What I learnt from the US midterms – and why it matters for the British left

Callum Heckstall-Smith worked for the Democrat US representative candidate for Indiana, Liz Watson. Now he is bringing the lessons back to Britain.

It’s a three-hour drive from the top of Indiana’s 9th Congressional District to the bottom. In the autumn the changing leaves make my journey to the headquarters of Liz for Indiana rather pleasant. They also distract me from knowing I am driving through an area that voted for Donald Trump two to one.

In Bloomington, the biggest town in the District, almost without exception, people attend or attended, or directly or indirectly work for the University of Indiana. The result is the town of 80,000 is an educated and liberal island in a sea of rural Indianan voters who feel (understandably) let down by an economy built without much consideration for them.

“If you spend enough time in Bloomington you’ll think Liz is going to win”, says Jim who has been volunteering with the campaign since the primary and, like me, is full time for the final month.

A month later, polls have closed, and Jim and I are deflated in a disused children’s playcentre that is doubling as the venue for the watch party. The Democrat candidate, our candidate, the labour attorney Liz Watson, has lost to the incumbent, Republican Trey Hollingsworth – 41% to 59%

Jim’s passing comment to me a month earlier has proven to be wise insight; the rural counties have turned out two to one Republican and despite record turnout in Bloomington, we’re on track to lose and lose bad.

There will be much written in the coming days and weeks as to why the Blue Wave was more Brighton Seafront than Surfer’s Paradise, so I will spare you my potted analysis.

I will take a moment instead to share three insights from the perspective of a Labour Party activist.

We are in a serious situation and need to get over ourselves

Let’s face facts, the midterms are overall a win for Trump.

In the UK, we are in a similar situation: green shoots are failing to grow into meaningful poll leads. Populism will wane, as it always does, but that isn’t the point and we have a duty to fight it better.

What is apparent from these midterms, is even with a reasonably united left, populism is hard to fight. In our current state, as reflected in polling, it is nearly impossible.

If someone wants to campaign to win a general election from a left platform, we need to find a home for you in the Labour Party. If instead you want to fight over which type of socialism is the right type of socialism to the detriment of our electability, you need to find another home. Sorry.

Momentum’s proposal for open selections is the way forward

You can’t escape that Momentum’s recent proposals for mandatory reselections are primarily self-serving, which is why it failed under their ownership.

However, the outward-facing reasoning – essentially that mandatory reselections would create a more diverse and robustly tested raft of candidates – is sound.

The Democrat House candidates who have performed best are the ones who have had a personal x-factor. The convoluted Labour selection process at the moment is weighted toward candidates who play the game and against people with broader experience. The result, a capable Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) that often struggles to engage directly with the public.

If our purpose is to win a working majority in the Commons, then selecting candidates with demonstrable ability to win votes across the electorate has to be the primary criteria in selecting them.

Introducing a US-style open selection process (I emphasise “style”; the US system has its issues) would be the obvious way to do that as it has proved effective in the Democrats taking control of the House.

We can’t just pile up votes in towns and cities

As demonstrated at the 2017 general election, piling up votes in urban areas isn’t enough to get working majority in the House of Commons.

At these midterm elections, the Democrat gains have been in primarily suburban areas; exit polls showed around 50:50 support among these voters.

As we have demonstrated in Indiana, it is almost impossible to cut through to rural communities energised by Trump (you can say the same about Brexit in the UK) and unless the maths in your patch favours urban voters enough that high turnout among them will clinch you victory, you must engage and turn out suburban voters to get those few points needed to win in marginal seats.

We have to acknowledge that traditionally left-wing issues are important to us but not necessary the main concern of many of who would broadly consider themselves left wing.

We must not just judge our priorities on our own moral scale, but we must also understand and articulate the values, hopes, and fears of left-wing voters who can carry us to victory at the next general election.

At the end of the day that is our job as politicians and now more than ever we must do it well.

Callum Heckstall-Smith is a former campaign manager, corporate communications specialist and Labour Party activist in lewisham Deptford.

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