Friday, 14 September 2012

The Labour Party vs The Democratic Party; the courage of our convictions and what we stand for.

If [the party] can’t articulate what Labour stands for, voters will lose interest.”, says Jenni Russell in a recent article; and the sentiment here seems to be one that is shared by much of the electorate. Why is it such a struggle for Labour, and Ed, to say what we stand for? I spent the past month-and-a-bit working on a Congressional and Senate campaign in the US. Of course my experience was of one campaign in one state, but during that experience something that struck me was that the Democrats knew what they stood for, and the voters I spoke to knew what they stood for. This is a party with far less party unity, where candidates do not all communicate the same “message” and quite openly have differing views on certain issue; but there was a far clearer sense of what made them Democrats, and what they stood for and were fighting for, than, I think, there currently is in the Labour Party.

Of course, it is easier when you’re in government; it is far easier to have a concrete policy agenda when it consists is what you’ve done, from which point it is easier to say what you will do. And it helps that there is a massive divide on social issues; to be socially liberal becomes a far more defining feature than it ever would be in the UK. But these factors don’t go the whole way towards explaining why the Democrats seem so much more successful at communicating, as well as fully understanding themselves, what they stand for, than the Labour Party.

Firstly, they have a coherent economic plan. Now, on one hand, so do we; the fundamental divide between Labour and the Tories; stimulus vs austerity; is clear. But the Democrats have a far clearer vision on what money will be spent where, which taxes will be cut and where that moneys going to come from. Of course, this is easier when you’re in government; and it’s easier when the election is in site, and the economic circumstances in which you will take power are (relatively) clear. Of course Labour can only say, “this is the plan; but that may change as the circumstances change”. But we can still form more of a plan; VAT cut, house building, jobs for young people…what else? What other, concrete things will Labour do? And in forming our economic plan, it may take the courage of our convictions, when it comes to where the money will come from, to say, “some will be raised through taxes, but some will come later; when the economy is growing and we are generating more income. And we can afford to wait for that to really tackle the deficit”.

The courage of their convictions is something the Democrats are displaying in spades, right now. And that is something that has alot of weight, politically. Trying to be all things to all people, or seeming to be apologising for yourselves, makes you look weak. The Democrats were guilty of this in 2010; Obamacare being treated as this shameful issue of which they must not speak. By contrast, the at the Democratic National Convention, Obamacare was celebrated; even if you did not like the policy, you could not doubt that Bill Clinton, or Michelle Obama, or Stacey Lihn, the mother of a child she feared would die without Obamacare, or Barack Obama himself, liked the policy. Labour has its moments of conviction and self-belief, but all too often it can seem to be trying to appeal to everyone. We need to courage to say “this is our policy; this is why it’s right”.

And the Democrats, without a doubt, have values. As does the Labour Party. But the power in the values the Democrats communicate, and in the rhetoric they use, is that they relate it back to people. Very specific examples of how this college grant helped his person succeed, or this healthcare expansion saved this person’s life; be they hypothetical or real people. And if I were to summarise the values that the Democrats stand for; it would be enabling people to be able. Empowering people to be as limitless as they can be; not letting circumstances get in the way of their potential. And beyond this, the Democratic Party has been broadly pragmatic; to achieve this goal, they approach individual issues not as ideologues but as problem solvers. This puts them in stark contrast with a Republican Party that is, currently, fiercely and stubbornly ideological.

The Labour Party could so easily paint ourselves in the same way; the Tory’s economic policies are horribly, stubbornly and idiotically ideological. But it is tempting to try and counter this with a grand vision of our own. But no one knows what will happen while you’re in government. And portraying a Labour government that tackles each knew problem, with values, but also with pragmatism; and looking at, fundamentally, how decisions will really affect individuals and communities, is a strong message.

A lot of this is about conviction and coherence. There are times when we have alternative policies, but we attack the Tories rather than express them; times when we could develop more policies but shy away because we do not know what’s coming; times when we could paint a picture of ourselves as the competent problem solvers of British Politics, and instead we attack the Tories. In an ideal world, the Labour Party would get Bill Clinton to explain to the electorate who we are, what we stand for, what we will do in government and the attitudes with which we would do it. But, since that is unlikely to be a realistic option any time soon, we should probably work out how to do it ourselves. 

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