How Not To Challenge Brexit

The vote on Article 50 saw Labour officially support a visciously reactionary Tory proposal, which it had failed to amend in any way. Corbyn’s official order to vote for an unamended Article 50 undercut any future influence Labour may have on the next steps. Given that voting for a Tory measure was the complaint against Harriet Harman and the front bench in the summer of 2015 when Corbyn gained the support needed to win the leadership, this is more than a mistake. It is to repeat the mistakes of the Blairite past.

The official Labour position was to move amendments to improve the bill which would allow it to support the trigger of Article 50. While a concession was made, and this needs examination, it was not to satisfy Labour. It was to keep Tory M Ps from rebelling and with the exception of Ken Clarke it succeeded. The overall effect, as the hard left Another Europe Is Possible put it, in an accurate observation

“The vote wasn’t close, because Labour voted for it despite losing all its amendments”.

The actual concession was described by AEIP, accurately but not entirely correctly, as “the government agreed that parliament will get a vote on a Brexit deal before it is concluded. This is meaningless, because when this vote happens M Ps will have a gun to their heads. Either they accept the government’s deal or the UK gets no deal and crashes out of the EU anyway”. It is true that the actual vote will be Hobson’s choice, but while May is intending to force a Take It Or Leave it vote, but the negotiations are fraught for dangers for her if Labour gets its act together. However as Labour has voted for a no- amendments Article 50, Corbyn has no basis for doing this. The campaign on the negotiation has no basis for a Labour intervention as the Party voted to abandon its safeguards. The rebels however have a solid basis for objecting to what May is doing.

This is not the case for Labour peers in the Lords who cannot now move safeguards the party lost in the Commons on a Bill that Labour voted for. Labour’s only logical position was to vote against the unadmended Bill as there were no safeguards for what it wanted to see in the negotiations. It was not rocket science what it had to do.

A Corbyn supporter Manuel Cortes, General Secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) put it clearly in the Guardian on 6th February. While Cortes had supported the 3 line whip to put the bill to the vote, it had to be amended. The unamended bill was unacceptable. So as he wrote “If Labour’s amendments fail, then the facts change and our Labour Party must fact that circumstance, do the right thing, and whip our M Ps into voting against an unamended Tory Brexit. If they don’t, M Ps must themselves do the right thing: they must vote against it anyway”. Clive Lewis and 51 other Labour MPs did just that.

Corbyn has put another mark against his suitability as Labour Leader, and Labour’s vote for an unamended right wing bill puts the unions in a double bind. The Tories have shown they can keep their M Ps in line during the attack on union rights which is to come – but while they have effectively eliminated Labour as a force for intervening in the negotiations, the rebels have the potential to become an active force against Theresa May. A Take it Or Leave it vote is something the Tories themselves will have to vote for with a General Election in the offing in 2019. But Labour does not. However Jeremy Corbyn has shown no ability to position himself to oppose the Tories in campaigning against negotiations that can go badly wrong, and this is now the dominant fact of Labour politics. Jeremy Corbyn may yet regret the week in which he marched his troops officially into the Lobbies to support Theresa May.

Trevor Fisher. February 2017

After Article 50

What Christian Wolmar argued for in his article (Corbyn of all people must realise this – Labour MPs must forget the whip and vote against article 50) was valid before Article 50 was passed. Now there is a a new situation where both a referendum and parliament have voted for Brexit, the options must change. The argument for ‘losing in the short term’ to ‘win in the long term’ is weak, since losing in the short term can set off a cycle of defeats that can destroy Labour. The short term and the long term have to be part of the same strategy.

A strategy for the long term cannot be about putting obstacles in the way of Brexit, which would not stop it, but would appear negative and anti democratic. The weak point of the anti-Brexit position is that it lost in 2016, and the opposition can and do tag us as anti – democrats for not accepting the result. To reverse this we need to be the ultra democrats who want more democracy in the terms of a second referendum on whatever deal is being done. The Russian Roulette aspect of the decision of June 23rd was not acceptable. If the deal is bad, it must be opposed. And this is not about Hard or Soft Brexit, as some on the left (including Open Labour) are arguing. There is an issue of principle that separation will be harmful. But this has to be sold to the majority of the people of the UK.

The weak point of the Brexit position is their argument that |June 23rd was the “Will of the People”. Christian is right there was no majority in the UK, and certainly not in Scotland or Northern Ireland, but there was a majority of those who voted. The referendum of June 23rd was deeply flawed, as Christian says, but to say too much about it is looking like being bad losers. It is vital to avoid the trap of repeating the Metropolitan elite view that the beliefs of the people of the English and Welsh suburbs and the decaying old industrial areas can be ignored. That charge, which is true, is UKIPs best calling card. This was the mistake the New Labour- Cameron elite made.

It is also true that the vote may have been advisory to start with, but the government booklet did say it would ‘implement what you decide’. Labour was not committed to that position, but Corbyn Labour has sold that pass. A viable anti Brexit position has to argue that Russian Roulette was not what the Referendum committed the UK to. If there is a bad deal, it must be opposed. The final decision to implement has to be by a second referendum.

To set out this position has to involve more than economic arguments. The last referendum centred on this, and lost. Leavers did not believe them, and the depression did not arrive on time. As the Bank of England Economist Andrew Haldane has accepted, the experts got it wrong. We can and should argue the evil day has only been postponed, but we have to have other arguments. Peace in Europe and living co-operatively with your neighbours are good lines to take.

Above all, we have to address the need for immigration to be controlled. Cameron lost control of immigration, and this is unacceptable. Immigration provides tangible benefits, but immigration is not necessarily to the benefit of the workers, especially unskilled or semi skilled workers, and to gain support means accepting this is the case. The arguments of Marx on the ‘reserve army of labour’ are true, and immigration must not mean a cheap labour policy. We need to learn from the Wilson government of 1968 on how to address immigration. And stop not talking about the topic.

The case for a second referendum has to be built on Labour’s 2016 position, stay in to reform the EU, and the reforms which are now overdue should be spelt out in a developing anti-Brexit campaign. But the Corbyn Labour Party is likely to be a major problem for developing an anti-Brexit Movement. In Stoke this weekend the line being put out in the Central seat by -election under Gareth Snell’s name was”Gareth will deliver a Brexit that works for the Potteries” and in note for canvassers “Gareth and the other Stoke Labour M Ps will vote through Brexit in parliament”.If this is the actual line then any anti-brexit campaign will find itself having to fight Corbyn Labour and will be lining up with the Article 50 rebels across the political spectrum. Not a prospect to embrace lightly.

Trevor Fisher, 6th February 2017

Stoke Central and the Labour Party

I do not come from Stoke and I don’t live there. I have holidayed there and snap up oatcakes whenever I find a good supplier in London. But, just to be clear, I have no specialised knowledge of the politics of the area and wouldn’t deign to advise locals on how, on any matters of detail, their political affairs should be conducted.

I had heard Stoke Central spoken of as “quintessentially Labour”, “solidly Labour” and being suspicious of the value of such generalisations I looked as some raw data about election results in Stoke Central. The first election after the boundary changes that created the constituency was in 1950. So I looked at the general election results from 1950 to 2015. What I found is shown in the table on the below. (The second column shows Labour’s percentage of the vote.)


The figures seemed to me to tell a rather stark story. This was a constituency which in 1950 had more than 5 in 10 of the electorate turning out to vote for the Labour Party. Majorities like that can be the basis for measures to bring about deep social change. 

But, as you run your eyes down the columns some rather obvious and rather alarming trends are clearly visible.

By 1970 support among the electorate had fallen from 5 in 10 to just over 3 in 10. There was a minor surge in the Thatcher years leading to the 1997 election which brought the Labour Party led by Tony Blair to power. Labour then peaked at 41.6% of the electorate. The decline from that point was dramatic. During the Blair/Brown years that support fell from just over 41.6% to 20.6% – a fall of more than 50%. That is the true story of Labour’s hollowing out in cities like Stoke and whatever Jeremy Corbyn’s faults this was clearly not of his making.




By 2015 Labour support among the electorate as a whole had fallen to below 20% i.e. less than 2 in 10 of the electorate were sufficiently motivated to turn out to put their cross by the name of the Labour candidate.

When this is set in the broader context of the problems and decline of social democratic parties across Europe and even the crisis in support for liberal values there are clearly good reasons to worry about the position in which Labour finds itself.

I cannot advise to members of the Stoke Central party on anything involving local matters of detail. All I would say is that a situation of such a historically low support base among the electorate demands reflection and that any sort of self-congratulatory optimism is almost certainly highly inappropriate. Deep social change is never going to take place on the basis of 20% support among the electorate, even if candidates supporting such change are elected. The obstacles to bring about such change are so great that nothing less than a solid base of support of more than 50% of the electorate is going to be sufficient. Winning elections is obviously important but if it is regarded as the most important duty of a political party (as opposed to sorting out what it actually stands for) then it is difficult to see how enduring changes are likely to result. Labour activists in Stoke Central, like Labour activists everywhere, need to take a long hard look at their support base in the general population. 

David Pavett, !st February 2017

Corbyn of all people must realise this – Labour MPs must forget the whip and vote against article 50

Jeremy Corbyn has confirmed he will impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs to vote for the enactment of article 50. That would be disastrous both in the short term, as it will lead to resignations from the frontbench and, more important for the future credibility of the party. It will align Labour with a dangerous, Tory-driven hard Brexit which threatens to wreck the economy.

The court case decision to give parliament a say over the enactment of article 50 should be an opportunity for Labour to demonstrate a clear way forward. We should be saying that because Brexit is bad for Britain we will put whatever obstacles we can in its way. We may lose out in the short term, but we will win in the longer term.

Corbyn said that the will of the British people must be respected. However, this “will” was expressed by 52 per cent of the 72 per cent who voted seven months ago. Apart from the nonsense about £350m per week for the NHS, which probably most people were too sensible to believe, voters were told by many Brexit supporters that a vote for Out did not mean that Britain would leave the single market. Now it appears that it does.

This raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the referendum. In any case, as many constitutional experts have pointed out, the referendum was advisory, not mandatory. The idea that MPs have to slavishly follow the result of the referendum, whatever it entails, is a nonsense. Theresa May has virtually admitted that. Given a choice between controlling immigration or boosting the economy, she has plumped for the former. If that had been explained to people before the referendum, the result may well have been different. People do not generally vote to make themselves poorer.

Yet, Corbyn is now asking MPs to do precisely that, contradicting the manifesto on which they stood in 2015. It said: “The economic case for membership of the EU is overwhelming. Over three million of our jobs are linked to trade with the economic union, and almost half our trade and foreign investment comes from the EU”. So what are our MPs supposed to tell those people when they lose their jobs and come to their surgeries?

That is the key point. Corbyn’s policy is short-term pragmatism when what we need is long-term vision.

Brexit will go wrong and we need to show that we were on the side of the people who will suffer the economic consequences of that debacle. Remember, too, that we will not, of course, get any credit in the unlikely – I would say impossible – event that things go right with Brexit. We are the Opposition; we should oppose.

As Phil Kelly, a fellow Islington North Labour party member wrote in an open letter to Corbyn on Facebook today, “we don’t say ‘we accept the result’ of elections when we lose. We fight against harmful government policies even when these have been in other parties’ manifestos”.

Keir Starmer indicated at my Islington North general committee meeting last week that Labour’s support for the unachievable policy of “full access to the market, except for immigration” is because we need to listen to our supporters who voted Leave. There is a risk this is seen as cynical stance towards the electorate.

Corbyn cannot legitimately ask his MPs to support a motion that goes against their conscience given that 80 per cent supported Remain. After all, was it not his conscience that made Corbyn vote against the Labour whip 428 times before he became leader?

This article first appeared on the Labour List Website.

Christian Wolmar was the Labour candidate in last year’s Richmond Park by-election and is a member of Islington North CLP.

How Not To Win an Election

The only way for a divided party to win an election is if the other main contender for government is even more divided. Banking on that would clearly be the strategy of an idiot. Given that, the events of Tuesday 10th January are a cause for concern. We all know that the media is ever ready to pounce as soon as the Labour leader says anything which could be construed as indicating confusion and difference within Labour. There is therefore an obvious onus on the leadership to be very careful about the coordination of how Labour’s messages are put over. Tuesday 10th was not, in that respect, a good day.

On Monday 9th January we had publicity notices telling us that Jeremy Corbyn was going to say, on Tuesday afternoon, that it was not “wedded to free movement”. This sounded welcome in that it would bring him into line without what several Shadow Cabinet colleagues (with the notable exception of Diane Abbott) have been saying on the matter. It sounded like a step towards a more unified presentation.

On Tuesday morning Jeremy Corbyn responded to Laura Kuensberg’s persistent questioning as to whether Labour was wedded to free movement or not by saying “Let’s see what comes out of the negotiations”. He explained that in his view the real problem was not immigration but the way immigration was exploited by unscrupulous employers. This suggested Labour has plan for tackling the problem without immigration controls.

Then Corbyn announced his views on a cap on top salaries. This was something for which there had apparently been no preparation and about which it seemed that his Shadow Cabinet colleagues had not been briefed, let alone involved in a discussion of the pros and cons of such a policy. Of course the media exploited and distorted what was said but it is difficult to deny they it had been offered a nugget in the form of half-baked and undiscussed ideas being promoted by the party leader.

It was in this context that an interview with Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams (DA) by Martha Carney (MC) reproduced below took place on the BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme on 10th January. It followed an interview with tax specialist and ex-Corbyn advisor Richard Murphy. In his interview Murphy explained why Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion of a wages cap limiting higher wages to no more than ten times the lowest wage was “unworkable”.  Richard Murphy ended by saying that Jeremy Corbyn was not listening to his economic advisers and that he needed to change tack. The interview with Debbie Abrahams followed directly after the one with Richard Murphy.

MC: So he needs to change tack.

DA: Well first of all what Jeremy said this morning was in the context of discussion around inequality and his focus was very much on that and if you think the ratio between top executives and the average earner is 129 to 1, I think he has hit on a really important issue.

MC: Which Richard Murphy did acknowledge, didn’t he?


MC: He just said that the means being suggested, the earnings cap, simply isn’t workable.

DA: Well, again, if you listen to the whole interview, what he also said was that this is in the context of our policy development programme. He did say that this was a personal view but we are focused as a party around delivering a strong economy which is based on evidence. So all the points that your previous speaker was saying is something that we would wish to take into account.

MC: You said it’s a personal view by Jeremy Corbyn. Should we deduce from that that you don’t agree with an earnings cap?

DA: I have in all of my professional life focused on inequality as a public health consultant and now in my role as an MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

MC: Sure, you’ve explained how important you think the issue is but it’s just a question of how you address it. What is your own view on the earnings cap?

DA: My only view is that we have a position where more working people are living in poverty than in our history. One in eight working people is living in poverty. Three out of four children living in poverty are from working homes and I think this is absolutely unacceptable. I can accept and agree with him about that we have to change. How we do that and whether than means, for example, we already have a high earnings pay cap for the public sector, how we do that should be based and driven on evidence.

MC: And is the evidence there at the moment for an earnings cap?

DA: Again, I’m not an economist but I think with the panel of people that Jeremy and the treasury team have got together we have a wealth of evidence that will drive that.

MC: But one of the people said that the advisers were not being listened to.

DA: Well, we haven’t concluded our policy development programme to be fair Martha. And again, if you look at the dire state of productivity which drives earnings the government has had nothing to say. Nothing to say in terms of making sure that we have a more equal society. All of their tax and spending measures have made it worse and have created an additional divide between top earners and the least wealthy. And this is completely unacceptable.

MC: I understand how passionately you feel about inequality. But it’s quite an important thing isn’t it? The leader of your party has announced that he what he wants to see is an earnings cap, you have an economic-related portfolio in the Shadow Cabinet, but you seem unable to give your support to this policy.

DA: It isn’t a policy Martha. He said it in the context of policy development. He said it should be something that we looked at and of course we should look at it. But everything we do finally say is policy driven should be based on evidence and I know that  Jeremy is committed to that as well.

MC: Let’s move on to his speech this afternoon which is on Brexit because there does seem to be a lack of clarity on that as well.

DA: He hasn’t given it yet so there can’t be a lack of clarity on something that hasn’t been given!

MC: Except that he has been giving a number of interviews himself this morning about it. He said this morning “We’re not saying that anyone could not come in” so in other words he doesn’t believe in migration controls, in his own words.

DA: Again, I think if we want to have a strong economy we need to first of all recognise the important contribution that migration makes to that economy. Two billion a year is the net plus to the economy as a result of our migrant workforce. And he also, and again I feel very strongly about this as well, is fed up with up with the vilification of migrants from some very irresponsible sections of the media and doesn’t want to go down that route. However, we need to recognise ….

MC: A number of people voted for Brexit because they were worried about levels of immigration. Do you think there should be some form of control once we leave the European Union?

DA: Again, and I would say to this, and I have said it in previous interviews as well, the vote on Brexit was about should we stay in or out of the EU people voted to leave and we accept and respect that. However, they did not vote on immigration. If we listen to some of the very excellent interviews and programmes you had on Radio 4 last week, you show that there is a very complex reason and inequality is one of the reasons people are fed up. In my area in the north of England we have not benefited from the very modest growth that we’ve had across the country. And then the threat to their jobs, we need to make sure that the irresponsible employment agencies recruiting solely from abroad are stopped and we intend to do that.

MC: Debbie Abrahams, thank you for talking to us.

Debbie Abrahams is not a fool. Also, it is not a matter of her performance standing out among political interviews as particularly poor. On the contrary her interview is what many have come to expect from politicians: a complete failure to be honest and straightforward. She knew that she was side-stepping the questions while pretending to answer them. Martha Carney was not fooled by these evasions and tried to steer her to a clear answer. More importantly, virtually no one likely to listen to such an interview would have been fooled. Debbie Abrahams’ responses were a standard exercise in political evasion. Whatever else might be said about this no one could reasonably describe it as “honest and straightforward” politics.

It has to be asked what the leader of the party is doing expressing personal opinions about key matters rather than stating party policy or describing the moves to develop such a policy? I hope that Shadow Cabinet members are made aware of how transparent the prevarications are in interviews such as the above. They should collectively decide (1) to keep their personal musings to themselves or contribute their ideas through the party’s policy process, (2) to agree to a common line on matters of high media and public interest and (3) that they should make every effort to present Labour’s views, or the lack of them, in an honest and straightforward manner and that (4) this all applies to the leader as much as any other Shadow Cabinet member. It is disturbing that it should even be necessary to say such things which are so blindingly obvious.

Just after writing the above, my attention was drawn to yet another policy gaff in the latest sequence of gaffs. A member of the Corbyn team made a statement to the press about NATO “ecalation of tensions” with respect to Estonia. This was done without consulting Nia Griffiths the Shadow Defence Secretary who made it clear that she was very angry about being by-passed in that way. It was briefings like this which many complained of when the mass Shadow Cabinet resignations took place last July. It seems that the necessity for a collegiate manner of working has still not been understood.

David Pavett

This article was first published on the Left Futures website.



The by-elections in this Parliament are four or five party contests

Late last year I argued on this site that the progressive alliance strategy favoured by Compass might work in by elections, but not in general elections. Afterwards I suggested that Brexit dominates British politics. Poll data is starting to indicate people vote for their Referendum position – and a recent poll suggested only 15% of Leavers were prepared to vote Labour. Put these two factors together with recent by-elections and the run up to the Copeland by election becomes a tale of five parties.

Tim Farron argued after the Witney by election on October 20th  that the Liberals were back, restoring three party politics.

The Richmond by-election seemed to back this but as UKIP stood down and backed the Tory Candidate, Goldsmith only nominally being independent, as the Greens stood down and backed the Lib Dems, this was three party politics by proxy. In the event the progressives backed the Lib Dems, Labour voters also went with the Lib Dems, and the reactionaries showed they could form their own tactical alliances

Witney offered more pointers to the new world of five party politics in England though as turnout dropped from 73.3% to 46.8% there has to be caution. But with the Greens and UKIP doing badly on October 20th – factors which may have helped the Richmond decisions – and losing their deposits, Labour losing half its vote and the Lib Dems having a 23.4% swing, Farron looked to be correct, and to be reinforced by Richmond.

However both Richmond and Witney were Remain seats in the referendum, though Witney only by 53.5% to 45.4% and a pro Brexit Tory held the seat, while the same did not happen in the much stronger Remain seat of Richmond.

The role of Brexit has yet to be tried in a strong Leave seat. But Copeland and now Stoke are just such a seats.

In Copeland 62% of those who voted going for Leave, and this poses obvious problems for Labour. Particularly if it tries to trim towards Brexit.

However the big issues are for UKIP or the Lib Dems. For the Lib Dems, Copeland looks like a lost deposit. Their vote dropped from 4,365 in 2010 to 1,368 in 2015. No surge in a Leave constituency is likely for a Remain party, and a bad result could destabilise Farron in his own neighbouring seat. The Greens I regard as electorally irrelevant, a party that only exists to pay over lost deposits. They rose from 389 to 1,179 at the general elections, but there is nothing in Copeland for them but paying more money to HM Treasury.

UKIP faces the most interesting problems. While the Lib Dems are pretty much dead in Copeland, UKIP with 3rd place and 6,148 votes is on the horns of a dilemma. If they don’t stand and back the Tories – and the Tories might well have a Leave candidate – this raises the issue of what the point is of UKIP?  While we mull over that question, the issue for Labour is how to combat its appeal to some Labour voters.

Paul Nuttall has made a good start as leader, and his stance of taking Labour votes and challenging for their seats is a sound one, with Copeland and Stoke offering a couple of tantalising chances of doing just that, and perhaps overtaking the Tories to take the seat. Long odds but not impossible if the Tories stay split over Europe.

Certainly it would be difficult for UKIP to keep standing aside in by elections. They did badly in Witney, and stood down in Batley and Richmond as these were unusual elections. But can they afford to stand down in Copeland? This a seat they will find challenging. But can they afford to duck the challenge?

What is clear is that the by-election scene is not a 3 party race. Four and even five parties are in the frame, if we give the Greens a place. For Copeland, the scene is particularly confusing, but this is a Britexit seat and the progressive parties are on the back foot. If the Greens decide not to stand – which could threaten their future, making three elections in a row they have not fought – then we have a four party race. How that plays out will be tortuous, and imponderable. All that can be said is that Farron is wrong. We are not back to three party politics.

Trevor Fisher

This article was first published in Labour Uncut

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