The lessons for Labour from Bill de Blasio’s New York success are limited

by Rob Philpot

New York mayor Bill de Blasio is not a man for understatement. Since taking office in January, he’s described everything from his own election to the opening of a new park in Brooklyn as ‘transcendent’. Alongside ‘historic’, it’s a term he has used over 80 times in the last nine months to describe the changes he is bringing to the city.

No doubt he’ll apply one of his two favourite accolades to his address to the Labour party conference in Manchester today. As the party’s guest international speaker, he is, after all, following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Hamid Karzai.

But Labour should avoid getting too carried away by de Blasio’s lofty rhetoric. Take that ‘transcendent’ election last year. De Blasio’s populist campaign, with its focus on inequality, promise to govern on behalf of the ’99 per cent’ and pledge to raise taxes on the very rich, certainly appeared to ‘break every rule in the New Labour playbook’, as Diane Abbott crowed the day after the Democrats beat the Republicans by a near-50 point margin.

However, de Blasio didn’t exactly storm a citadel of conservatism.

New York is a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans six to one, which awarded Barack Obama 81 per cent of its votes when he ran for re-election in 2012, and which no Republican presidential candidate has carried since Calvin Coolidge in 1924. In his piece trumpeting the election as proof that ‘a different kind of progressive politics can capture the imagination of a public ground down by economic crisis’, Ed Miliband’s strategy adviser, Stewart Wood, admitted that ‘New York City is not the UK, and a mayoral race is not the same as a British general election’. Slightly more fundamentally, New York can’t even be said to be the US; its politics are representative of virtually nowhere else.

It’s certainly true that de Blasio is the first Democrat mayor of the city since 1993. But, again, that’s less impressive than it appears at first glance. With his support for gay marriage, gun control and abortion rights, opposition to the death penalty and acceptance of the scientific evidence for climate change, de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, was hardly your stereotypical Republican – as the former mayor went on to demonstrate by abandoning the party to run as an independent in 2009 before endorsing Obama in 2012.

There is, of course, a wealth of polling evidence to suggest public support for de Blasio-style economic populism here in the UK. Over 70 per cent of voters say they’d like to see the government control energy prices and fares on public transport, for instance. Renationalisation of the rail and energy companies and Royal Mail also commands widespread public support. But so, too, do a series of rightwing populist positions: cutting income tax, slashing fuel duty, stopping immigration and capping welfare, for instance. As Peter Kellner of YouGov has suggested parroting apparently popular policies back to the public doesn’t always meet with electoral success. Just ask Neil Kinnock or Michael Howard.

So what of all de Blasio’s ‘historic’ and ‘transcendent’ achievements since he took up residence in the Gracie Mansion? His signature policy during the campaign for tackling New York’s ‘tale of two cities’ was a promise to raise taxes on the rich to pay for universal pre-school and after-school clubs. Even during the campaign, this pledge wasn’t quite as earth-shattering as it first appeared: in the small print, de Blasio said he’d replace the tax after five years with another stream of revenue or cuts in city spending. To his credit, the mayor has already doubled the number of free pre-school places in the city. By next September, he should achieve his goal of a free place for every appropriately aged child in New York. And what of the tax rise? Despite New York’s Democrat governor, Andrew Cuomo, making it clear from the outset he wouldn’t sanction it but would provide the necessary funding from the state budget instead, de Blasio continued to push the idea for months after taking office, no doubt to appease his liberal base. He has since quietly dropped it.

During the campaign de Blasio also wooed New York’s powerful teachers’ unions by attacking charter schools (publicly funded but independently run schools akin to academies) in the city, describing them as having ‘a destructive impact’ on traditional schools. Research shows that charter school students outperform their peers in city schools in both reading and mathematics; 90 per cent of their students are black or Hispanic and three-quarters are from low-income families. The very people, in short, for whom de Blasio claims the greatest empathy.

In office, the mayor’s attempt to marry his campaign rhetoric with the need not to choke off a supply of good school places has proved difficult: his decision in March to approve the expansion of 14 charter schools, while blocking three agreed by his predecessor, has ended up satisfying no one; charter school pupils and their parents were joined by Cuomo at a protest rally, while de Blasio’s erstwhile allies are threatening to take him to court.

All of which suggests that while de Blasio’s rhetoric may be of radicalism, his record is not. Geoffrey Nunberg, a University of California linguistics professor, describes the mayor’s constant chatter about his historic and transcendent achievements a ‘kind of linguistic coin that is quickly devalued’. But that probably won’t stop de Blasio minting a few more on the platform in Manchester today.

Robert Philpot is director of Progress

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