Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Base Instincts

Comment is Free
May 5 2008
Ian Williams

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed New Labour functionaries have been popping over to the United States for inspiration since the very beginning of the Blair project.

Indeed even before he became leader, Tony Blair visited New York in search of inspiration from the Clintons. When I suggested that Bill Clinton would sell his grandmother in the streets to get votes and donations, his answer was: "He wins elections."

Up to a point. Labour's debacle in the British local elections last week offers an opportunity to reverse the balance of trade in political advice. Democrats in the US can take a lesson from it.

In fact, it is now clear that New Labour has been a political neutron bomb that has destroyed the party while electing its leader. Brown may carry the can, but it was the cumulative disastrous effect of years of Blair's emulation of Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) that made it possible. Blair saw what Clinton was doing, and saw that it was good. He went home to produce a party without principles, dependent on wealthy donors. New Labour's bureaucratic weed killer withered Labour's grassroots organisation so that the leadership could be free of its membership's importunate reminders of what it was elected for. As local organisations were stripped of power, alienated members left like passengers from the Titanic, not least because they could see the iceberg toward which the captain and his officers were serenely steering.

Like the Clintons, Blair and New Labour took their traditional base for granted, assuming that tribal loyalties, and the absence of a reasonably humane alternative, would keep the voter banks of the working families delivering for them.

Inspired by the Clinton example, Blair cultivated wealthy donors so that he could avoid having to listen to what his guru used to call "special interest groups", like the unions which had set up the party and bankrolled it for most of its history. He also ignored the members, whose voice on every issue from selection of candidates to determination of policy was watered down.

Blair's desperate Clintonesque attempts to raise funds were the scandals that undermined Labour's claim to the high ground. However, the authoritarian, top-down leadership built by Blair, in emulation of the DLC, was convinced that it knew better than its rank-and-file members.

The leadership stuck to policies, ranging from the "private finance initiative", which quasi-privatised state functions on a no-risk, high-profit basis, to abolishing student grants, and most recently the proposed abolition of the lowest 10% income-tax band, despite most of its members' opposition.

Sadly, Brown was fixed on these policies, perhaps more so than Blair, who, like the Clintons, was somewhat flexible on policy issues as long as he personally won elections. Under the circumstances, it has hardly surprising that the party's traditional voters, faced with yet another boot in the testicles from the party that purported to represent them, deserted Brown last week.

So what is the lesson for Democrats stuck in the marathon synchronised seppuku that the primary has become? Simply that Barack Obama is their best hope. There are many who are justifiably agnostic about Obama's policies, about which he has been as vague as the other candidates. However, on at least one issue he has been consistently in advance of Hillary Clinton, and that has been on grassroots mobilisation - not just for fundraising, but getting out the vote.

It is not just his own efforts. Organisations like MoveOn.org have responded to their members' votes and steered money his way. His campaign has inspired huge numbers of young people who had never bothered voting to register and campaign.

It is true that his success has bred increasing amounts of corporate money, but Clinton never had any other kind.

In keeping with what her husband and the DLC had done to the party as a whole, her campaign has relied on big donors while neglecting grassroots campaigning. Her only reason for staying in the race now is that she hopes to suborn the convention by persuading the unelected superdelegates to overturn the actual balloting for elected delegates.

Her chosen weapon is swift-boating Obama in the way that the Republican's racist slime factory will eventually do in the general election, regardless of the damage she is causing the party if he becomes the Democratic candidate.

There is no need to be dewy-eyed. People who want to reverse the baleful effects of the Reagan revolution have to expand those grassroots initiatives, and keep the Democratic candidates' feet to the fire to make sure they never again take their voter base for granted.

And who knows, maybe Brown and the Labour party may learn the same lesson?

For more blogs on the US elections, click here.

For more US election coverage, click here.

For more Cif blogs about the London elections, click here.

Click here for further Guardian coverage of the mayoral race and here for the local elections.

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