Third way party reform: part 1

The first in a series of guest posts from Hayden Munro based on his presentation to Labour’s Summer School.

I promised Patrick I’d write a rundown of the presentation I gave to Labour’s Summer School this year and what I think the implications are for Labour’s ongoing project of party reform. Not just the organisational review, but also any leadership, candidate selection, or constitutional changes. The broad theme is that way in which progressive political parties themselves have become neo-liberalised in the last few decades, and the way in which this has meant they have increasingly been unable to bring about real change when in power.

Al From

The presentation was a recap of the way Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) took over the Democratic Party in the USA in the late 80’s and early 90’s and how this takeover inspired and informed much of Tony Blair’s New Labour project in the UK. From was the director of the DLC, the centrist group that eventually elected Bill Clinton. The presentation then linked this takeover to both parties’ inability to effectively respond to the major economic challenges we are facing at the moment, such as wide and growing income inequality, stagnating middle class incomes and an increasing sense that, as Grant Robertson has noted in a few public speeches, a public that increasing feels like politics is not something they do but something done to them.

This is a fairly lengthy subject, so I’ve broken it up into three posts which will be going up over the next few days.

New research from America shows us that this sense is worryingly accurate. I’ve cited this in work before but I think it’s so powerful it bears repeating. To quote Ezra Klein:

Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton University…has  been collecting the results of nearly 2,000 survey questions reaching back to the 1980s, looking for evidence that when opinions change, so too does policy. And he found it—but only for the rich. “Most policy changes with majority support didn’t become law,” Hacker and Pierson write. The exception was “when they were supported by those at the top. When the opinions of the poor diverged from those of the well-off, the opinions of the poor ceased to have any apparent influence: If 90 percent of poor Americans supported a policy change, it was no more likely to happen than if 10 percent did. By contrast, when more of the well-off supported a change, it was substantially more likely to happen.”

The implications of this study are frightening. We’ve all heard a lot about income inequality this past year, about how the Great Financial Crisis has revealed that our economy, and western democratic economies around the world, seem increasingly weighted towards the interests of the super rich. What Gillen’s research shows us however is that something has gone seriously wrong in the power structure of our politics. The super wealthy have acquired an effective ‘veto power” over public policy, allowing them to block any attempt to reform our economy and get it working for  everyone else again. Understanding how this came to be, and why progressive political parties have been unable to turn this around, was the core enquiry of my presentation.

The reason that From and Blair are so important to look at is that they both set out to take over their respective parties because they were facing a set of challenges very similar to what the NZLP is facing now. In 1984 when he set out founding the DLC, From argued that the Democratic Party was seen as hijacked by special interests, by trade unions and liberal activists, especially gay, environmental and feminist groups. From argued that the party’s message was focused on pleasing narrow special interests instead of presenting a clear plan to serve the national interest. Furthermore the party was seen as on the wrong side of the key issues: it was seen as tax and spend, soft on crime, too liberal on social issues, not a credible manager of the nation’s economy, and arrogantly refusing to change. From argued that the party could never regain the White House if it continued to turn off swing voters, especially the so called “Reagan Democrats” – the majority of who were white, male, southern and socially conservative. All of this should sound pretty familiar, and you’ll have heard similar things in the New Zealand context.

Tony Blair

In the early 90’s Blair thought UK Labour was in a similar position. Much like From, Blair was a “moderniser”, a reformer who had come to believe his party was dangerously out of touch with the mainstream, and facing electoral irrelevance as a consequence. The Labour Party had just lost its fourth general election in a row, and had spent years publically tearing itself apart. Like From, Blair believed that his party was controlled by liberals, unions and militant left wingers who pushed Labour away from electoral viability. Like From, Blair was concerned that his party was seen as big spending, in favour of more debt, more bureaucracy, soft on crime, unfit to govern and unfit to run the economy. Labour found itself facing a similar demographic problem to the Democrats as well, as it found itself needing the votes of socially conservative male voters, also increasingly from the South and South West. Akin to the Reagan Democrats, these were voters who had supported Labour in the past, but had deserted them in recent years.

Both From and Blair were concerned by specific systemic constraints that allowed the dominant liberal groups to exert power over the wider party. For From in the US, this frustration was directed at the post-1972 reformed Presidential Primary system. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s an earlier group of radical reformers had sought to reshape the Democratic Party, and had been successful in large part because of their ability to rewrite the rules the Party operated under. That group had been the New Politics faction that now ruled the party, and the liberal activist groups that supported them. Disgusted by the “undemocratic” nature of the Machine Politics that characterised the post-war Democratic Party, New Politics reformers like George McGovern had rewritten the rules by which Democrat’s selected their President. By massively increasing the importance of Primaries and Caucuses, the reformers hoped to take the nominating process out of the “smoke filled rooms” and directly to the people. Under the new system the two “First in the Nation” states of Iowa and New Hampshire were given enormous power, as whoever did well there would receive vital media and fund-raising attention. This new system privileged the support of talented activists, organisers and unions who could turn out large grass roots organising forces to deliver these early states to their chosen candidate. In the first “Post-Reform” election of 1972, it was the grass roots liberal insurgent George McGovern who won a shocking upset victory over the establishment candidates Ed Muskie and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. In 1976 formerly unknown Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was able to translate a shocking upset in Iowa into a long march through the primaries and eventually to the White House. In the eyes of the New Politics reformers, the reforms had been as massive success, bringing more democracy to the nominating process and freeing voters from the grips of the oligarchical machines that had dominated Democratic politics.

To From and his DLC allies however, the reforms had been a disaster. By placing so much importance on Iowa and New Hampshire, and the liberal activists and unions required to win those states, the reformers had created an overwhelming incentive to pander to the tastes and preferences of the liberal groups whose support was essential in Iowa and New Hampshire. These liberal activists, From noted, tended to be significantly ideologically removed from the median American voter. The result was that if an aspiring President wanted to get close to the Democratic Nomination, he would first have to tie himself to the liberal agenda. In From’s eyes, this made the party incapable of nominating someone who could speak to the concerns of the majority of American’s needed to win a Presidential Election. For From and his allies, this issue was compounded by the increasing effect that the presidential nominee’s relative strength seemed to be having on the electoral fortunes of the rest of the party. In 1980 and 1984, Republicans had been incredibly effective in tying Democrats running in House and Senate races to an unpopular liberal at the top of the ticket. Ronald Reagan’s long coattails meant that not only were Democrats getting clobbered at the national level, their Presidential candidates were becoming drags on down ticket races. In From’s eyes, the Democrats had already ceased to be able to compete on a Presidential level, but now were in danger of becoming uncompetitive on a congressional level as well.

From’s key insight in this process was that “The system influences a candidate to play within the limits of the orthodoxies.” Since in modern politics the leader of the party comes to dominate and define the parties agenda, and in a Presidential System this effect is even more pronounced, the Democrats had a system that was pushing the party well to the left by forcing it’s presidential candidates to accept the ideological agenda of left wing activists as a prerequisite to the nomination. From made reform of this system, and controlling the power to dictate the agenda to which candidates would have to pledge to have a chance of getting the nomination, the priority of the DLC.

Blair likewise found himself frustrated by his party’s internal rules, especially around the huge power given to activists at the party conference. Where as a party conference was meant to be a showcase for the party, an important opportunity for it to take its message to the electorate, bitter disputes over the party’s platform and manifesto, combined with a lack of discipline on the part of activists, had routinely led to such political suicidal sights as the party leader being shouted down from the floor at his own conference. Blair blamed these embarrassing spectacles on the hard left of his party, especially militant trade unionists. The power attributed to the “grass-roots” meant people like Blair were unable to present their choice of message to the public, as any moves towards the centre would be vetoed by the activist base. Enforcing message discipline, organisation or any of the other countless measures of self control necessary for success in a modern political/media environment was impossible.

As we know however, both From and Blair were eventually successful in reshaping their parties. Not only that but each was able to win significant personal glory while transforming the parties they worked in. Blair became Labour’s most electorally successful Prime Minister, winning an unprecedented landslide in 1997 and winning three general elections, no British Labour Prime Minister had ever been re-elected before. From saw the DLC rise to become one of Washington’s best known power groups: he elected a President in former DLC Bill Clinton. Once Clinton embraced From and the DLC’s agenda in 1996, he became the first Democrat since FDR to win re-election, a feat that seemed impossible in the dark days of the mid 1980’s. For From’s role in re-shaping the Democratic Party, Clinton praised him as the most important private citizen of the last 25 years. In the year 2000, the “Third Way” Philosophy of Clinton and Blair, the philosophy From had steered from pipe dream to dominant ideology, was hailed as a global movement and the future of progressive politics.

Stay tuned for part two.

4 thoughts on “Third way party reform: part 1”

  1. For the record, i’m pissed at identity politics because it has marginalised issues of poverty in the past. All those yappy boomers. . . A pro diversity movement that excludes people is not a self aware movement.

  2. the problem with the Third Way analysis is that Blair won a landslide because the Tories were so unpopular after a very long period in office that even Kinnock could not have lost the 1997 election. Tory voters stayed at home in droves; the idea that lots of Tory voters switched to Labour is really overstated. Plus of course it all ended in tears as the Third Way turned out to be Tory policies in drag – while many good policies were brought in, the emphasis was on privatisation and a “private good, public bad” philosophy that saw business people brought in to overrule civil servants, leading to privatisation and public sector cuts. So by 2007 Blair was such a liability that he was forced to resign – Labour had shed 5 million voters since 1997.
    Do we really want to copy that?

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