Third way party reform: part 2

The second in a series of guest posts by Hayden Munro. Read part one here.

However as we now know, for all its electoral success, Clinton and Blair’s Third Way failed in some very real ways, ways that would see it summarily rejected by the majority of progressive thinkers and leaders by the turn of the decade. Within ten years, Blair would watch as his successor Gordon Brown re-embraced the Keynesian style demand side stabilisation policies of “Old Labour” in the face of a Great Financial Crisis that Blair never saw coming. Even worse, Blair was forced to watch as his chosen heir David Miliband was defeated in a Labour leadership election by his brother Ed Miliband, who ran on a ticket of opposition to the Iraq War and a “turning the page” on Blair’s legacy. Likewise Bill Clinton could do nothing but smoulder as his wife Hillary was defeated in the 2008 US Democratic Primary by an upstart Senator who promised to move on from the days of “Old Washington” and the small scale incremental change of the Clinton years. The electoral repudiation of the Third Way is the strongest possible evidence that there was something fundamentally unsatisfying with the outcomes of the Third Way project, and a look at Clinton and Blair’s economic record tells us why. Fundamentally, on the key economic challenges facing us today, the Third Way did not offer solutions.

To understand why the Third Way was unable to address these concerns, we must look at how it came to dominate the politics of Labour and the Democrats. It is here that we begin to see answers for why our politics stopped being responsive to the vast majority of our citizens. Because what both From and Blair did was takeover their parties by reforming how their members participated in their parties’ internal democracy. Despite the vast differences between the US and UK political system, and the rules structure of the Democrats and Labour, From and Blair’s strategy was the same: change the rules under which the party operated in a way that weakened the ability of opposing groups to organise against them, by promoting the idea that less organised forms of participation were more “democratic”. The effect of depowering organised groups within the party was always the same: it increased the power of elites and centralised control of the party apparatus and platform in the hands of an elite few. This led to less membership, less organisation and parties governed in an increasingly “top down” way.

To illustrate how this process worked, let’s look at the key master stroke that allowed From’s DLC candidate, Bill Clinton, to win the Presidency. As we’ve seen already, From was aware that the makeup of the Presidential Nominating process required candidates to place upmost importance on the views of liberal and union activists required to win the vital early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. What From, the DLC and their allies in Southern Legislatures decided to do was to reform the nominating calendar to favour a certain style of campaigning different to the grass roots organising required to win the early states, a style of campaigning that needed entirely different resources than the current system. Most importantly these would be resources that From and his elite allies would control, creating a new system of incentives whereby aspiring presidents would be pushed to rely on From and his allies they way they had once relied on the liberals and the unions.

Bill Clinton and his Democratic rival, Paul Tsongas

The main venue for these changes was around “Super Tuesday” (which you’ll be hearing a lot about if your following the Republican Nomination fight at the moment). Originally a grouping of five Southern states holding their primaries on one day, the original idea behind Super Tuesday was to make sure that the South was not ignored in the nominating fight. However what From and his allies did was convince many other states to hold their primaries on the same day. This effort was incredibly successful, with the number of states holding primaries on the same day increasing from 5 in 1984 to 20 in 1988. At the same time From and his allies pushed to have the nominating calendar shortened, with more primaries happening with less space between them. The combined effect of these two changes was to radically transform what it took to win the Democratic Nomination. No longer could a candidate rely on grass roots support to win Iowa and New Hampshire and get momentum allowing them to build organisations one by one in successive states. The sheer scale of having so many primaries at once meant that mass media and paid advertising now took on central importance in the process. Whoever could gain control of the resources necessary to run this sort of campaign would have an almost unstoppable advantage in the nominating contest. This greatly increased the importance of the “invisible primary” period, where candidates would court the support of influential party actors who could provide them with the money and media attention required to win. In short it created a new set of “orthodoxies” candidates would have to play to if they wanted to be able to be President.

It should be of no surprise, given his role in pushing for these changes, Al From was in control of exactly these vital resources. Ken Baer’s excellent history of the DLC, Reinventing Democrats tells us that in the early 1990’s From wrote to then Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton and promised him “an ongoing Washington operation, staff backup, funding for travel, substantive support on issues development, a magazine in which Clinton could write a column, and unlimited opportunities to get national press attention… access to a growing network of ‘up and coming political leaders’, and entrée into the Washington and New York fund-raising circles.” in exchange for Clinton agreeing to become the chair of the DLC and adopting the DLC agenda in his 1992 presidential campaign. What From had managed to do successfully was change the rules so that any candidate for President would need exactly the resources that From and the DLC was best able to offer.

Bill Clinton and Tom Harkin in 2003

The 1992 campaign was to prove the wisdom of From’s strategy. With Iowa Senator Tom Harkin in the race, Clinton was unable to compete effectively there, coming third with just 76 votes. In New Hampshire he finished a distant second loosing by nearly 10% of the vote, though admittedly through some smart expectations management was able to present this as a mini victory. The real victory however came on Super Tuesday when Clinton won every southern state, reviving his candidacy an, giving him an insurmountable delegate lead and exposed his rival’s fund-raising weaknesses. Clinton went on to win the Nomination and the Presidency, becoming the first person ever to win the Presidency without winning New Hampshire. This historic first was clear evidence that From and his allies had completely changed the game when it came to nominating a President. No longer did organised interest groups control the nomination process, now elite opinion, and the money and media attention that went with it, was the constituency group key to the nomination.

And it is here that we see the exact moment when the super wealthy gained their veto power over the agenda of the Democratic Party. To even have a chance at the nomination, a candidate would have to be able to raise large amounts of money and win elite approval during the invisible primary period. No candidate that espoused a public philosophy which had a real chance of reducing the power of elites, or reforming the economy in a way that elite did not approve of, could come close to the resources needed to win the presidential nomination. Since in modern American politics it is the presidential nominee, and if they are elected, the President that dictates a parties message and agenda, these changes meant that any public policy that seriously challenged elite control would face nearly insurmountable obstacles in trying to find its way onto the parties agenda and into law. The labour unions and issue groups that used to be able to able to organise middle and working class voters and exert pressure over nominees to push their issues onto the agenda were now powerless in a system designed to only react to elite opinion.

When Blair won the leadership of the Labour Party in 1994 after cutting a deal with his chief rival Gordon Brown, he set about his own campaign of neutering the power of organised groups in the party. Blair radically centralised the party’s functions, placing more control of policy, messages and candidate selection in the hands of the Leader’s office than ever before. The key strategy of Blair’s reforms was to diminish the power of organised groups by insisting that as much as possible, members exercised their influence on an individualised basis, rather than as part of a collective. For example, Union votes in leadership selection had previously been decided on by a winner take all basis, Union membership would vote for their desired candidate and who ever got the most support would receive all of that Union’s vote. By agreeing to bloc vote like this, Unions were able to wield more influence. Under Blair’s reforms union members voted individually and the votes were delivered proportionally. This theme of individualised participation, rather than exercising influence through membership of an organised interest group, goes right through Blair’s reforms. Blair and his allies held that this was more democratic, as it stopped things like “Union Bosses deciding nomination fights” or the overwhelming power of activists in deciding policy.

In examining the record of the Blair Government and the “New Labour” project, we see the folly of these decisions. By neutering the party and its members’ ability to exert power over the leadership, Blair and his allies removed the voices that could have stood in organised and effective opposition to decisions like the Invasion of Iraq, or the deregulation of the banking industry. Not surprisingly given the lack of real power afforded to anyone outside the leader’s office, Labour under Blair saw a stunning drop in membership and involvement. The increasing reliance on spin, money and media elites, rather than true grass-roots support, robbed Labour of its legitimacy and set it up for its disastrous 2010 defeat and its poor showing so far in opposition. The only groups it seemed who were able to influence Blair and the leaders office were elites, the media and super wealthy. Just like in America, the decision to push members into individualised, non-organised forms of participation had in fact given the super wealthy a veto over the policies of the Labour Party.

In part three we will look at the lessons from the DLC and New Labour, and see what the New Zealand Labour Party can take from them…

2 thoughts on “Third way party reform: part 2”

  1. My read of your piece is that the primary process was skewed towards a small minority. From wanted a candidate who didn’t respond only to that minority. His solution was to bundle primaries together. In a country of the scale of the USA that’s going to mean media is more important. And you need money to buy media.

    Was there a third way, ahem?

    By implication are you saying Obama is the candidate of Big Money?

    I thought Hillary was and Obama got a good chunk from the ordinary people until the big money started to flow because he was a serious contender?

    I doubt the money issue matters in NZ because our scale is so small.

    Is it true that unions get votes on their membership in the UK rather than active participants; if so, isn’t that just another way of organizing the rules to favour an outcome?

    Looking forward to Part 3. Hopefully all the feedback will cause a part 4 rebuttal!

    1. Hi Darel,

      I’ll leave it to Hayden to address most of your points, one thing I can answer on is the UKLP and their union votes.

      I’m not sure how it works at conference, but when it comes to leadership selections, they send a postal ballot to every union member.

      There is still room for this to be abused, and it was in the 2010 leadership election:

      “Under Labour Party rules, trade unions are allowed to make recommendations to their members, but are barred from doing this in the same communication that contains the ballot paper. During the election, it emerged that both the GMB and Unite had included both an envelope containing the ballot paper, and promotional material for Ed Miliband, their favoured candidate, in the same envelope, attracting criticism that they had breached the spirit of the rules.”

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