The Blog

What Labour Can Learn From The Decimation Of The Democrats

Clinton had lost touch with the traditionally Democratic white male worker. Her liberal views on immigration and trade might draw enthusiastic liberals in the big cities, but many workers in the rust belt perceived her to be ignoring their economic interest.
Carlos Barria / Reuters

The election of the right wing populist Donald Trump, together with the defeat of the Democrats across America has lessons for the British Labour Party. Clinton believed that she has a solid base among the working class in the traditionally Democratic "rust belt" states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio and therefore her strategy was to concentrate on wooing young people, college educated women and the black and Hispanic vote.

Clinton's strategy seemed plausible because the predominantly white working class rust belt states had reliably voted for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; so surely they would not switch to a multimillionaire, property tycoon. Hilary also believed that Trump's early attacks on Mexicans were a big mistake which enabled her to turn out the Hispanic vote in record numbers. But on 8 November neither the minorities, nor young people turned out in the way Hilary hoped; but the white, male working class turned out to vote for Donald J Trump.

Clinton had lost touch with the traditionally Democratic white male worker. Her liberal views on immigration and trade might draw enthusiastic liberals in the big cities, but many workers in the rust belt perceived her to be ignoring their economic interest.

The rust belt states had been hurt by the North America Free Trade Agreement between the USA, Mexico and Canada, which had been signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. NAFTA enabled manufacturers to move their factories from the rust belt to Mexico, pay a fraction of American wages and avoid environmental and health overheads. Consumers got lower prices, but workers in the rust belt lost their jobs. Meantime the porous border with Mexico allowed millions of illegal migrants to enter and compete for jobs.

During the primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders had seized the imagination of college educated liberals and this forced Clinton to shift leftward on policy and to focus on getting minorities to support her. By the time that she won the Democratic nomination she was seen as the candidate of minorities and the left. Her liberal views might be lauded in coastal San Francisco or New York, but in the more traditional socially conservative heartlands, white male workers felt ignored.

Trump spotted the gap in the political market and filled it with a populist promise to put America first by repealing NAFTA and "building a wall". He correctly identified the fears of workers and offered simple solutions. When liberals attacked him as a racist, he told people he was being criticised for speaking up for them.

The great paradox is that the Democrats lost the 2016 election on the issues; not on emails or sexual indiscretions. White workersa quietly and consciously voted for what they saw as their economic interest. They just wanted less competition for jobs and an end to free trade. Few voters were fooled by Trump's bombast; they did not vote for the man, they voted for his policies. Hilary offered complex policies, which appealed to the college educated and liberals, whereas Trump offered simple, sometimes simplistic, solutions to the workers.

In his election campaign, Trump repeatedly reminded people that the Brexit phenomena in Britain had exposed similar social fault lines. The leaders of the three British establishment parties had united to call for the UK to remain in the EU for lots of detailed reasons, but the white working class in middle England voted to leave a free trade organisation because they wanted to get control of immigration. Most British workers did not vote because they were racist, they voted because they could see that immigrant numbers were rising and they were competing for jobs, houses and services. The three party leaders did not seem to be dealing with the problem. Cameron had promised to control immigration, but it had risen on his watch.

From 1992 to 2010, as the Labour MP for North Warwickshire, I represented workers in the geographical centre of England. It is a mostly white, working class constituency. After 2008, unlike many areas, it weathered the recession relatively well because new Business Parks attracted investment and created new jobs. But the new businesses also attracted hundreds of Eastern European workers. Local workers told me on the doorstep, "They're nice people, they work hard, but there are just too many of them". As the pro-EU son of immigrants I reminded people about the benefits of the EU and immigration, but people made it clear to me that they understood the link between membership of the EU and free movement of labour and they no longer saw it as in their economic interest to remain in the EU. When Cameron offered them a chance to leave the EU, I was unsurprised that my area voted strongly to leave.

In the 2015 election Labour Party had detailed policies on enforcing the minimum wage, tackling agencies abuses and improving services, but it failed to say it would try to do something about free movement of labour. And a year later explanations that the EU created jobs overall and benefited everyone collectively, did not cut through the fog of the referendum campaign. The Bank of England Report just before the referendum showing how the poorest tenth of workers had lost income due to migration merely confirmed that the concerns of workers had some economic substance.

Like the Democrats, the Labour Party relies on its working class base for its existence. In 2015 it is striking that in the inner cities with migrant communities, the Labour vote often went up, whereas in middle England, the smaller towns and villages outside conurbations, it went down. On the doorstep in middle England the reason given was immigration and generally, with exceptions, people talked about their concerns in a non-racist way. But people felt Labour needed to talk more openly about their concerns.

The Labour Party was created, by trade unionists and socialists, to mobilise the workers of Britain and to represent them in Parliament. Like Clinton's Democrats the Labour Party sought to help working people get a better deal by creating better health care, better working conditions and the minimum wage. For decades the Democrats and Labour have held together a coalition of workers, liberals and minorities. Both they now need to recognise that by championing liberal causes and minorities for all the right reasons, they have sometimes failed to listen attentively enough to the concerns of workers.

That does not mean that Labour or the Democrats ought to become an anti immigrant party; that would not only be morally dubious but also electorally suicidal. The real problem remains is globalisation, people feeling left behind as things change, denied a share in prosperity, the failure to redistribute wealth and the failure of government to improve services and build homes. Working people want their representatives to recognise their concerns, talk about them, present clear policies to deal with them and to explain them in a straight forward way. In return for their vote they want elected governments to get a grip on problems. And among other things the British Worker in the Midlands and the North, like the workers in Middle America, wants government to control borders, rather than to stop all immigration.

In 2015 the Labour Party and in 2016 the Democrats expected their working class base to just be there. They were not. They cannot be taken for granted. Both parties now need to work hard to get back in touch with the concerns of working class people or those workers will look elsewhere. The one benefit of being in opposition is that political parties have the time and the chance to redefine their purpose and get back in touch with their base.

Mike O'Brien QC, former MP and Labour Minister from 1997-2010