Skip navigation.

Learning from America

David Lammy

 

Can we move on from the cautious pragmatism of the 1990s, and break free from the politics of control? The lessons from America are that we can and we must.

 

As the Presidential campaign rumbles on in the United States, the post-mortems from the primary season are already taking place. What can be learned from an enthralling contest between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton? What lessons does the remarkable comeback from John McCain hold? These are far from academic. We may not have a vote in this election, but we can certainly learn from it. And after a series of setbacks this year – in London, Crewe and Nantwich, Henley and most recently in Glasgow East – the question is how to reinvigorate progressive Britain after three terms in office.

The temptation is for the sceptics to argue that there are no lessons. It is, of course, a legitimate question to ask what Crewe and Camden have in common with one another, let alone with Kentucky and Kansas. Can we really compare a local election and a by-election, let alone a Presidential campaign that has lasted a year already? Others might say that the characters involved are too unique for any real lessons to be learned. Understandably they might ask: how many people are there like either McCain or Obama? McCain is an American war hero. Obama’s oratory sets him apart from any other American politician of his generation. Neither of these things can easily be repeated: the lesson that we need more inspiring politicians doesn’t seem to take us very far. But rather than focus on the peculiarities of the two men, there remains an opportunity to learn from their campaigns.

Equally unhelpful is the tendency to draw the wrong conclusions. Again understandably, much has been made of the symbolism of the Democratic contest: the young black man versus the woman who had waited and worked for this for years; race equality versus gender equality. For many, the primary season become nothing more – or less – than a choice between two different ways of making history, rather than a battle of ideas. There are, of course, elements of truth in all of this. The success of an African American is unique – and I hope will inspire a new generation of young people to reconsider politics in both the US and here in Britain. And for all the bruising debates on the campaign trail, Obama and Clinton agree on more than they disagree in policy terms.

Yet despite some of the scepticism – and the tendency to focus on the symbols and personalities – there are deeper lessons to be learnt. After all, few people would have predicted that McCain, let alone Obama would win the nominations of their parties. When Obama began his campaign, he lacked many of his opponents’ key assets. Clinton could claim an advantage through her name recognition, her networks in the Democratic Party and the media, her access to big financial donors, her experience – and of course the track record that she and Bill had developed over twenty-five years in frontline politics. Yet Obama still won.

For his part, John McCain won after bringing his own campaign back from the brink. A year before his eventual victory, McCain was running out of momentum and money. He didn’t have Mitt Romney’s fundraising, Mike Huckabee’s populism, or Rudy Giuliani’s status as the front runner. And yet, against the odds, he is the Republican nominee. This means something – not just for American politics but for Britain too. Because when you look back over the past half a century, you can see the way in which American and British politics spur one another on. The way in which common cultural and economic trends suddenly make one way of doing politics seem very old-fashioned very quickly.

In the 1960s the civil rights movement influenced the passing of the Race Relations Acts, and in the Northern Ireland the civil rights movement for the Catholic minority was consciously modelled on the US experience. In the 80s, Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher found common cause, not just in foreign policy, but in the free-market economics that they both believed in. And their political projects drew ideas and confidence from one another. In the 1990s, the truth was that New Labour was never entirely new. It was preceded by the New Democrat framework in America that was put together by people like Al From at the Democratic Leadership Council. It was at the heart of Bill Clinton’s campaign for office in 1991 and 92. So many of the policies from that period – welfare to work, tax credits and Sure Start to name just three – have their origins in the States. Many of our best policies in fact. And even as recently as this year, Boris Johnson has sought to learn the lessons from successive mayors in New York, drawing on the zero tolerance policing introduced by Rudy Giuliani and then Mayor Bloomberg.

Washingtonand Westminster may be over three thousand miles apart, but the truth is they often have more in common than we think. And rather than shy away from comparisons, I think it is right that we, as people interested in the future of politics, see what there is to be learnt and applied here, albeit in a different context. My view is that we are seeing a new way of doing politics in America that has the seeds of some real changes in Britain too. I draw three big lessons.

 

Who does politics

The first is an issue about who does politics. Putting their unique personal stories aside, the feature that both McCain and Obama share is that they both came from outside the political establishment. Both men represent a reaction to the political language and methods that have come to dominate politics since the 1990s.

John McCain has styled himself against the beltway elite. His political career has been founded on maintaining an outsider’s perspective on Washington and the way it relates to people – whether that is campaign reform or his famous town-hall meetings. Similarly, Barack Obama makes a virtue of his recent arrival on the national stage – something people once regarded as a weakness. Like McCain, Obama has in many ways run against Washington at the same time as running for it. While Clinton’s candidacy was based on her ability to understand the rules of the political game, Obama has promised to change them – in the way he raised money, the way he campaigned, the way he brought new people into the political process.

Clearly, there is something about these two outsider candidates that connects with people, whether that is with rural communities in Iowa, casino workers in Nevada or students in Wisconsin. Who does politics matters. Switch back to Crewe and Nantwich and the same lesson arises. The ‘Tory toff’ stunt, which began as a practical joke and mutated into a campaign theme, did pick up on something: people do feel that politicians are out of touch with their everyday lives. As with the US, people here feel that Westminster is made up of a small elite that spends more time talking to itself than the rest of the country – and in a coded and managerial language that only it understands. But the real problem with the ‘toff’ campaign was that it picked the wrong target. The issue is the political class, not the upper class.

Parliament’s greatest strength has always been its ability to draw upon the rich tapestry of people’s own lives and experiences, spanning every social class as well as a range of very different personal experiences. The Labour Party, which emerged from the union movement, brought manual workers and tradesmen to Westminster to speak for people’s everyday concerns and struggles – the advocates who helped build a consensus around the establishment of a welfare state. Teachers, social workers and miners joined them in Parliament, speaking to the values of public service; debate on both sides of the House benefiting from the doctors, lawyers and businessmen and women.

The danger, in a world where Westminster has created its own industry of think-tanks, lobbying firms, PR agencies and media outlets, is that we lose the rich diversity to a generation of politicians who have emerged not from the professions, the business community or the unions but from within Westminster itself.

This trend is dangerous because people struggle to find the connections with this political class that seems to operate in its own world, with its own language and set of preoccupations. The result is that people begin to channel their efforts into other spheres of politics where they feel they will be listened to. At best this is single issue campaigns, whether that be climate change, poverty action groups, or human rights. But at worst, people drift away from the managerial mainstream to the extremist fringes of politics. This is where people are offered simple answers to the problems they see around them – whether it is the BNP, or extremists using religion as a way presenting the world in black and white, good and evil.

A distant political class is dangerous for a second reason. If parliament becomes filled with an elite that hasn’t seen and experienced and lived the full mosaic of life, will suffer from the blind spots that comes with. Any organisation that is too homogeneous makes poor decisions: because it has a narrow field of experience, knowledge and perspectives to draw upon – which is why we have multi-disciplinary teams in all walks of life, from the NHS to NASA, and why businesses look to bring in people who think differently and draw on different ideas.

The same applies to our politics. We need people who have different experience to bring to bear on problems. Over the last few years, there have been more attempts to draw on the views of people outside the Westminster bubble, including new forms of public consultation. But the real breakthrough will come when Westminster itself looks, feels and works differently as well. We need to find ways to break open politics beyond the usual suspects. I believe that, so far, we have been far too cautious in finding new ways to lower the barriers to involvement in politics itself. That needs to change.

We should be starting early, involving young people in politics not through talking shops that can seem patronising, but through ideas like young mayors who have real budgets to spend in local areas, as they have done in Lewisham. We should be closing the gap between the public and our Party by experimenting with open primaries, so carrying a Labour membership card in your wallet isn’t the ‘be all and end of all’ of whether you take part. As the Party’s finances recover, we should be doing everything we can to make sure that the financial costs of running for Parliament are not a form of selection by the back door, whether that means bursary schemes, loans or other mechanisms. And, indeed, we should give back the power to political parties so that they can take positive action to make parliament more representative of the ethnic diversity of modern Britain.

We should be creating more opportunities for political talents to emerge, which do not depend on the patronage of a few people at the top of a party. In the US, it is striking that this is the first election for nearly fifty years in which both nominees are sitting Senators. That gives you an idea of the pluralism and different routes to office in American politics, with governors, Senators and Congressmen and women.

As such, I want to see more local areas elect their own mayors, creating new ways for people to make a difference and make their name. We also need new ways for ordinary people to make their voice heard in Westminster. Five years ago around a million people marched in London against the war in Iraq. And whatever people’s views about the war itself, we need to recognise that people need somewhere to channel their views and concerns – so more direct democracy and new forms of accountability need to be part of the mix.

Clearly there will be disagreement with some of these specific ideas. But I believe the point is a bigger one than any particular recommendation. Whatever the policy mechanisms we use, politics – and especially progressive politics – cannot assume people’s trust. It has to earn it, by becoming as open, as inclusive and as representative of the wider public as it can.

 

Political strategy

The second lesson I draw from the US is one of political strategy. Because the last year is a clear illustration that the political messages and methods of the 1990s are beginning to look very tired and out of date.

What is striking about both of the nominees in the US is their refusal to be bound by artificial ideas about how to determine their policies. McCain champions immigration reform, despite his party’s hostility to it. He pushes the Republicans on climate change, despite the scepticism on the American Right about the existence of climate change at all, let alone our ability to stop it. And for the Democrats, Obama says he is prepared to open up a dialogue with Iran – something that many candidates would not be prepared to say, even if they believed it to be the right idea in theory.

In most Presidential elections, it would be very unlikely to have one candidate taking what look like big risks – here, we have two candidates doing just that. Importantly, the public is gravitating towards two candidates who show less interest than the others in the politics of calculation. Of course that still goes on – and probably always will – but something important is happening. Here we have two nominees who are far more likely to define their politics against the challenges they face – climate change, mass migration, a war-torn Middle East – not the old adages about ‘tough on national security’ Democrats or ‘no go areas’ for Republicans. America is benefiting from two politicians who are opening up debate around important issues, not closing it down.

Yet over the last decade both New Labour and the New Democrats got into the habit of defining themselves through what they were against rather than what they were for. The formula has become a familiar one: not the Old Left, not the New Right, but New Labour. Some of that was political pragmatism, and some of it was a genuine search for new ideas after the lows of the 1980s. But the use of triangulation, of defining yourself against your own party, of a managerial language which drains the values from policy also became a habit which alienated people in the Party and left the public disorientated.

Too often the good things done in government sound too much like a list of bullet points and not enough like a mission to change society. The risk is that our natural supporters become alienated from a party that looks like it has become part of the establishment. If anyone doubts this, they need only have witnessed pensioners travelling to polling stations with Freedom Passes in London in May this year, only to vote against the party and the mayor that created them. That only happens when we fail to explain to people that free travel is founded on the idea of decent treatment for older people in society, who have made their contribution and deserve better. In 2008 we need to be much clearer about the kind of society that we want to create. The narrative of the last ten years – a strong economy and strong public services – needs another ingredient: a good society.

That means a planet that is liveable for our children and their children. Housing conditions that you would expect to see in the fifth richest country in the world, and a flourishing public realm with quality public spaces for people to enjoy. It means stronger social bonds in communities – between different generations and different cultures. It means providing a better quality of life for adults with busy working lives and more help for parents having children for the first time, and a safer, more fulfilling childhood for children who face greater commercial pressures than ever. And it means giving more structure and new opportunities for young people wondering what the future holds for them, in life and in work. These are issues which go to the very heart of inequality, but which will never be addressed by a new round of public service reform or even changes to tax credits. They are about the places where the social, the personal and the political all meet. And the truth is also this: they are issues that only a Labour government can address.

A new breed of Tories now speaks the language of society and of social responsibility – in ways that we should have been doing. But the reality is that Thatcherism has imprisoned the right, leaving it incapable of questioning the market, unable to get past its hostility to the state and convinced that we must choose between a flourishing society or an active state.

Our opportunity is to put the collectivism that is in the DNA of our Party centre stage. To say that a good society comes from decent treatment of others, from collective decision-making. Because our collectivism means that we can do politics differently, whether that is putting social considerations above those of the market, from carbon emissions to flexible working, or whether it is expanding the frontiers of the welfare state into more help for parents, more spaces to play for children and the right to an apprenticeship for young people.

But we can do these things only when we come together as a society. Labour is now a century old; New Labour is twenty years old. The question now is: what comes next? The answer lies in starting with a vision of society, not the spectre of the 1980s and the caution that comes with. It also lies in a different form of public conversation: one in which people feel comfortable raising issues which have no easy answers; which can’t be solved by a three point plan that will be rolled out by next week. That is painfully absent from our political landscape, in a world of 24-hour news and the temptation for a new initiative to be announced each week – but is something we need more than ever.

 

Involving people

And if we need new people doing politics, and new ways of creating policy, then we also need to learn a third lesson from the US: we need to reinvent the way we create political movements. For all its many achievements, I think it is wrong to describe New Labour as a movement that filtered down to ordinary people on the ground. We need to start rebuilding our own progressive coalition from the bottom up.

Look at the race in the US and of course there are the soaring speeches and the slick adverts. But there is much more here than meets the eye. For one, the way the race has been funded has re-written the rulebook. Every four years, the world watches Presidential candidates court the big financial donors in their parties and do deals with powerful interest groups. But now it shakes its head in disbelief that nearly 1.5 million individuals have contributed to Barack Obama – some 47 per cent of whose campaign money has come from donations smaller than $200.

This turns politics on its head. Rather than feeling shut out, people feel they have a stake in the campaign. Just think what that could mean for us here in Britain. If every Labour member gave just £10, the Party would raise £2m. What a contrast that could be to Ashcroft bankrolling the Tories into the next election.

In turn, the Obama campaign has committed serious resources into grassroots organisations, spurring countless young people to take part for the first time. It has put together a web strategy premised on connecting activists and supporters to one another, not just pushing out tightly controlled messages from campaign HQ. Many of the current Obama campaign cut their teeth on the Howard Dean campaign in 2004 – and learnt some important lessons (Trippi, 2004; Chadwick, 2006). Now, in the US, the web is being used to connect people with politics again – at a time when people are using it to circumvent politics in the UK.

The important lesson for us is that the technology is neither particularly complicated, nor especially expensive or labour-intensive to run. Obama’s web strategy is focused solely on making the vital work which goes on in town halls and on doorsteps work better. Internet campaigning, as he has shown, should be about giving supporters the tools they need to get their own message across in their neighbourhood or local area: Obama’s website, for example, has functions which allow grassroots supporters to set up phone-banks in their own home, and the site’s social networking space, ‘MyBarackObama’, allows supporters to express exactly what an Obama Presidency might mean to them, or their town, or Church (see Vargas, 2007; Stoller, 2008).

Furthermore, the blogging function on the Obama campaign website is completely ‘open’ – widening the scope for discussion in a way which has had some appeal among younger people (see Tremayne, 2007). The gap between this and poll-tested lines is enormous: one has real authenticity, the other does not. This is light-years away from the caution that can come either from the long shadow of opposition in the 1980s, or the straightjacket that being in office can feel like.

At the moment, any discussion looks like dissent. So the result here is a blogosphere dominated by the right, not enriched by the left. When people are asked to take part, it is in the technical detail of policy, not in the bigger questions about the kind of world we all want to live in. The point is that both the Democrats and the Republicans in the US are getting the basic principles of campaigning, and creating a political movement, right. To borrow a phrase from the MoveOn campaign: a political movement should have low floors and high ceilings.

So on the one hand, the Obama campaign has actually lowered the barriers to entry into politics. Back in May, his ‘Unite for Change’ movement urged supporters to log onto his website, type in their zip code and find an event near them. There were over 3000 gatherings nationwide – and not a single one was sanctioned or signed off. Instead they were spontaneously organised and posted on the website by local supporters, with the emphasis on linking seasoned old campaigners and activists to those coming into politics for the first time. And it’s working – in terms of building party and participation (see Stoller, 2008).

Likewise, Obama’s Organizing Fellows are a team of bright young people being trained in political campaigning and community organising, giving a political voice to networks (like churches, youth groups and so on) which already exist within communities – and echoing Obama’s own route into politics (Slevin, 2008). While the format feels similar to politics in the UK, in practice it is a far cry from our political parties’ reliance on membership and rigid structures. Obama’s team has also consistently raised the expectations of what can be achieved when people are willing to take part. Not just donating $10, but finding 10 others to do the same. Not just campaigning, but encouraging friends and family to take ownership of a campaign too (see Godin, 2007).

An interesting question is whether this momentum can be sustained by either McCain or Obama if they find themselves in government in a year’s time. When the Republicans came into office in 1994 they managed to sustain that sense of being a campaigning, underdog, insurgent movement even when they were in power, and did not let incumbency burden them.

Some of the activism that we are seeing in the US, like the voter registration drive, the raising money for Iowa flood victims, the Obama Organizing Fellows, has that same feel, the same sense of momentum: a feeling of permanent activism. Yet this is something we have failed to do on anything like the same level. Too often, the instinct has been to managerialise things through layers of bureaucracy – offering people the promise of a tiny voice in a bureaucratic process of policy formulation, instead of a real part in an ongoing campaign for practical change.

Our challenge, in particular, is with a generation of people (especially those now in their 20s) who are socially-minded but disconnected from our movement. As the Fabian Society’s pamphlet Facing Out recently made very clear, there is a great deal of untapped progressive energy out there. While only 9 per cent of Labour sympathisers in NGOs are willing to join the party, the study found, 59 per cent would be willing to support a Labour campaign on a national issue, 51 per cent a campaign against a particular Conservative policy and some 61 per cent were willing to support a Labour campaign within a local community (Horton, Pinto-Duschinsky and Studdert, 2008). These are people who want progressive change, but are disaffected from a political process that feels stale and old-fashioned. That has to change.

As Tom Bentley’s Demos study after the last election pointed out pointed out, the fact that parties are struggling to recruit members the world over is noticeable here. Fifty years ago in Britain one in ten of the population belonged to a party; now it is fewer than one in forty. At the last election more people chose not to vote (39 per cent) than voted Labour (Bentley, 2005; Hansard Society, 2008). The Party must be open to more varied ways of taking part, from specific, local campaigns and practical action, to much deeper, more long-standing engagement (Anstead and Chadwick, 2008).

 

Conclusion

If there is one great challenge of our age, it is for politics to be a place where people come together to make collective decisions, just as we become more different from one another as individuals in society. That lies behind improving our quality of life, ending child poverty in this country, leaving the planet in a proper state for our children and their children.

The great uncertainty is not about policy: it is whether our politics is up to the challenge. The answer, of course, lies with us. Can we step out of the shadow of defeats in the 1980s? Can we move on from the cautious pragmatism of the 1990s? Can we break free from the politics of control? The lessons from America are this: we can and we must.

 

This article is an adapted version of a speech given to the Fabian Society on 30th June 2008.

 

References

Anstead, N. and Chadwick, A. (2008) ‘Parties, Election Campaigning and the Internet: Toward A Comparative Institutional Approach’ in Chadwick, A. and Howard, P. N. (eds) The Handbook of Internet Politics (Routledge), pp. 56–71.

Bentley, T. (2005) Everyday Democracy, Demos.

Chadwick, A. (2006) Internet Politics: States, Citizens, and New Communication Technologies, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Federal Election Commission website: http://www.fec.gov/ (accessed 02 May 2008).

Godin, S. (2007) Permission Marketing (with new introduction) London, Pocket Books.

Hansard Society (2008), Audit of Political Engagement 5, Ministry of Justice and the House of Commons.

Horton, T, Pinto-Duschinsky, D, and Studdert, J. (2008) Facing Out: How party politics must change to build a progressive society, Fabian ideas 622.

Slevin, P. (2008) ‘Obama Volunteers Share the Power of Personal Stories’ WashingtonPost, Washington DC. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/25/AR2008072503118.html (accessed on 28 July 2008).

Stoller, M. (2008) ‘Obama’s Consolidation of the Party’. Available at http://www.openleft.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=5637 (Accessed on 08 May 2008).

Tremayne (ed.) (2007) Blogging, Citizenship, and the Future of Media, New York, Routledge.

Trippi, J. (2004) The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything,New York, ReganBooks.

Vargas, J. A. (2007) ‘Young Voters Find Voice on Facebook’ WashingtonPost,Washington DC. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/16/AR2007021602084.html (accessed on 09 August 2008).

Renewal