The Labour Team Learnt the Lessons of Clinton's Campaign Techniques - with Devastating Effect. Now for Some Lessons in How (Not) to Govern

By Dionne, E. J. | New Statesman (1996), May 1997 | Go to article overview

The Labour Team Learnt the Lessons of Clinton's Campaign Techniques - with Devastating Effect. Now for Some Lessons in How (Not) to Govern


Dionne, E. J., New Statesman (1996)


Tony Blair, like Bill Clinton, enjoys contradictions. Both prefer not so much to resolve them as to "transcend" them, get around them, ignore them or run right through them.

That is no bad thing, especially if Blair, as he has proposed, intends to learn from the mistakes made by his co-conspirator. The lessons of Clintonism in power are almost entirely contradictory. And the biggest contradiction is that Blair should learn from Clinton but realise that many of the lessons may not be applicable at all.

First, some that are:

Don't think too big/Don't think too small. Blair has learnt the first half of this lesson with a vengeance. And the logic of the "think small" view is compelling enough. Voters in most democracies mistrust government, do not expect much, are wary of grand schemes. More than that: democratic electorates are impatient with politics, absorbed in their own lives and don't think much about public affairs. This is not 1936, 1945 or 1968. If a politician can promise a few small, plausible improvements (modestly better schools, better crime fighting), voters will respond.

The text used for the Clinton lesson in this area is his health care bill. The standard rap is that Clinton tried to change the American health system too much, too fast. There was no way he could get a national health system passed. If he had started with "incremental" changes - keep an eye on that "incremental" word - we'd have more health reform now than we do.

The best news for Blair is that Britain already has a national health service. Blair is also advantaged because things are going well enough in Britain that expectations of change are lower now than they were in the US in 1992.

But there are problems with smallish thinking. Take Clinton on health care. The biggest mistake Clinton made was not in trying to get us universal coverage, it was in having no back-up plan in case his first effort failed. In political terms, Clinton needed to think bigger than he did, not smaller. He had to see the struggle for health reform as part of a long-term project and accept that some defeats were inevitable along the way. As it is, Clinton's plan lost, the Democrats whimpered and the Republicans paid no price for their role in defeating it.

Similarly Clinton raised some useful issues around the organisation of work, proposing modest family-leave laws and some subsequent small improvements in them. But the organisation of work is a big issue. To take this one as a long-term matter would mean opening a big debate. Little changes are good, but a serious debate about the power of workers/parents to have some control over their lives would be better still.

There is also this: small thinking is easily made fun of. Blair already confronted this in the campaign. Clinton confronts it now. Being Prime Minister or President is different from being a local councillor.

Don't forget your political base/Don't forget your new supporters. The most dispiriting debate during Clinton's first term was about whether "he had run as a New Democrat and governed as an Old Democrat". This debate presumed the wrong thing: that Clinton had broken with the Democratic/New Deal tradition and created something entirely new.

Clinton and Blair have both made a different claim: not that they have utterly abandoned the political traditions from which they sprang but that they are reinterpreting those traditions for a new age. Sorry, you can't ignore the fact that Ronald Reagan was president and that Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. You can't ignore the changing class structure, the decline of the traditional manual working class, the various other economic changes.

That means that both Clinton and Blair got elected because they united their parties' traditional constituencies with new constituencies that came to be disappointed with conservative rule. If you ignore your traditional supporters in the working class and don't improve their living standards and opportunities, they will abandon you (which happened to the Democrats in America's 1994 mid-term elections). …

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