Jon Cruddas: Labour should do as the US Democrats are doing

What is bringing back voters are policies that tackle the insecurities facing workers
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Over the past 10 years, the Labour party has always been told by its leaders that the overriding lesson of American politics is that Clinton-style "triangulation" is the key to electoral victory, and that any move away from it spells inevitable defeat – as it supposedly did for the Democratic candidate Al Gore in 2000.

But increasingly that is not how the Democrats themselves see it, and as Labour begins its conference in Bournemouth, we could usefully draw lessons instead from the debates in the Democratic presidential primary.

Speaking to members of the SEIU service sector trade union at the start of last week, John Edwards, now standing again for the presidential nomination, told the assembled cleaners, janitors, nursing home workers and others that the Democratic Party had taken the wrong path. "It's time we put our economy back in line with our values" by ending tax loopholes on the rich, improving healthcare and rebalancing trade treaties to protect the interests of ordinary working Americans rather than the profits of corporate America.

John Edwards' passionate defence of 'the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party' is helping to define the primary season in the US. He is tapping into the sense that for the Democrats to win, it is no longer sufficient for them to attempt to use the supposed science of modern electioneering to calculate the lowest common denominator and present it better than the Republicans. Instead they need to move the political terrain on to progressives' strongest ground and fight the campaign there. That way they can start to change the terms of American political debate, which have for too long been dominated by conservatives.

In that light, Democrats are waking up to the fact that praise for Wal-Mart and protection for private equity tax loopholes are not what wins them votes. What is bringing voters back to the Democrats are the policies that tackle the material insecurities facing working families.

Much of this strategy has already been road tested in the mid-term elections last year. That's why the centrepiece of the Democrat's successful platform last year was a big hike in the federal minimum wage. That's why Edwards' pledge to shift the tax credits away from boosting the bonuses of hedge fund managers and towards giving a helping a hand to working mums is resonating. These policies, which 10 years ago would have placed not just Edwards but many of the Democrats' new intake in both House and Senate on the left of the party, are becoming accepted as the new centre ground instead.

A similar trend is emerging in Britain too. Where once council housing was an issue relegated to the margins, it took centre stage in the Labour deputy leadership election I recently fought, and is now near the top of Gordon Brown's in-tray. Where once subsidising public transport was seen as dangerous ideology, it is now a vote-winner for south-eastern commuters fed up with the mess privatisation has brought. While improving rights at work has long been regarded as an election loser, it is now vital to win over the rapidly increasing army of the temporary, agency and part-time workers.

Gordon Brown has begun to grasp this crucial fact. He recognised that the focus on side-issue policies – like the idea to build supercasinos – won't bring back Labour's missing millions of voters. It's crucial that we keep our eyes firmly focused on providing new housing, a better public NHS and new protections for the millions of vulnerable workers in our economy. All of these problems need solutions firmly based in progressive values, and Mr Brown has the chance to place himself in the political centre ground by advocating them.

This analysis allows us to look at issues in a new way. It is not just people on council housing waiting lists who will benefit from new housing stock becoming available for rent. It is also people looking to own a home, but who are saving up their deposit. Progressive policies can reunite all the elements of the wide coalition that once came together to elect a Labour government.

John Edwards is not the front-runner, and if polls are to be believed, he won't win the nomination. But he has shaken up the Democrats in a way that was desperately needed, and others are taking up his themes. Many Democratic congressional candidates have already taken office on a similar strategy.

By showing that triangulation isn't just unnecessary but in the long run is actually counter-productive, these Democrats are showing how the party can again win not just elections but also the arguments that decide them. This conference shows progressives on both sides of the Atlantic resurgent.

The author is MP for Dagenham