Lessons from America

In this issue, on the eve of the Republican convention in New York, we publish (page 14) an extract from an important new book by the American radical writer Thomas Frank. He dissects the central puzzle of modern US politics: that the mass of ordinary Americans, on average and below-average incomes, vote for politicians who openly favour the rich - through reductions in taxes on high incomes, inheritance and capital gains, cuts in welfare benefits, and deregulation of industry and finance. The result is a country of quite staggering and growing inequalities, where the income (including stock options) of the typical chief executive is between 400 and 500 times that of the average worker. (In Britain, Europe's most unequal country, it is a mere 50 times greater.) There has been no trickle down. The poorest fifth of households have lower average incomes than they did in 1979. Yet it is not the rich who have put Republicans into power: barely half the Americans earning more than $100,000 a year voted for George W Bush in 2000.

How has this come about? And what are the implications for Britain and the British left? According to Mr Frank, the Republicans adopted the political approach of the left at the very moment the left abandoned it: they have turned themselves into class warriors, with a highly organised popular movement behind them. But the agenda is social and cultural, not economic. Millions of Americans have been convinced that an intellectual, liberal elite, mainly through its control of the media and professions such as teaching and medicine, has imposed abortion, homosexuality, pornography, divorce and promiscuity on the nation; given special privileges to minorities; and denigrated "traditional values" such as patriotism, sexual fidelity, gun ownership and general godliness. And just as the left once flourished with a set of aspirations that could never be realised (nationalisation of the means of production, for example), so now does the right. TV and films become ever coarser, gays more open, divorce more common. However, as Mr Frank writes, that suits US conservatives because their followers' feelings of powerlessness are dramatised and their alienation aggravated. "The goal is not to win cultural battles, but to take offence, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly."

Could it happen here? Religion counts for much less in Britain than it does in America, particularly among the majority white population. Yet surveys suggest that here, too, the real division in class opinion is no longer on economic issues, but on social issues, particularly race and immigration, sexual morality (60 per cent of the working class think that homosexuality is "wrong", against 37 per cent of the middle class) and law and order. That is why new Labour tilts to the right on these issues and why its leaders frequently denounce Hampstead liberals, the chattering classes and 1960s trendies. It perhaps also explains partly their support for the Iraq war. The government's nightmare is that, like the US Republicans, the Tories, despite several false starts such as "back to basics", will eventually succeed in mobilising swathes of the population behind a cultural crusade.

What all this suggests is that, both here and in America, the left has got itself into a terrible bind. In effect, it has taken the classic economic issues - distribution of wealth, levels of taxation, regulation of private companies - off the political agenda. Even where Labour's policies favour the poor, or even those on average incomes, it prefers to keep them quiet. When, for example, ministers want to propose a very modest and perfectly reasonable reform of inheritance tax, so that a small number of rich people pay more, and large numbers on average and slightly above-average incomes pay less, they delegate the advocacy to an arm's-length think-tank and then deny they have any intention of doing it. At the same time, both new Labour and the Democrats draw ever closer to big business - Labour now raises more from company donations than do the Tories - and do nothing to arrest union decline.

Just as the British Conservative Party was hollowed out, so now is the Labour Party, with its individual membership probably lower than at any time since the 1920s. Yet democratic politics withers if it lacks the support of large organised groups, debating, campaigning, agitating, feuding. Indeed, it is already withering and it will revive only when one party reawakens a sense of commitment and mission among a significant section of the population. Those who care for Labour and its values must pray that the Tories are not the first to achieve that new awakening, and that they do not find a British version of the magic formula that has made the Republicans so successful in America.

Best to stay under sail

Transport appears to present the British with peculiar difficulties. The fall of leaves in autumn invariably takes the railways by surprise, just as snow and ice in winter catch the road-gritters off their guard. Now, British Airways seems astonished to learn that large numbers of people go on holiday in August and that they may travel by aeroplane, often with suitcases. A shortage of check-in and baggage-handling staff has caused passenger delays of up to 24 hours. BA admits it was not quick enough to replace staff who resigned earlier in the year; no doubt everything was geared up for November. Even running seems to be a problem, with the British star Paula Radcliffe dropping out of the Olympic marathon, apparently because her coaches didn't expect it to be hot in Athens in summer. Perhaps we should accept we are a maritime nation (we won the coxless fours without mishap) and should attempt journeys only on water.