I went to bed at 1am last Tuesday with distinctly the same sinking feeling of uncertainty I had back in June when Sunderland forwent the press, the pollsters and the politicians and declared itself Leave. It cannot be denied that something is shifting in Western politics, and with National front leader Marine Le Pen topping opinion polls and current 2/1 favourite to win the French presidential election next year, this trend looks like it could well continue.
As I was unable to eat my cereal on Wednesday morning, I was placing the blame of the election of a Mussolini-type demagogue squarely on racism, sexism, xenophobia, fear and hatred. However, over the last week I have had time to reflect on what Trump offers to the 60-something-million mostly working class Americans who voted for him. I have also had some thoughts on what the implications are for us at home in British politics.
- No-one has the right to inherit a democratic post. Having worked on the Andy Burnham campaign for Labour party leader in 2015, I can empathise with the pain Hilary will be feeling for losing what should have been a sure thing. However, no amount of experience, name-recognition or connections should allow someone to become an automatic selection. This is not how democracy works, or how it should work. Ordinary people will just not buy it. Word of warning to George Osborne if he is considering a future punt for the Conservative leadership.
- You are not elected on the basis of your surface characteristics, rather the depth of your character. It was not enough for Hillary to get elected on the basis of becoming first woman president. What matters more is what you stand for. During the campaign Donald Trump controversially said that Hilary Clinton would not have won the Democratic nomination if she was a man, and in hindsight, he is probably correct. Sadiq Khan was not elected to London Mayor because he was a Muslim, but perhaps in spite of it. Content matters more than a candidate’s gender, race, or religion.
- To win an election, you need a clear and distinctive platform. Whatever you thought about Trumps policies, and despite constant flip-flopping on minor issues, he had clear central tenets of his campaign, which I’m sure almost every American could name. Build a wall. Renegotiate trade deals. Take a tough stance on Isis. The day before the election, sitting at lunch, my colleagues and I could not think of one distinctive Hillary Clinton policy other than ‘more of the same’. Repeating a simple but distinctive and authentic message to voters works, and trying to get elected on the basis of not being the other person does not.
- The left is failing to understand ordinary people. As a Labour man through and through, this point is most relevant for me and the shambles that is my party at the moment. Screaming evil or ignorant at people who don’t share your narrow vision is no way of getting them to vote for you. Silencing opposition does not work either, they will get their revenge in the privacy of voting booths. Despite many progressive’s clear lack of enthusiasm to get behind Hillary Clinton, and the greater television coverage Jill Stein got due to some similarities with Bernie Sanders, Gary Johnson the Libertarian candidate got almost four times the number of votes as the Greens.
If you listen to Trump and UKIP supporters, the word that keeps coming up, and a word we seem to keep on ignoring is “freedom”. Freedom from Washington. Freedom from Brussels. But much more fundamentally, the freedom to. Trump gained fame and created a television career on the basis of projecting an image of success and wealth, and this no doubt played a defining role in his election to the Oval Office. Ordinary voters want hard work to be rewarded, and deeply resent the idea that people can come into communities and receive handouts for nothing. The left has got to incorporate this ability to be free from excessive government burden; free to innovate; free to make something of yourself; free to be left alone and not constantly harassed into adopting a PC language and culture into its vision for the country. I believe it is a spirit that successful Labour leaders and Prime Minister’s in the past have accommodated. But as long as we allow the Tories to hold a monopoly on freedom and success, while the Labour party holds the images of being the party of red tape and handouts, will be doomed to sit on opposition benches.