New Statesman & Society leader, 11 November 1994
The American election results should provoke some sober reflection by Labour in Britain
The mid-term elections in the United States have turned out to be precisely the disaster for President Bill Clinton that everyone expected. Throughout the country, in Congressional and gubernatorial contests, the voters turned on incumbent Democrats and sent them packing. The Republicans now have majorities, albeit small, in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Unless Clinton suddenly turns into a significantly more effective political operator than he has been so far, he will spend his last two years in the White House as the lamest of lame-duck presidents.
The fact that the electorate dumped on Clinton is not surprising. He has proved singularly inept in his two years in office, and the voters, whose approval of Clinton was never more than tentative, feel badly let down. At home, “Clintonomics” has been little more than an embarrassment, its “supply-side” measures failing to deliver promised jobs despite a vigorous recovery. Clinton’s attempts to reform America’s shambolic healthcare system got nowhere in the face of Congressional opposition; and the “tough” parts of his programme – the twin assaults on crime and on “undeserving” welfare recipients – have so far been ineffective where they have not been counterproductive.
In foreign affairs, the administration has basked in the reflected glory of peace in the Middle East and Ireland, and it has had an apparent success over Haiti (although whether it will seem that way in six months is another matter). But on everything else, from Bosnia and Cuba to the adapting of international institutions to the end of the cold war, it has been characterised by incompetence and uncertainty, the only constant being the president’s desire to improve his opinion-poll rating.
In the circumstances, it seems almost churlish to remind readers of the euphoria with which Clinton’s victory was greeted by much of the British left in 1992. After the disappointment of the British general election that spring, many in the Labour Party saw Clinton as a model to be emulated. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and the rest of Labour’s “modernisers” were particularly impressed: Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” and Brown’s “new economics” both owed a lot to Clinton’s election strategy.
Neither Blair nor Brown is quite so keen to advertise his admiration for Clinton today, to be sure; and both could plausibly argue that it’s one thing to learn from Clinton’s successful election campaign and quite another to be tarred with the brush of his failure in office.
But this argument is not entirely convincing. While it is undoubtedly true that Clinton’s inability to manage relations with Congress or his dithering in foreign policy cannot be traced back to his campaigning message, his problems are not completely unrelated to the programme on which he was elected. In particular, the failure of Clintonomics to create jobs and cut taxes and the ineffectiveness of “toughness” in social and penal policy raise real questions about the credibility of Clinton’s whole approach – and should be setting the alarm bells ringing in the Labour camp.
Put simply, the problem is that Labour, having adopted substantially the same politics as Clinton did, could all too easily find itself two years into government facing much the same voter disillusionment. On economic policy, Labour, like Clinton, argues that old-fashioned “tax-and-spend” “Keynesianism in one country” is dead and that the key to success in the modern world is the supply side (essentially improving education and training). That goes down well with middle-class voters who shunned Labour in 1992 over tax. But what happens if supply-side interventions fail to make a dent in the unemployment figures and taxes remain at the same level? Similarly, while “toughness” on crime and its causes might strike a chord with voters today, what happens if it doesn’t make any difference to the level of crime? The British electorate might not be quite as volatile as the American, but the potential for spectacular switches in allegiance is undoubtedly there.
To be fair, Blair has made it clear that he is aware of the problem of a Labour government failing to satisfy raised voter expectations: one of the main themes in his keynote speech to Labour conference last month was the danger of making false promises to the electorate. Awareness of the problem, however, is not the same thing as having a solution. The American mid-term elections should provoke some serious thinking by the Labour leadership.