There are three lessons Labour should draw from the Democrats’ electoral woes, writes Kirsty McNeill
When the 114th Congress meets in January the Republican majority in the House of Representatives will be at its biggest since Clement Attlee was prime minister. The new Senate will be firmly in Republican hands. And even Barack Obama’s Illinois machine could not stop his back yard turning red in the gubernatorial race. The Democrats can take no cheer from 2014, but Labour can yet draw some lessons before it faces its own date with voters in 2015.
First, demographic determinism is not a winning strategy. When I was at school in the early 1990s, people were still expected to engage seriously with the thesis the Labour party could not win elections after the decline of heavy industry. I was still at school (and still up) for Portillo, so we know how that turned out.
The Labour of 1997 definitively broke with the idea that only certain kinds of people could or should vote for progressive ideas, and the reward was a landslide majority. By mobilising people on the basis of what they thought and not what they were, Labour was able to create a governing project for the British people and not simply for those deemed to be ‘our people’. That was important not just because of the electoral maths, but because of the nature of progressive politics itself. The left’s whole political philosophy is rooted in the idea that people of diverse backgrounds and different short-term interests can be inspired to cooperate for the long-term good of everyone. If progressive parties win the right to govern without having first established the will to collaborate then much of what they want to achieve remains out of reach.
So too in America. Obama’s re-election strategy in 2012 owed much to the idea of a ‘rising American electorate’. That analysis says that repeat Democratic victory becomes ever more likely as the pool of Hispanic, black, young and single women voters grows and that the job of progressive campaigns is simply to harvest these high-propensity voters. The trouble with this operating assumption is that it is prey to exactly the same weakness as noted above: if a party thinks its ‘natural’ voter group is shrinking they are perfectly capable of changing to make themselves more appealing to the electorate as it now stands.
That is precisely what the Republicans have managed in just two years. Turnout is always lower in midterm elections, particularly among Democratic-leaning groups. Nonetheless Republicans worked hard to ensure that those ‘rising American electorate’ voters who did turn out had reasons to vote GOP. In Mia Love the Republicans now have their first black congresswoman and in Elise Stefanik they have elected to the House of Representatives its youngest ever woman member.
At the same time they put candidates through a brutal preparation programme with all of them being stalked by anonymous volunteers with video cameras and some undergoing hostile questioning training 20 times. That degree of discipline was instilled to ensure no repeat of the ‘gaffes’ that haunted the 2012 Republican campaign, with the comments of some candidates on sexual violence being so extreme that feminist campaigners dubbed them ‘team rape’.
All of which said, the Republican relationship with the rising American electorate has not been one of simple detoxification. While trying to craft a new appeal to minority voters, various Republican officials have also been pursuing policies that have the effect of making it harder for them to vote. In some areas it is the limitation of early or weekend voting (which helps those working multiple jobs or in insecure employment to find the time) while in others it is the application of stringent new laws on what counts as ‘appropriate’ identification.
There is much in common here with Britain’s debate about individual electoral registration. The new policy means that every single voter now has to register individually instead of, as in the past, being registered as a household by one member of the family. We already know which voters are least likely to be registered in the first place – ethnic minority voters and young renters – and the Electoral Commission reported last month that a further 5.5 million people have not been transferred from the old system to the new. That group too is heavily tilted towards the young. It means Labour’s scant organisational resources need to be stretched even further, not simply in earning the votes of these communities, but in fighting to ensure their right to cast them.
Part of what will inspire new voters into the Labour fold is a compelling policy offer, but the fate of various ballot initiatives held to coincide with the midterms should warn against assuming too tight a relationship between policy and party in the mind of the electorate.
At one and the same time, the voters of Arkansas and Nebraska picked new senators from the Tea party movement while voting to increase the minimum wage. In Massachusetts voters kept to their liberal instincts in becoming only the third state to mandate paid sick leave, but nonetheless passed their governorship from Democratic to Republican control. The people of Alaska embraced both minimum wage rises and the legalisation of marijuana, while pro-choice advocates were pleased to see off attempts to define a foetus as a person in both Colorado and North Dakota.
The parallels with Labour’s position are clear. Ed Miliband’s policy prospectus is popular with a British electorate that strongly supports action to drive up the minimum wage, build more homes, tackle youth unemployment and cut the costs of energy. For much of this parliament the Labour commentariat complaint has been the lack of a doorstep offer. Six months out from polling day, that is no longer the issue.
The challenge now is to get the public to associate the future they want with the party they choose. That is a task for the whole parliamentary and voluntary party, not something to be laid at the leader’s door alone. If the recent American experience teaches us anything it is that the disconnect between policy popularity and party affiliation is being felt in many different countries and it is both lazy and dangerous to assume the problem is primarily one of personnel.
In a similar vein we cannot assume that people automatically connect failures of policy with the correct source. Only seven per cent of Americans trust Congress and most were appalled at last year’s threatened federal default. Yet the authors of the crisis – those Republicans more interested in opposing Obama than serving the country – were the very ones to reap the political benefit when the country next went to the polls. So Labour must likewise guard against any complacency about the extent to which the coalition’s policy failings will boomerang to the automatic benefit of the opposition. In fact, they may make voters more likely to give up on politics altogether.
If Labour can hold firm to these three lessons – the rejection of demographic determinism, constant vigilance about the nature of the playing field, and the need to prioritise connecting politically over crafting perfect policy in the abstract – then the pain of our progressive brothers and sisters across the water can yet rebound to the good.
Kirsty McNeill is a strategy consultant and a former adviser to Gordon Brown
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