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Zack Exley Headshot

Why Labour keeps winning

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I just got back to the US from working on the British Labor party's reelection campaign. It was quite a contrast from the Kerry campaign, where I worked the final eight months of the 2004 election. I saw some incredible things in Britain - like "black pudding" (i.e. blood pudding) and pubs with wall-to-wall carpeting. But even more amazing was seeing a progressive Labor party ruthlessly and relentlessly kicking ass. Karl Rove has nothing on these guys - and they're using their evil powers for GOOD, not evil. (Well, if you can just forgive them for Iraq; but I really think they did it for the right reasons, however naïve that makes them - or me.)

As the Republican mudslide continues to bury a wilting Democratic party, and as the center-right gains strength across Europe, the British Labor party has won a historic third term with a commanding majority despite some major obstacles and liabilities.

How do they do it? I'm going to give you my take on it, but first it's important to recognize just how remarkable this Labor victory was given the circumstances the party faced. The British electoral system is similar to ours in that marginal seats (the equivalent of our swing states) hold the key to everything. Now, imagine Ralph Nader winning 20 or 30 percent of the vote in several of John Kerry's key swing states - and Kerry still winning with a solid Electoral College majority. The Liberal Democrats were Labor's Nader, but Labor still won a majority in Parliament plenty big enough to govern and an overpowering majority over the main opposition party, the Tories. The British people wanted a Labor government badly enough to vote for one despite an unpopular war and public suspicions that Tony Blair cares more about "his mate George Bush" than about improving health care and schools in Britain.

Plus, there is no way to chalk up Labor's success to cultural differences. Britain is not a left-leaning nation. It is the country of Margaret Thatcher, the cradle of Trickledown - a country that is right now in the throws of an anti-immigration backlash, and possibly soon an anti-Europe backlash.

In my opinion, there are the two key factors in Labor's success that the Democrats must take notice of.

First, New Labor has a political culture of instinctive, aggressive, fearless, ass-kicking - and a large number of senior politicians (plus a whole generation of talented junior staff and aides) with the political skill and polish to pull it off.

When the Tories show any kind of weakness, Labor pounces. I can't tell you how pleasing this was to see after our experiences in 2004. For example, at one point in the campaign a newspaper secretly taped a top Tory spokesperson saying the party would cut taxes and public services much deeper than they were admitting publicly. In similar situations I've heard many Democratic campaign strategists say, "No need for us to say anything - better to stand back and let them get a bad day or two of press than possibly creating a backlash against ourselves by stepping into the mix." Labor's reaction was to go immediately and relentlessly for the jugular - and to turn what might have been a one-day story into a one-week branding of the Tories as untrustworthy. Every Labor spokesperson, all at once, attacked. And they didn't go after the lowly spokesperson (who was quickly sacked), instead they went after the Tory party as a whole and it's leader Michael Howard. They took a mole hill and made a mountain of it - gloriously. The first morning the taping story broke, Labor held a press conference where a long series of Labor heavy hitters including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown solemnly and urgently spoke of the renewed "Tory threat" and Tory leader Michael Howard's true evil plans revealed. For the rest of the day, and everyday for the rest of the week, all major Labor spokespeople banged away at the story. And it was as though the campaign barely had to think about or discuss its response - so many of their senior politicians had the exact same instincts: kick 'em when they're down; target the top; keep attacking relentlessly until nothing more could be squeezed from the story.

Alternately, when the Tories get in a good hit on Labor, the whole organization leaps to offense instead of defense and does whatever it takes to beat back the attack - optimally turning it into something that backfires on the Tories. One morning early in the campaign, Michael Howard surprised Labor strategists by championing the cause of a fragile and elderly woman whose shoulder operation had been allegedly canceled seven times by National Health Service managers. The woman was holding a press conference in her living room and Michael Howard was having tea with her family, scolding Tony Blair for mismanaging the National Health Service. In that same kind of situation I've heard many Democratic strategists say, "Let's just let the story run its course and not say anything to draw attention to it," only to see the story drag on disastrously for weeks. Instead, Health Secretary John Reid was instantly outside the hospital where the woman should have been treated, giving powerful and confident comments to television cameras. Again, the campaign's message to the press was unified and strong, echoed by dozens of major spokespeople: "Michael Howard is running down our NHS; focusing on one unfortunate case out of millions is an attack on our heroic NHS staff; and you know what - we've looked into it and her operation was actually only canceled three times and she's got a Tory press officer working in her living room." Labor reacted so ruthlessly and relentlessly to discredit this Tory campaign tactic that Michael Howard almost never tried it again for the rest of the campaign.

Now, we all remember that the dream team Bill Clinton, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos had this same game down. But aren't we all starting to get the feeling that they were aberrations and that actually progressives are by nature incapable of being aggressive enough to win. Luckily, Labor proves that's false! And so we American progressives have got to accept we've got no excuse for being so...well...lame. Equally, there's nothing about progressive policies or ideas that make them unsuitable for hard-nosed campaigning. I just watched Labor apply Karl Rove tactics to a platform that includes increases to social services, increases to foreign aid, Third World debt cancellation, a national minimum wage, and resistance to (rather than embracement of) angry Tory rhetoric on immigrants and asylum seekers. Coming from our 2004 elections, I can't tell you how bizarre it was to watch the take-no-prisoners ass-kicking party using their powers for good instead of evil.

So the first factor that keeps Labor winning is that they have a large number of adept political operators who share an incredibly aggressive political culture.

The second factor that Democrats should notice is that Labor has a clear vision that it actually believes in - from the top of the party leadership all the way out to local activists.

A lot of lefties in America have it in their heads that Labor lurched dramatically to the right in order to take and hold power. That's not really true. If by lurch to the right they mean leaving behind the idea that all industry should eventually be nationalized and centrally planned by the state, then ok. But that's being a bit extreme, isn't it?

In its New Labor "modernization," the party acknowledged Capitalism. It accepted the principles of free markets, competition and trade. But unlike New Democrats, New Labor stuck steadfastly to the principles of social welfare and the role of government in guaranteeing progress. Their...er...ideological clarity is what makes them able to fight aggressively for a meaningful and coherent platform. Democratic candidates say, "I have a plan" over and over; but when the campaign is over, no one can tell you what that plan was. In Britain, everyone knows what Labor said it wanted to do in the campaign: spend more on the NHS and fight to make it work better by building more hospitals and improving performance; build more schools and fight for smaller class sizes; increase the minimum wage; expand day care programs and tax credits for poor families; continue economic policies that seem to have brought stability and growth for eight years. It helps that they were saying something discernibly different from their opponents the Tories.

Labor is not cowed by Libertarian ideological arguments against government having any role in social life the way Democrats are. The sad fact is that the Democratic belief system has been fundamentally disrupted by an orthodox Libertarian religion that they simply can't function effectively anymore as a party. New Labor did have it a bit easier in the same ideological fight than the Democrats did because Tory libertarian policies failed in Britain so spectacularly and unquestionably. But Labor's comeback in 1997 could have been a fleeting victory (as was Clinton '92, after which Democrats steadily lost Congress and, eventually, everywhere). When Labor came back, they articulated a real vision that made sense to people. They stuck to it and fought the ideological battles that you need to fight in order to hold power not just for one election cycle but for a generation.

The General Secretary of the Labor party, Matt Carter, has a PhD thesis and subsequent book titled, "Ethical Socialism." The Chancellor Gordon Brown has a PhD in economics, as does John Reid, the former Minster of Health and present Minister of Defense. There is definitely depth there - and it's not all about PhDs among top party leadership; there is an intellectual culture that goes all the way out to the party activists in local constituencies.

So there it is. The British Labor party has ruthlessly stolen all of the excuses away from us American progressives for languishing in ever-deepening powerlessness. They are proof that you can stand up for progressive values (and even take...um...unpopular stands on foreign policy) and still win.

Let's learn from them! I don't know why they brought so many of us, well, losers over there...me, Karen, Shrummy. Maybe they just felt bad for us. But was it really safe to concentrate so much bad luck in one place? In any case, for 2008 - and even for 2006 - I think we'd really benefit from getting some of that Labor perspective and talent over to the this side of the pond.