Now Is The Time For Labour To Deepen its Policy and to Take the Campaign To a Different Level

So, the deal with the DUP has been done. The deal buys May and Tories time although just how much time will remain to be seen. It seems designed to last for two years by which point Tory optimists hope that a decent Brexit deal has been finalised. However, as always, political events do not aways go to plan and it is quite possible that this government will not last to the end of the negotiation period.

Corbyn is right to continue to make the case that Labour is ready to form a government at any time. At Glastonbury it is reported that he told organiser Michael Eavis that he could be Prime Minister within six months. This is not just a fanciful boast. The conference season will be a major test for May. If she continues to make the wrong choices, continues to appear wooden and inhumane and — critically — continues to be a subject for ridicule then the end could be quick.

In such a climate Labour’s biggest problem may well be the temptation to sit back and rely on its current campaign strategy and manifesto. At the moment both strategy and manifesto look to be effective but time always changes the context in which both must sit. The more that Corbyn is seen as a credible Prime Minister, indeed as the likely next Prime Minister, the bigger the challenge he faces in fleshing out the manifesto and in beginning to address detail.

Take one of the issues that devastated the Tory campaign plan, social care. The electorate was spooked by the Tory manifesto programme and singularly unimpressed by a series of subsequent U-Turns. Everyone in this country knows we face major challenges in this area. If we are not yet thinking personally about our own social care we will have parents and grandparents who, today, face the future with a great deal of uncertainty and fear. As we get closer to becoming a Party of government it will not bee enough for us to simply talk about more cash, we will have to spell out how and where we will make our investments. It might be acceptable — in a political campaign — to simply call for a new Social Care Service but it is clear that we might form the next government the health and social care sectors will look for more detail and will expect to be able to enter into a real dialogue with the opposition about the future.

It would be wrong to expect the Labour Front Bench to have a fully formed solution to the Social Care crisis in its back pocket, but there is much it can do ramp up the intensity of the campaign and to begin to drill down and to nail key policy dilemmas.

It became clear during the campaign that the Tories were to use an autumn Green Paper to accelerate their own plans for the future of social care and, seemingly, to begin to distance itself from Andrew Dilnot’s 2011 report. This Green Paper commitment has survived the cull of Queen’s Speech although he government’s expectations of it may be more modest. For Labour the autumn consultation will be a great opportunity to not only raise the stakes for the government but to cement and build new partnerships both within and beyond Parliament.

Corbyn should build his attack around some key principles, all of which will be uncomfortable for the Tories.

Firstly, Labour should be insisting that this debate be one that searches for a greater degree of political consensus. Dilnot’s report needed to be followed by a genuine attempt to build consensus across the political spectrum. All Party talks did begin but were quickly closed down amidst the policies of austerity. The spirit of cooperation must be revisited. It would be a crime if such a key policy was to be simply determined by a minority government backed-up by a bunch of Northern Ireland political opportunists.

Secondly, this is an issue so important that in this modern age it cannot simply be left to Westminster politicians. If there is to be a consultation process in the autumn it should be the start of a process rather than something definitive. It could map out mechanisms for wider engagement and discussion, perhaps through some form of commission. It should lay down timescales for political decisions, progress and potential systemic change.

For Corbyn, such an attack can further underline his credentials for being a leader of the country rather than simply the Leader of the Labour Party.

There are many reasons for broadening the debate. Much work is being done by academics and by social care commissioners and providers. New models of cooperation between commissioners (local government and health) and the institutional investors who create and maintain services are being mooted. The social care crisis of skill development, workforce development and recruitment are being better understood. Few of those engaged in this world are confident that their input into the debate will be secured and their ideas properly explored.

If Corbyn deepens his campaign in this he way he will also find that there will be a significant impact on Westminster politics, though it will present new challenges as well as new opportunities.

A more open approach to the issue should set out to make the best use of Parliamentary expertise across the Board. In Norman Lamb the Lib Dems have one of the most knowledgeable and respected politicians in the field. Tory Stephen Dorrell, though he stood down as an MP in 2015, has spent much time looking at the issues of social care both through Select Committees and work in the outside world. Cameron’s Minister of Health Alistair Burt is another who has spent much time pondering these issues not only as a Minister but as a Select Committee Chair. And back on Labour’s side on of the key players nationally is Andy Burnham now the Mayor of Greater Manchester who now has the responsibility for bringing health and social care together in one of our major conurbations. These — and many others — will have a major role to play in building a new and last social care system.

Corbyn should one of the biggest issues of our age, and one of the greatest failures of the election campaign, to genuinely illustrate how a new form of politics could work.

One of Corbyn’s problems so far has been a failure to develop a proper policy debate within the Labour Party let alone outside in the wider world. The longer this Tory government manages to survive so the context of debates will change. We should all be aware that unexpected events can challenge ourselves as much as they can derail the government. Deepening to policy content of our campaign will help edge against the unexpected.

Ultimately, a move to a deeper and broader campaign may be critical in securing the success of a Corbyn-led government which may well have to govern without an overall majority or without a comfortable majority. Potential allies across the political spectrum wonder whether Team Corbyn can ever break free of their closed world. Developing a deeper policy dimension to the day-to-day political campaign will build confidence in Corbyn as a potential Leader of a wider progressive left.

Some will, of course, prefer to stay on the current course and to pin their hopes completely on a ‘one last heave’ mentality. It is worth constantly reflecting on the political realities of 2017. Despite running a fine and effective campaign Labour gained only 30 seats. At the next General Election Labour needs to win over 60 new seats simply to have a majority of 1. A comfortable majority of 40 or so seats will require Labour to win 100 seats at the next election.

In preparing for the future Corbyn can only gain by deepening his campaigning in this way. Social Care is but one key issue and, of course, there are others that would benefit from a similar approach.

In today’s world — in 2017 — the big issues cannot simply be left to Westminster. If we deepen our policy making,as a campaign tool, we are more likely to convince an ever-skeptical electorate that Labour is theParty to deal with the big issues. Back in Westminster such an approach is likely to convince others that Corbyn would be a serious partner in power, if indeed it comes to that.

Andy Howell

Well, I Clearly Know Nothing …

Early Thursday morning, Election Day. I made my way into Birmingham Labour’s Phone Bank with long time, fellow traveller, Bill Lees. As we approached that final push we wondered whether this might be the last time we could run a simple and conventional Get Out The Vote Operation (GOTV). Despite all of the computers and the clever pieces of software GOTV remains based on brute strength. It worked in Stoke on Trent with the backup of hundreds and thousands of volunteers. But could it still work in basic elections?

Bill and I seemed to have been locked in that phone bank for most of the previous four weeks. Bill — who was running the operation — seemed to have moved into the Birmingham office for the duration of the campaign. We survived on a poor diet of caffeine, sandwiches and very bad jokes.

For a month and more a dedicated team spoke to literally thousands of voters, initially to all and then latterly to those who had more closely identified with Labour over the last few years. It was hard going. We experienced little of the Labour ‘surge’. The last few days were positively depressing. In all honesty, we didn’t see Labour’s 40% vote coming, even as we ran wave after wave of phone knock-ups on polling day. Maybe our work did help? Maybe our work had made a difference? Maybe it didn’t? But our input into Labour’s Contact Creator seemingly hadn’t lied. The polls seemed to be right. We missed Labour’s rise completely. So, what were we missing?

[Read more…]

The Next Leadership Election: The Case for Taking A Longer Road

It may seem odd — distasteful even — that during a general Election Campaign that there is so much talk of the next Labour Leadership Election and the tactics that will accompany it. Surely, if Labour suffer heavy losses Corbyn will go in the conventional way. Or, maybe the Corbynites will ensure he tries to hold on until September when the McDonnell Amendment about the PLP nomination threshold can be forced through?

Rumours are flying everywhere, especially amongst those connected with the left. One recent rumour (traced on multiple occasions from the left) has Corbyn resigning before the General Election. I suspect this is why a clear denial was issued by Corbyn’s office — he will fight on. Corbyn himself, of course, was less than clear on the subject adding to the confusion and supporting all manner of conspiracy theories. I suspect this reflects the panic of those who have supported Corbyn and who can see a Tory landslide doing no good for their careers.

However, it seems likely to me that — should Labour suffer the kind of defeat that is being predicted — normal conditions will prevail. Corbyn will go quickly. Another discussion emanating from those near Corbyn suggest that the camp know that he couldn’t carry on, and that a crushing defeat would be the wrong backdrop for the McDonnell amendment. This thinking is accompanied by the notion that the Corbynite left think there will be a quick contest between Cooper and Starmer and that the left will support Starmer. They will support Starmer in the usual way, expecting to have little leverage with him over the coming years. If this seem slightly ridiculous it is very much the traditional way in which the left have approached leadership elections in the past. Other sensible constitutional watchers simply point out that there many be no need for the McDonnell amendment as the percentage of the PLD needed with a much smaller PLP would be quite a small number. If Labour’s defeat is heavy I expect a quick resignation. But then what?

Quick contests have not served us well in recent years. Maybe there is an alternative to consider. Under our constitution Tom Watson becomes interim leader and he can hold that post for up to eighteen months. Perhaps, we should consider using this time wisely?

Should Watson become interim leader his first task will be to put together a strong front bench. We have many experienced politicians sitting things out at the moment and, arguably, have a number of senior Shadow Cabinet Ministers who are out of their depth. The task of the interim Leader will be to put together the most talented team possible, regardless of whether they are from the left or the right of the Party. For example, though not in my natural political camp, Caroline Flint has always been a very effective front bench spokesperson and a very good communicator on the media. I thought Flint gave the best pre election conference speech in 2014. As Shadow Energy Minister she had secured a good manifesto deal, made a direct and no nonsense speech — one which was mercifully brief. Those with Ministerial experience like Flint still have a real role to play. Or consider MPs such as Lillian Greenwood, one of those initially promoted by Corbyn who worked really hard to make an impact with transport policy before resigning in frustration and the seeming incompetence of the Leadership Team. Greenwood is of the centre left, a former trade union official at UNISON and somebody who is generally respected in the East Midlands.

You will have your own views about who should be in such a team the point is this, our first priority will be to develop a strong team, provide the stability for them to both oppose as well as to develop those partnerships and alliances that will provide the policy solutions for the future.

Over, say, a twelve month period it will be clearer who the frontrunners might be. They can be given the chance to front major campaigns and policy initiatives and, perhaps, also the opportunity to tackle Prime Minister’s Question Time. We might also see a strong front bench tackling the media in an important way. An appearance on Marr or the Sunday Politics is very different from the more personal outing on Question Time. Such a process could take ten to twelve months and still allow time for a proper internal campaign, but one conducted in a very different context. If Watson himself is a candidate (and I’m not sure he would be) we will be able to see him operate within a wider and more talented team that we have been used to over the last six months or so.

Some would still prefer a quick election and it may well be the case that we need a settled leadership before Brexit begins to really go off the rails. But I think there would still time for this more considered approach to be effective.

A Tory landslide would place Labour is a far worse position than when Foot was leader. Back then Labour still and the heartlands of Scotland and Wales to provide the foundations of a rebuild project.

As I write it is almost impossible to be sure of the political landscape that we will wake to on June 9th. A new political world may require a very different approach to leadership and parliamentary tactics. Who knows who would shine in such a world? There is no guarantee that the old tricks and tools will be good enough for the job. Why not give ourselves the space to think and plan effectively?

The Strange Case of the West Midlands Mayoral Campaign: Lessons for All

By now you will have noticed that Labour lost the West Midlands Metro Mayor election to the Tories. Labour MEP Sion Simon narrowly lost in the second round of voting to Andy Street, up until recently MD of John Lewis and also the Chair of the Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.

In the aftermath, many of focussing on the spend of the Street campaign. Simon’s campaign started the campaign proper with a 15 point lead over the Tories according to private polling. By the time we got to a few weeks out — and before the General Election was called — that lead had been wiped out. Street’s campaign certainly had a generous budget which was ruthlessly focussed on boosting turnout in Tory areas. It was a tactic that worked. However, to focus on this alone is to ignore some serious issues that Labour needs to reflect on with some humility, issues that have a national and not just a local significance.

All Major Elections Need to be Properly Resourced

By all accounts the Labour Party coffers have been boosted significantly by membership increases but you’d never have guessed that here. Simon’s campaign was required to submit a campaign budget. The campaign was granted only 25% of what they thought was the bare minimum needed to mount an effective campaign. Very late in the day somebody nationally panicked and a load more resources were suddenly offered. However, it was just too late. The new resources could not be spent because of election campaign limits. Street had, of course, spent the bulk of his cash months ahead of time. I suspect he also spent his money carefully. We all saw the leaflets that came through every door but most of us on the left simply won’t have seen his targeted Facebook campaigning.

This financial crisis was compounded by the actions of UNITE nationally who — it is said — blocked a donation of £10K Simon’s campaign. Simon is known to be a very close friend of Tom Watson. The £10K had been approved by the West Midlands Regional Executive of UNITE, local members wanting to support local campaigns.

In a bizarre twist the Communist Candidate — a past UNITE official — spent £10K on his campaign. Rumours persist that much of this came from UNITE. The Communist candidate polled 5,696 votes in the first round. Street won by 2,000 votes in a second round where it is clear the Communist votes did not transfer to Labour.

Was this a result of incompetence, the destructive impact of tribalism or pure malice?

Who knows but the impact could be seen quite clearly.

During the Stoke by election campaign I spent a fair amount of time phone canvassing from the Regional Office, in space adjacent to Simon’s campaign office. For much for the time the organiser Adam McNicholas was working completely alone. I came to admire him greatly.

But maybe even more telling was a conversation I had a politically aware but not politically active friend the day after the result was announced. This friend lives of the edge of the region. During the campaign he had received no communication from Labour. He took that as complacency and arrogance on Labour’s part. He only heard from Street during the campaign. I explained about the shoe string budget and he understood although he was confused. Labour Councillors and MPs are fairly thick on the ground near him. Why had he not heard from them?

Which brings me to the next point.

Labour Activists and Elected Representatives Need to Fight Every Seat

Simon’s campaign is upset about the support they received from sitting Councillors and some MPs. Rightly they regard these elected representatives as professionals. The basic Councillor allowance in Birmingham is over £16K a year.

I spent most of my time supporting Simon’s policy process although I did my fair share of leafleting and street stall sessions. But from what I saw the team’s complaints had some validity to them.

It became popular to argue that the public didn’t want a Metro Mayor, it was an unnecessary election for which there was no enthusiasm. This is used to explain the lukewarm interest from many senior Party members.

The Mayoral Election turnout was indeed lower than most local government turnouts but not that much lower. It was significantly higher than the turnout for the Police Commissioner elections for which there seemed to be a lot more enthusiasm from the same complainants.

This was an important election which too many did take seriously enough.

The Labour Candidate is the Labour Candidate

The next factor introduced by many was the candidate himself. It was said he was not charismatic or inspirational. His campaign tactics were poor and complacent. Members were not inspired to work for him.

I will make no comment on any of these points other than Simon was elected on an OMOV vote by a high margin. I would like to have seen a greater range of candidates myself but few put their names forward. Simon was up for the challenge and secured the Labour nomination. He was Labour’s candidate. If I had chosen not to work for people I wasn’t keen I’d have sat out a lot of local and general elections. Labour wins by working together and collectively, by backing Labour candidates.

The Implications of Complacency

The Tories now have a significant foothold in the West Midlands. I have worked with Street in other settings. He is a formidable communicator and networker, a man who places social responsibility at the heart of his philosophy. He is, of course, still a Tory but I doubt he will be a disaster as a Mayor. He will fight for — and probably receive — additional powers over the next few years. It is likely that the job will be seen as more significant at the next election in three years time.

Shock waves are now being felt in Birmingham where there are all up elections in 2018 on a new four yearly election cycle. Street has given Birmingham’s Tories an ideal platform to take the city next year.

There is more that could be written. Street set out to run an inclusive campaign and his claim to have taken votes from Labour in all parts of the West Midlands — and from all communities — seems to be accurate. His campaign attracted a lot of interest and support— more than is traditional for a Tory candidate — from various BME communities and it is widely expected that he use his Assistant Mayoral appointments to show a more diverse Tory Party administration.

The Party’s Dysfunctionality Is Proving to be Fatal

The issues raised here may be valid in some places and not valid in others. I am simply reflecting the discussion and concerns that are being aired locally. However, it does seem to me that the failure of the West Midlands campaign is symptomatic of the divisions in the Party and the unwillingness of the Leadership to embrace the traditional broad church of membership and supporters.

In all organisations dysfunctionality quickly seeps down from the top to all levels of operation. Political parties are no different.

It is likely that after the General Election we will spend our time in heated debate about failure. The lessons from the West Midlands, Teeside and elsewhere must not be lost on any leadership, current or future.

Once the General election was called Simon’s campaign was always running uphill. But there is no doubt. We could have — and should have — done better.

New Brexit Forum Created

Progressive Politics has now added a Brexit Forum to site’s list of features.

Brexit is not only the defining issue of this Parliament, but almost certainly, the political issue that will dominate the politics of a generation.Some believe the will of the people must be followed, as so the debate becomes one of a soft or hard Brexit. Others believe that the end result of the negotiations may be so horrendous that the British people may well change their mind; they should have the chance to speak on the final settlement in a final referendum. Others are dedicated to campaigning for the Britain to either remain in the EU or to seek to rejoin at a future date.

You may think it a little over the top to suggest that this issue will dominate politics in such a way but, as I approach my 60th birthday, I remind myself that the very first national vote I took part in was the first referendum on Europe. Throughout all of my political adult life the issue of Europe — and Britain’s relationship to it — has not been far from the headlines.

The Brexiteers have reminded us of the value of long term political thinking and campaigning, just as the Monetarist economists did a generation or so ago. In the face of the post war settlement and political consensus, economists like Milton Friedman dug in for a long, hard, political battle. It took the Monetarists until the mid 1970s before they found their champions in the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The Brexiteers have shown similar stamina. For many years most of us thought the Brexiteers to be, frankly, bonkers but yet they won out in the end. It is a reminder that we cannot take progressive values from granted as we move through the years. We cannot always move forwards. We have to have a view to defending and consolidating what was won.

In reality, Labour has long been as divided over Europe as the Tories but for much of the Blair/Brown years that division ran alongside the Parliamentary mainstream and left divide. Cornyn’s election as Leader — as in so many areas of policy — has many scratching their heads as to what Labour really now believes over Europe.

Over the last six months we have seen a growth in both national and local movements dedicated to fighting or overturning the Brexit decision. At the heart of these groups are young people for whom this is without doubt the defining political issue of the age. Having worked with them a while now I don’t doubt this fervour will be long lasted.

And so there is much to discuss about Brexit but we need to move beyond the decision that have already taken (whatever we think of them).

What will life in Britain look like in a post Brexit world? What are the challenges for our economy? How midge Brexit impact on our social and welfare security? And what might Brexit mean to the very make up of the UK and to our institutions of governance?

This issue will run and run. It is vital that — on this issue — Labour moves onto the front foot and seeks to lead opinion rather than simply respond the agenda setting of Theresa May and her colleagues.

So, whether you are pro EU or anti, whether you are for a hard Brexit or soft, or whether you feel we should be campaigning to stay in or seek return at some future debate, your views are welcome.

Please feel free to contribute to the debate by contributing to us. Send any copy to:

editors@progpol.org.uk

Each article or viewpoint will have a comments section. So, if you don’t fancy composing your own contribution then please feel free to make a shorter one as a comment.

Brexit Economics: The Shadow Chancellor Who Deserted The Ship

Now the by-elections are out of the way it is time to get back to Brexit, the political issue that will dominate not only this Parliament but that may well be a defining issue for a generation.

Diane Abbot is right when she points out that any political party with a foot in both the Remain and the Leave camp would find life difficult. Replace remain and leave with immigration and the economy and you have a more accurate reflection of the political dilemma facing Labour.

Immigration is, of course, an exceptionally difficult issue for any progressive Party to consider not least because the issues raised seem different across the regions of the country. Despite immigration being such a high profile concern Labour has not even started to debate the issue seriously, despite the All Party Group on Social Cohesion calling for a Commission to examine how a devolved immigration system might work. Clear, solid and principled policy will only come from pan-party debate, votes and brave leadership. As none of these factors are in place we can’t expect any clear Labour policy on immigration any time soon.

The economy should be an easier issue for Labour to headline on as ultimately it is should be our core issue. Talk to anyone for more than a few minutes and fears of Brexit quickly surface, even amongst those who voted to leave. Remember, the South Wales steel worker interviewed the day after the referendum? “I voted to leave but I didn’t think it would happen”.

It is very easy for broadcast journalists to find pensioners who simply don’t care about the economic arguments but dig a bit deeper and it is clear that many, if not most, of those of working age feel very insecure about their futures.

Fears for the future are understandable not least as the economic foundations of Brexit seem to change each week. During the referendum campaign Johnson captured headlines by proclaiming that, of course, we could stay in the single market. Other — harder Brexiteers — wanted out from both the single market and the customs union as soon as possible but these more extreme voices were never effectively challenged as the media focussed on the Johnson and Farage roadshows.

Since the referendum the government continues to shift its position, firstly, preparing to abandon the single market and subsequently showing itself willing to abandon the Customs union, preparing to trade if need be on World Trade Organisation rules and tariffs. As this mess unfolds Theresa May’s government becomes increasingly dependent on Donald Trump to seal a quick trade deal with the USA; they will have little choice but to snap up whatever is on offer from Trump. Some are optimistic as Trump opposed the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) as did many progressives did in Europe, but Trump’s objections are on very different grounds. How easy do we think it will for British industry to get tariff free access for high value manufactured goods without us reciprocating by the further opening up our health and public services?

At least 50% of our major businesses feel that Brexit is already having a detrimental effect on the bottom line. Each week we see businesses — from financial services to manufactures — making it clear that they will re-consider their UK bases and future investment programmes if they are left with a ‘hard Brexit’. It is already clear that trading on WTO terms will be a disaster for the UK, making our economy uncompetitive in the global economy. Negotiating trade treaties to replace those we already have access by virtue of EU membership will take years.

So, given the seriousness of these economic concerns is seems extraordinary that John McDonnell is not addressing them. He is failing to articulate a clear commitment to the prioritising of the economy in the Brexit debate.

Many of those Labour MPs who voted to trigger Article 50 argue that there is still time to act as the shape of the final deal becomes clearer, yet in reality they are being lured into fighting on Tory territory. You can’t trust Labour with Brexit will be the continuing rallying call of this government. McDonnell needs to get wise; he can’t campaign for eighteen months on being a better party for Brexit and at the last minute throw up his hands and declare the whole thing is a disaster.

For Labour finding space in the media for an anti or doubtful Brexit message will be hard. This is why Labour’s position needs to be unequivocal and our priorities shouted out long and loud. The Vote on Article 50 was a disaster precisely because it abandoned the one opportunity for Labour to grab serious media time and to make the headlines. It would have allowed McDonnell the become our champion the protection of jobs and living standards from the outset.

Such a stance need not be automatically anti Brexit or against the popular vote. It is possible, we must suppose, that the government may pull off an acceptable deal with Europe even if this seems unlikely. However, there must be a real likelihood that the position we are left with after leaving the European Union is worse than that if we had remained in it. At the end of these negotiations, do we think McDonnell is really brave enough to take on the government, to argue against the very foundations of Brexit if that becomes necessary?

There is another reason why Labour needs to adopt a laser-like focus on the economy and on jobs and trade over time. Many of the electorate seem to have a poor knowledge of basic economic principles. Tim Shipman’s account of the anti European movement and the referendum campaign, _All Out War_, shows how — as the referendum campaign reached its zenith — both campaigns found that their focus groups were un-moved by economic arguments, they simply didn’t understand them. Labour will need to campaign long and hard to effectively inform voters. Education campaigns demand time.

So, whatever the eventual result of the negotiations with the EU Labour must campaign hard now if it is to have any chance of having a serious impact on public opinion. Labour’s ability to take on the Tories in the future will depend on it.

Labour’s position needs to be unequivocal. Labour must be a party prepared to defend jobs and prosperity and prepared to argue against the Brexit deal _if_the deal sells the country short. Labour should be clear now that there must be a second referendum on the final terms of the Brexit deal. May’s ‘take it or leave it vote’ will offer little chance for eleventh hour campaigns or reversals.

Labour’s pitch to voters needs to be blunt. To trade on WTO terms would be to impose a ‘tax’ on each job in the UK. If voters are uncertain about economic arguments they sure as hell understand the notion of tax. Whether you work in manufacturing, hospitality, financial services or technology, trading on WTO terms will make you and your employer less competitive in world markets. The low tax, low protection economy favoured by hard Brexiteers will decimate the public sector.

The policy and campaign positions discussed here are not designed to be anti Brexit, rather they are aimed positioning Labour as the protector of our economy, our jobs and our living standards.

In failing to step up to the mark John McDonnell has effectively gone absent without leave. Until he finds the courage to develop a clear line on Brexit and the economy, Theresa May will continue to dominate and Labour will continue to poll at record lows. Labour’s Leadership is already conceding the future of the post Brexit world to the Tories and the right.

Andy Howell
28th February 2017

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