The American way? No We Can’t, says Dan Hodges

Last week I bumped into an old comrade from the Greater Manchester congestion charge campaign. Like Vietnam veterans we speak sparingly of those days, pausing but rarely to wrestle our demons and remember the fallen.

Asked what he was up to now that he was back on civvy street, he replied that he was working as “deputy field manager” for one of the leadership teams.

“What the hell’s a field manager”, I asked?

“Well it’s like an organiser”.

“So why isn’t it called an organiser”?

“Well, it’s what the Americans call an organiser”.

“Have we got loads of Americans over here stitching up the electoral college, then”?

“No. It’s what Obama used”.

Ah. “What Obama used”. The political equivalent of ‘It’s What Diana Would Have Wanted’.

Don’t get me wrong. When CNN called Virginia for America’s first black president, I wept like a baby. Robert Caro’s searing biography of LBJ would be my desert island book. I know every West Wing episode line by line; 2 Cathedrals – “…To hell with you. You get Andy Burnham…”. I do American politics.

And yet there’s something slightly disconcerting about Labour’s ongoing fixation with all things American. To me, Obama’s  victory is an historic waypoint on a par with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid. But amongst the young activisti it’s the process surrounding his election, not its historic import, that’s seized the imagination. Discussions about Obama invariably focus on his grass roots organisational model, creative use of new media or iron message discipline. Rarely do they express wonder at a 170 year historical narrative that commenced at Harper’s Ferry, ran through Montgomery, Little Rock and Selma, and concluded in Grant Park.

Which is not to say that a party dumped out of power with 29% of the vote couldn’t benefit from some lessons in organisation and process. If Joe the Plumber had been handled in the same way as Mrs Duffy, Jon McCain would now be Mayor of Tehran. But we should try to avoid grasping hungrily for off the shelf solutions simply because they come with Stars and Stripes branding and a marketing blurb obliquely intoning “Yes We Can”.

The American political model is fundamentally different from our own. Obama’s community organising framework was constructed independently from his national party, and was aimed squarely at securing success in an internal primary contest. Similarly, US national political structures are built around the individual candidate, rather than the collective. Ask any Democratic activist what’s their equivalent of Labour’s national policy forum and you’ll get blank looks. Tell the same person about shadow cabinet elections, and they’ll think you’ve taken leave of your senses. In fact, try to join the Democratic party via their web site and you’ll  instead be invited to become a member of “Team Obama”.

It’s an easy leap from innovation to faddism, and when it comes to learning from  the Obama campaign, many of our colleagues can’t wait to hurl themselves across the divide. “The Change We Need” – Will Straw; “Labour Could Learn A Lot From Barack Obama” – Rupa Huq; “Labour Has To Learn From Obama” – David Lammy. Which isn’t to devalue any individual analysis. But when faced with a veritable stampede of  ‘original thinking’, it sometimes pays not to get trampled in the rush.

In truth, the party’s infatuation with our American cousins pre-dates ‘Obamania’, and is symptomatic of the deeper shifts in culture and identity that comprise some of the less attractive by-products of the Blair era.

I distinctly remember the difference in atmosphere at party conference in 2000, when the key note speaker was Nelson Mandela, and 2002, when Bill Clinton provided the star turn. The reception for Mandela was one of reverence. The response for Clinton bordered on hysteria. One had brought to an end one of the most tyrannical and oppressive regimes on the globe. The other had seen off George Bush snr. and Bob Dole. Getting into the hall to see Clinton was tougher.

Yes, it’s right that we celebrate the progressive half of the special relationship. But our narrow, and at times obsessive, focus on US politics means we’re losing touch with  our broader internationalist heritage, and missing out on some valuable political opportunities.

I can’t recall the last time I saw one of our young activists proudly sporting a Felipe Gonzalez T-Shirt. But Gonzalez’s far sighted pragmatism, successful re-branding of his party, and journey from prescription, through military dictatorship to power, was an achievement of greater significance than any of the victories secured by New Labour. And had New Labour’s architects appropriated his legacy with half the vigor with which they embraced that of Carville, Stephanopoulos and Begala, the job of selling change to the more skeptical elements of our movement may have been that bit easier.

Sadly, those boring old European socialists just don’t have the pulling power. Anyone jetted over to Austria to check out Werner Faymann’s direct marketing strategy? Or Slovenia to quiz Borut Pahor on the secret of the Social Democrats’ success?

Of course, Obama has a unique vitality and immediacy. But we were still wheeling out Bill Clinton at the 2007 Conference, 15 years after his first Presidential victory. And Ed Miliband recently cited Bobby Kennedy’s ‘Ripples of Hope’ speech, as the inspiration for his leadership campaign. Ed, I never knew Bobby Kennedy and I can’t claim Bobby Kennedy was a friend of mine. But Ed, you’re no Bobby Kennedy.

Then again, none of us are. So why don’t we stop pretending. We have organisers, not field managers. CLP chairs, not precinct captains. Campaigners, not booster clubs.

By all means, let’s seek to enthuse a new generation of young activists. And, yes, let’s start  to build a grassroots movement that gives people a real voice and influence. But can we really afford to scrap our collective strength by trading membership of our party for a place on team Milliband, Balls, Abbot or Burnham?

“No We Can’t”. Now that’s got a ring to it. Anyone know David Plouffe’s mobile number?

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut

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2 Responses to “The American way? No We Can’t, says Dan Hodges”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Martha Dalton, Labour Uncut. Labour Uncut said: The American way? No We Can’t, says Dan Hodges […]

  2. Maybe (definitely) it’s because I’m an intransigent and cynical lefty, but I’ve always felt that the fashion for America in higher party circles is because of the success of Obama, Clinton et al. at creating a wave of grassroots support whilst quietly refusing to fight for the interests of their supporters.

    You couldn’t get a less radical leader of the left than Obama in Stephen Byers’ wet dreams. He may have had to fight to get healthcare, but it’s an insurer friendly bill and he fought hard behind the scenes to stop the public option and other more progressive measures from making their way on the statute book.

    It’s great that the US has a black president, but the reason he gets on so well with Cameron has very little to do with temperament and a lot to do with the fact that they’re both moderate conservatives. It’s just than in America they call those liberals, and confuse them with communists.

    Labour is a party of the organised working class combined with middle-class radicals. The Democrats are the party of the sane wing of capital. They only have community organisers because they didn’t have a strong enough socialist movement to provide that kind of cohesion in working-class areas. We really aren’t that similar as parties.

    Aside from which, it’s foolish to my mind to base our electoral strategies on those used in a nation with much greater political strategies and much lower turnout in urbanised areas than we get. When we start seeing adverts aired by candidates trying to get selected by their local CLP, then we’ll have a system that’s broadly similar to theirs. Until then, it’s an absurd comparison.

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