning over voters. Social media campaigns — as MORI and others have effectively demonstrated — simply see us talking to the converted. Yes, they can rally the troops but they have very little impact on the wider community.

As political activists we have to properly understand that this world owes us very little. The past might provide benchmarks and pride with past achievements, but it is always the future that counts.

It is a long road back. It will mean a lot of hard graft. Yet without the confidence of the wider community it will all be wasted effort.

Andy Howell
11th January 2017

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