The “Great Opportunity Party”

Yesterday's GOP.

I could spare you the niceties of yesterday’s GOP convention and just say that the Republican agenda is very much aligned with the preservation of The American Dream. But besides missing out on some fine and rather compelling rhetoric, you’d also miss out on attempts to humanise flip-flop Mitt, if only by proxy.

Some of the finer points of the Republican plan to revitalise “what America has always offered in abundance – opportunity” (John Boeven, Senator for North Dakota) include “unshackling (…) assets” that will lead “to real energy independence” (John Sununu, Governer of New Hampshire). Here Hoeven and co. are referring to the “Obama red tape” that is allegedly blocking the extension of the Keystone Pipeline. However, as FactCheck notes, these claims are largely untrue and overstate the positive impact of the Keystone XL (the much touted rise in employment would be as negligible as the impact on fuel prices).

The point is, the whole evening was carefully orchestrated to signal that Republicans stand for the shift from “an entitlement society to an opportunity society” (Bob McDonall, Governer of Virginia), and that Mitt Romney – a hard-hitting business man that crawled his way up from the gritty Detroit suburbs - best embodies these values. Obama, on the other hand, was repeatedly caricatured as a dirty European Socialist who would rather drown in Obamacare debt than embrace “free enterprise” or recognise American Exceptionalism. (This may or may not be my biased abridged version of it.) But the theme of American Exceptionalism, I promise, was as prevalent country music intervals.

In addition to fitting Romney squarely into the “Great Opportunity Party” (coined by Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn) ethos, Steven King (National Committeeman) and Ann Romney (Potential First Lady) attempted to make the man that kept his dog on the roof his car a bit more personable.

King did so the only way he knew how - by talking about Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan, apparently, “even at the age of 27, (…) was a man with big ideas and the courage of his convictions”. This bodes nicely for Romney, mainly because it’s a well-known fact that integrity is osmotic. Paul Ryan is also a “genuinely good man from the Midwest” who “can be found at church on any given Sunday” before retiring to watch a Packers game and exchanging stories with neighbours about fishing (I’m not making this up).  It’s good that Paul Ryan likes sports, like the rest of us, because Mitt Romney probably has “some great friends who are football team owners”.

Ann Romney would later address her husband’s social awkwardness head-on by acknowledging that he was the funny, shy type that girls liked for his vulnerability. In all seriousness though, Ann did a good job of making Mitt seem less robotic. In particular, she stressed his willingness to help others, both in the private and public sphere. This proved a good opportunity to rebut Mitt's reputation as an opportunist:

“Mitt doesn’t like to talk about how he’s helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point.”

Ann then strengthens the Mitt-as-the-embodiment-of-the-Land-of-Opportunity theme by concluding,

“This is the genius of America – dreams fulfilled help others launch new dreams.”

The land of opportunity Photograph: Ghetty Images
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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.