Learning the wrong lessons from Denver

August 28, 2008 at 10:47 am | Posted in British Politics, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment
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A group of AFL-CIO union members gather outside the site of a McCain townhall meeting

A group of AFL-CIO supporters gather outside the site of a McCain townhall meeting

Since there’s nothing our MPs enjoy more than a fact-finding trip to some fancy foreign locale (better that than spend time in their dreary constituencies, eh?), representatives from the three major parties are currently prying into the Democratic Party’s Denver convention for ‘lessons in strategy’. From a progressive point of view, I doubt this amounts to anything more than gawping at the Hollywood razzle-dazzle, falling asleep during some of the dire keynote speakers (I can recommend Mark Warner, if you’re suffering from insomnia) and spending their spare time inhaling excess hope, but at least Menzies Campbell is trying to learn something, even if his first impressions are but a convenient fiction:

Campbell said: “This is my seventh convention and it seems to me that the influence of money is enormous.”

He was impressed by the way that Obama had used small donors to fund his campaign. “The lesson for Britain is get rid of the union support and (Lord) Ashcroft and get pounds 100 from each member of the public.”

Oh, really? The lesson from the Democratic Convention is that you need to get rid of wealthy donors and trade unions? The same Democratic Party that receives large donations from Hollywood moguls, trial lawyers & internet entrepreneurs, not to mention the odd corporation? The same party that relies heavily on organised labour for its GOTV operation? Has Sir Menzies been spending a little too much time by the hemp stall?

Now, I think it’s a good idea for the Liberal Democrats to think about funding solutions which come from sources other than wealthy donors and trade unions; they have little support from either group, and any strategy for party building would have to consider grassroots fundraising & organising. But for Campbell to walk around Denver and conclude that the Democrats have excluded or diminished unions from their movement and benefited as a result is such a strange mischaracterisation that you wonder whether he’s really been paying attention.

Let’s be clear: the labour movement in the United States is already diminished. Less than 10% of Americans in the private sector are members of unions, and the union-busting policy shared by the biggest corporations means this figure is unlikely to increase substantially. The netroots didn’t originate out of a desire to promote labour activism, but its rise to power has certainly facilitated it. As Henry Farrell notes in this essay, the union-based Change To Win coalition has adopted many of the more decentralised, open-source organising methods that are characteristic of the netroots, and you can increasingly see bloggers and union leaders working together on common goals, like this 2007 campaign to unionise school bus drivers.

The internet provides a space for issues very dear to trade unions to be aired, and by standing with sympathetic allies in the netroots on campaigns such as the Employee Free Choice Act, raising the minimum wage, safeguarding social security or achieving universal healthcare, they stand a much better chance of success than those days when they stood alone. The netroots has begun to strengthen the aims of the labour movement, not diminish them, and if Menzies Campbell thinks that progressive goals can or should be achieved by excluding trade unions, then his trip to Denver was a waste of time.

Image courtesy of the AFL-CIO (Creative Commons)

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