Like the US Republicans, Labour is a local party with few pretensions to national relevance

by Samuel Dale

The Republican party currently controls 31 of the 50 governorships in the United States compared to just 18 for the Democrats.

The one independent governor Bill Walker of Alaska only left the party in 2014 so he could take on the incumbent so, really, it’s 32 Republican governors.

In addition, Republicans control the state assemblies and senate in 23 of those states giving them supreme control over law-making.

By contrast, Democrats only have total control in seven states. Seven Democrat governors are also grappling with Republican-controlled state legislative chambers while only four Republican governors deal with Democrat controlled state legislatures.

Four Republican governors and four Democrat governors deal with split legislatures.

Put Simply: when it comes to local governments the Republican party is completely and utterly dominant while the national party is in meltdown.

The reason for the mismatch is multi-faceted. Firstly, most governor elections take place during mid-terms where turnout is low and presidential incumbents are unpopular. Opposition parties pick up local wins.

This problem is compounded by the fact that all US governors have two-term limits meaning they have to give up the power of incumbency. Only two governors – both Democrat – were elected before Obama became president.

Second, Republicans clearly have a very effective and well-motivated local organisation in multiple states. The Tea Party phenomenon may have been funded by billionaires but many of its key protagonists were grassroots activists taking over local organisations and dragging them to the right.

They either toppled big names in primaries – as they did with House minority leader Eric Cantor in 2012 – or forced incumbents to shift drastically towards them to avoid defeat.

Hardcore activists can make a major difference in low turnout primaries when they are motivated and organized. They can be an important factor too in deciding local mid-term elections too when voter turnout is low.

They can also play an incredible role in a huge presidential primary election as we saw with the nomination of Donald Trump.

The grassroots attacks Democrats, sure, but mainly Republicans in Name Only (RINOs) who make deals and compromise with the opposition.

But national power is elusive. Sometimes it feels close. The Republican party holds the House and Senate, for now. The hated RINO John Boehner was removed as Speaker of the House last year to be replaced with the more right-wing Paul Ryan.

And just one month ago, Donald Trump was ahead in the presidential polls by an inch. Power is so close you can almost taste it for these hardcore activists.

But it’s not close. These are superficial moments. The Republican party, by pandering to its base and designing a political apparatus designed to pander to it even more, is not a national party.

It will never let itself choose a presidential candidate or party leader who is capable of winning national support.

But non-activists vote in large numbers too and they want to be represented just as much. That’s real democracy.

US and UK politics are clearly very different but the state of the Republican party has many lessons for Labour today.

Labour and its Momentum activists will find itself following a similar pattern over the next decade. The local victories, the influence over government policy as well as the deceptively large rallies and participation in politics.

It will feel good and there will be some legitimate wins for the party. Mayors in London, Liverpool, Manchester, the West Midlands and Bristol will wield substantial power.

The national polls will shift too. Maybe Labour under Corbyn, or a similarly hard-left leader, will overtake the Tories in polling during a damaging mid-term period for Theresa May. Maybe not.

But small wins, local power and limited influence is not a good ambition for Labour just as it does not satisfy Republicans in the US either.

The Tea Party fanatics pointing to the local victories in the states are fooling no one about the desperate state of the party.

And Labour today has become just as local as the SNP or Plaid Cymru. Not just geographically in the north, London and cities but it is has narrowed its debate and its possibilities.

It is closing its mind to outsiders and fuelling a sense of permanent grievance and conspiracy. It is refusing to reach out, instead pandering to its narrow base.

It is no substitute for the hard graft, dirty compromise or building a truly national movement and support base and pushing through real change.

Sam Dale is a financial and political journalist

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10 Responses to “Like the US Republicans, Labour is a local party with few pretensions to national relevance”

  1. Mark Livingston says:

    A Tory-lite Labour party was never going to win in 2020 following two crushing defeats in 2010 and 2015. A proper Labour party can win in 2020 if only our Blairites would accept defeat, accept that their Tory-lite policies have been discredited, and get behind their superb leader.

  2. John Creek says:

    Everything’s different now, Trump and Sanders represent that, people are angry- you represent that status quo- can’t you understand its time for change? If Clinton loses against Trump it will be down to traditional democrats and Sanders fans not voting for her. Being not as bad as the other guy isn’t cutting it anymore people want BIG changes as in actions borne of convictions not rhetoric borne of focus groups.

    If Labour is no longer a party of power then we won’t have a first past the post system for much longer. Progressive coalitions are a way forward with Labour leading. Without Scotland Labour are out anyway in FPTP and Corbyn is the only thing thats changing minds here, trust me, I’m seeing it first hand, lots of young devo-max Corbyn fans.

  3. Martin says:

    Under the political circumstances that are now unfolding, I would have thought that what Mark Livingston calls “a Tory Lite Labour Party” could be exceptionally well placed to oust Brexit paralysed Conservatives, whose claims of economic credibility would be a sick joke.

  4. james says:

    Samuel Dale has forgotten another important aspect of the importance of Labour – that of providing a humorous outlet for the nation while the Tories carry out the serious work of governing. Keep ’em coming!

  5. Mike Homfray says:

    But this is simply reflective of the slow death of the two big catch all parties, neither of which are really ‘national’ any more

  6. Tafia says:

    Mark you have spoken a great truth there.

    Labour chose to blur the difference between them and the tories. The electorate fell for it for a while because it was shiney-new with bells and flashing lights, but the are not going to vote for tory-lite party anymore. They want an opposition that has radically different policies and radically different ways of doing things – not something that is already available elsewhere with a few minor tweaks here and there. They’e learnt now – if you want tory then vote tory. If you want tory-lite then vote tory anyway.

  7. Pedant says:

    Factual matter: there are varying term limits for US governors by state. It is false to say all US Governors have 2-term limits.

  8. efcdons says:

    ugh. Pedant noted, the two term limit is not nationwide. Different states have different (or even no) term limits for their governors. You are probably thinking about the President who is constitutionally limited to two terms by the 22nd Amendment to the US constitution (which wasn’t ratified until 1951. FDR served 3 terms).

    The Republicans control the US house of representatives (like the house of commons) and the US senate (like the house of lords, except they are elected).

    This is due to a number of reasons. One is small mostly rural states get 2 senators and huge urban states get…2 senators. The GOP does better in rural areas so they do well in a number of smaller states which, because of slavery at the time of the ratification of the constitution certain states with lower populations of voters (i.e. white men) wanted to make sure they weren’t able to be outvoted by states with larger populations ( states where the economy wasn’t dependent on slavery).

    The GOP (Grand Old Party, nickname for the Republicans) control the house because 1)they were able to gerrymander districts when they won control of the statehouses in a census year (2010) when the boundaries of house districts were being redrawn and 2) they are strong in rural areas so their voters are thinly spread over a larger area in each state while Democratic voters are heavily concentrated in urban areas so their votes are heavily concentrated. What that means practically is a lot of Democratic house seats are super strong Democratic seats while a lot of GOP seats are just slightly GOP. But it gives the GOP more seats even when they have less actual voters. For example, in 2012 the GOP won control in the house of representatives even though more voters voted for a Dem house candidate. (

    The presidential elections are based on total votes in a state (mostly, not true in every state) so it doesn’t matter on a presidential level if every democratic voter lives in a single house district as long as there are more democratic voters than GOP voters in total in a state. So Dems are able to overcome the gerrymandering and concentration of voters because it doesn’t matter.

    Basically your comparison is mostly useless. If the US used a parliamentary system the Dems would be in a terrible situation and being more like the GOP wouldn’t help.

  9. james says:

    Serious question – can a party that’s very strong in local government able to win nationally? Won’t voters counter-balance by voting differently in different elections as well as the protest vote?

  10. John p reid says:

    Maybe Ed miliband while trying to appeal to the Harriet harms positive descrimintion, word police,of what views people can have in public,but also the sun reading Ukip blue labour supporter thought he could be all things to all people, it certainly won him the leadership, as David M didnt ,understand how unpopular labour were,something Andy B tried and failed

    But Ed miliband wasn’t a blairite, and if the public fell for the labour created the banking crisis myth, they certainly didn’t vote green as they thought labour we’re to austerity

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