Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory are consistently understood as a working-class uprising against the establishment and blunt messages from the voters that they want more action on immigration. Like it or not, both were votes for change.
While 2.8 million ‘non-voters’ in the United Kingdom mean Britain is leaving the European Union, in the US relatively small numbers have changed the global trajectory. At the time of writing, just 13,107 voters in Michigan, 70,638 in Pennsylvania and 27,389 in Wisconsin denied the Democrats a post-second world war historic third term. The centre-left was already questioning its very purpose, but the US result has questions for progressives everywhere, those in traditional parties and anyone wondering how populists are gaining such traction. People are emotionally readying themselves for victories for Marine Le Pen in France, the Five Star movement in Italy and then, the imminent end of the EU.
Trump’s victory is truly devastating. It will have unknown consequences. What is known is that he has all the wrong people cheering: the nativist right, the private school attending hard-left and Vladimir Putin.
In the Labour party those around the leader cannot contain their excitement at Trump’s victory – they ascribe to it a hat-trick that they believe means certain victory for Jeremy Corbyn whenever an election comes: proof neoliberalism has ended, that the progressive centre-left is exhausted, and that polls are always wrong and non-voters can swing an election. This is all predicated on a belief that Corbyn shares with Trump an outsider status. Over 30 years in parliament suggests otherwise. There is not a wrong poll out there that has underestimated the left’s support; it is the populist-right that now monopolises the shy voter and motivates the non-voter.
But does team Corbyn have a point? Why did Hillary Clinton, the most qualified candidate for president ever, fall short?
First, while all the talk is about her as an establishment candidate, it cannot be forgotten that she was for many voters the radical candidate. Her gender alone meant she was risqué. Her relentless focus on children and families issues was a departure from the normal suite of issues focused upon in a presidential race. Reports from any of the Brits abroad that tried to help Clinton suggest sexism played heavy on the doorstep. The change in this election was a change back to a president as it has long been understood: a white man, no matter how unqualified. The fact Clinton lost white women in all income brackets is also horrifying, but it would be the wrong conclusion for major parties not to pick women candidates in future. The problem is what the first woman candidate for the highest office in the world said to women voters, or, at least, how she said it. The latter is easier to turn around than the former.
Secondly, her message and policy platform was for convention delegates, not Democrat voters – let alone floating voters. Bernie Sanders proudly announced the Democratic party had its most ‘progressive [leftwing] platform ever’. But that was just the problem. Like Ed Miliband in 2015 it repeated tired big money solutions and a spending splurge for middle-class university students. In exactly the same way as Labour focused too much on the bottom 10 per cent and top one per cent, Clinton had too little to offer voters in the middle. There was nothing on aspiration. Nothing confronting traditional challenges for centre-left – tackling terrorism, welfare reform and stopping illegal immigration – and nothing on the traditional strengths for Third Way progressives – skills, social mobility and the economy to come.
Finally, team Clinton cannot avoid the serious failures of the campaign. Not being the change candidate. Not taking the candidate enough to what turned out to be three vital Rust Belt states in the short campaign. Ignoring the messages from the doorstep in what become decider states and not seeing the synergy of union/Sanders complaints about trade deals and Trump’s pledges on the same issues.
How they attacked Trump must also face some scrutiny. All progressives agree his sexism, racism, attacks on Muslims, immigrants and disabled people were abhorrent but to reply with a patchwork quilt coalition of minorities will always be insufficient. The Third Way taught progressives to have big, universal messages to all voters, not subsets. Unfortunately, right up until the results came in, as Republican donor Peter Thiel noted, the media and establishment took Trump literally but not seriously, while his supporters did the opposite.
Looking from across the pond it seems beyond doubt that Clinton had better solutions to the slogans of her opponents. However, in her shop window – in keeping with other progressives parties – were all the issues that get people at our rallies cheering but leave the voters cold. Stuffed somewhere at the back of the furthest shelf were the policies that unaligned and undecided voters might favour. It is not their fault they did not find them, and, therefore, do not buy what progressives have on offer.
The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush argues that Labour modernisers view their current predicament as ‘an activist problem … not … an electorate problem’. Tom Railton, in a piece for ProgressOnline retorts, ‘No matter how badly things have gone, it has been an extraordinary comfort to believe that the road to victory runs pretty much through your own politics. Now I am not so sure.’ Clinton’s loss in the US electoral college, like the upsetting Brexit result, should not lead us to question if we have everything wrong, but focus on our need to reconnect. Working-class voters cannot be lost to progressive politics. But progressive politics only wins when it has class-unifying appeal. It only wins when it is the change and owns the future. The hard-left do not have the answers, so we had better buck our ideas up and get some.
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