As the US media casts its eyes towards 2020, Joe Cox and Stefan Rollnick look to the Democrats for inspiration
On 5 November 2018, voters in states across America went to the polls to vote in a midterm election that was billed as the first chance for a referendum on the presidency of Donald Trump. Despite widespread voter suppression and systematic gerrymandering, Democrats took back the House of Representatives.
The significance of this is hard to overstate: it will allow the Democrats to disrupt harmful legislation and investigate Trump’s alleged crimes. This is real power that can affect real change – and the lessons for Labour are numerous.
Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, Stacey Abrams, lost her bid by 54,000 votes in state of over 10 million people. The fact that a Democrat was that competitive in a Republican stronghold draws lessons of its own, and the work of the Abrams campaign on building a strong ground game is admirable, but the real lesson here comes from the fact that Abrams lost.
Her opponent, Brian Kemp, was the serving secretary of state for Georgia when he ran in the election. This position gave him oversight of the election process which he used to disenfranchise huge numbers of voters, especially black voters and young people, including over 100,000 people purged from the electoral roll for failing to vote in previous elections.
With questions around the levels of spending in the 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union still hanging in the air, and the Tories perpetual attempts over the last eight years to redraw the parliamentary map to favour themselves, the loss of Abrams in Georgia should serve to remind us that democracy is inherently fragile. It is not binary, it does not turn on or off at the flick of a switch, it is something that can be eroded by people who want to hold on to power. We must resist this.
In Philadelphia’s 17th congressional district, Democrat Conor Lamb won a competitive race with 56.2 per cent of the vote. Lamb’s run demonstrates the importance of making sure our candidates represent their constituencies, rather than prioritising a test of ideological purity. In his words he ran a ‘local race, run by local people’ – and it worked.
His win also brings to light the importance of bringing your electorate with you. His message to voters was simple: if you want someone in Congress who will represent your district, protect your healthcare and stop tax cuts for billionaires – vote for me. If you want someone who is going to move as far to the left as possible on every single issue – I am not your guy. He leant on his background as a United States marine, assuaged the fear people felt from Democrats on gun control, and in doing so he flipped another Republican hold on power into a valuable check on Trump.
But with the midterms now in the rearview mirror, talk of who will run against Trump in the 2020 presidential election has already begun. Candidates are vying for the limelight by trying to claim the centre-ground of big new ideas.
Senator Kamala Harris has a proposition that looks similar to universal basic income designed to close the gap between the middle and upper class, and senator Cory Booker has a plan to fight racial wealth inequality by giving every child in the US ‘baby bonds’ based on the child’s household income, to help with future college payments or down payments on a house. These are radical new approaches to the question of wealth distribution, but with nuanced and complex answers that will improve the quality of people’s lives.
This too is a lesson for us. If we want to regain power in the United Kingdom we have to show people that we have a plan for them that is not just regurgitated ideas from the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. The tectonic plates of our economy and our democracy are moving fast, and we must take inspiration from our American colleagues to meet these challenges head on.
When we do that, then maybe our turn will come to take back some legislative power. Only then can we stop imagining what a Labour Britain would look like, and start building it.
Joe Cox is digital assistant at Progress and Stefan Rollnick is editorial assistant at Progress
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