Friday, December 07, 2007

Brown, Blair .. and Clinton

With one bound, he could be free

Gordon Brown must publicly break with Blair's US-inspired techniques of fundraising and party-bashing
Ian Williams

Guardian Comment is Free
December 6, 2007 7:00 PM | Printable version

Poor Gordon Brown. With the latest contribution-laundering scandal, he is carrying the can for Tony Blair's over-enthusiastic fundraising. But there is, in fact, someone else to take the blame.

The New Labour project has always involved a slavish emulation of American models, and in this case Bill Clinton can take a bow. He really pioneered how to make a left-of-centre party conservative despite its members and supporters.

Both Blair and Brown were totally bowled over by Clinton's ability to win elections when the then-inseparable pair visited the US while John Smith was still the apparently healthy and eminently elected leader of the opposition.

As Blair and Clinton jointly pioneered the "third way" as a means of passing off conservative policies as modernisation of reformist parties, Clinton showed Blair the way. Fairly sure they had nowhere else to go, Clinton scorned the Democratic party's hardcore electoral base of unionised workers and minorities, deriding them as "special interests". He could do so largely because he ran away with much of the old Republican funding base, attracting donors from Wall Street.

Oh, those were the best of days for the real special interest groups, who came bearing cheques. A quick drop in the hat from America's biggest banana importer brought a Worlad Trade Organisation case against the EU and the West Indian banana producers. A small fundraiser from Cuban-American exiled sugar barons ensured that there would be tighter embargoes against Castro, and continuing tariffs against developing-world sugar. For a sufficient fee, a night in the White House was the reward.

With none of the ideological baggage of the new Republicans, Clinton's policies were up for sale - and all that was without a House of Lords to rent or lease!

On the other hand, it was easier for Clinton than for Blair because the Democratic party was already on the way to being a PO box for corporate donors, helped because in the US's rigid two-party system, most Democratic voters felt they had nowhere else to go.

Blair and New Labour had a bigger challenge, the comparative advantages of saleable peerages notwithstanding. The unions founded the Labour party and, mostly, paid for it. It had a membership-based structure, policy conferences and a national executive committee. But Blair rose to the occasion.

The unions became special interests; then we had peerages (a bow to Lloyd George) dodgy loans, proxy donors and the assiduous courting of business interests, not to mention a succession of funders who seem to think it would be good for Israel to fund Blair. This was Blair's creative adaptation of Clintonian funding principles.

The structure of the party was ignored or dismantled, and membership was converted from being actively concerned in policy formation and candidate selection to being part of a leader's fan club run by a coterie of New Labour infiltrators who in truth probably had a smaller support base than did Militant of old. Many ordinary members took the hint and left.

One should point out that, just as in the primary elections in the US, (only millionaires or billionaire-backed candidates need apply). The Labour party's own leadership elections seem to have been the chink through which the real special interests grabbed Blair by the wallet, confident that his heart and mind would follow. The now ennobled Lord Levy helped bankroll his campaign for that as well.

The US is not always a bad example to follow, but in this case it is disastrous and undemocratic. American politicians follow money more than the voters. So far in this election cycle, one in 600 US voters donated the minimum $200 or more that candidates have to declare. And you can be sure that most of the money came from far, far fewer voters than that. The leading contenders have already spent nearly $100m each - and that is just on the party primaries, not the general election. And voters will stay away in droves as they are increasingly doing in Britain.

Gordon Brown can extricate himself in one bound: disavow Blair's and Clinton's political and financial heritage and rebuild his party as one based on an active membership representing working people. That is, after all, a large part of the reason why so many were happy to see him take over from Blair of Baghdad.

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