Blumenthal: Hillary the working class hero

Former adviser to Bill Clinton, Sidney Blumenthal is now on Hillary's campaign team. Here he tells R

Let's face it. Hillary Clinton is scarcely an obvious working class hero. But over the past few months she has forged a bond with blue collar and middle class voters which Barack Obama cannot even begin to emulate - that's according to ex-West Wing insider Sidney Blumenthal.

In an interview with newstatesman.com, the man who stood by President Bill Clinton through thick and thin, warned that the Democratic candidate who fails to win the hearts of the American working and middle classes will fail to enter the White House.

Now on Hillary’s campaign team, Blumenthal says it is her struggle in the primaries and her fighting spirit have established an unexpected special bond between her and Middle America.

When the race began, she may have been seen as a more elitist figure, but her campaign has transformed into a fight on working and middle class issues.

“She has a tangible connection with them that she didn't have before. She has very definite connections with these voters.”

Blumenthal, who has written extensively about the consequences of a Republican-dominated America and been an outspoken critic of Bush the younger, believes that the Democrats’ key failure in the latter part of the 20th century was an inability to reach and represent working people: “This is a central factor for the regeneration of the Democratic party,” adding they had come to be seen as "elitist".

The Democrats were further stigmatised, particularly through the Reagan years, as less patriotic than the Republicans, and less competent with the economy - similar to the picture the Tories painted of the UK Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s. "The Clinton period was an effort to deal with these inherited problems and to reconstruct the centre left,” says Blumenthal.

The strength of Blumenthal’s conviction that Hillary should be the next Democratic candidate matches the strength — and waspishness — of his opinion that Barack Obama should not. For example, he dismisses Obama’s foreign experience as “I think he stopped in Britain once for a day”.

“Obama's problem is, as a candidate he hasn't really extended his support beyond his base as a state senator.” These supporters hail from liberal academia, the well-off young and African Americans, believes Blumenthal, who is not afraid to point the finger at Obama's attitude to working class as “insulting”, plainly referring to comments during the Pennsylvania primary.

“His supporters may be fervent but they leave the centre of the party cold,” says Blumenthal.

Blumenthal says declaring Obama has won is also “premature” and “if he had already won then he wouldn't need to make the claim”.

Blumenthal echoes Clinton's unwillingness to quit the race, pointing to her wins in seven of eight big states and the votes of the “popular majority”.

That's not to say Clinton and her supporters are unaware of just how big a rift there is between the two wings of the Democratic party, and what an effort it will entail to bridge this gap when, finally, a single candidate rises, battle-scarred, from the ashes of the campaign.

“There's no consensus in this party. This is a unique situation” admits Blumenthal, and in case anyone thought that implied Clinton giving in and retiring hurt, he swiftly points out that the idea “that the consensus will magically surround Barack Obama is a fallacy”. But surely this is a difficulty faced by both candidates, whoever should takes the nomination? “Politically the Democratic Party does have a problem,” he admits.

Curiously, Blumenthal seems more riled about Obama than Republican candidate John McCain, “a genuine war hero”.

McCain's individualism and his unwillingness to toe the party line “resonates deeply in the country”, says Blumenthal.

“Democrats will have to deal with him eventually, but first they have to deal with themselves,” says Blumenthal believes, unlike many commentators, that Democratic indecision has not given McCain a head start, because he “can't focus on who his opponent is”. Others argue he is being given plenty of time to decide on his tactics while the eye of the media is trained on the Democratic storm.

“Patriotism and national security are still associated in the public mind with the Republicans more than the Democrats. This is more of a problem for Obama (than for Hillary).”

Blumenthal worked with Tony Blair on the Third Way concept but during our interview didn't want to be drawn on the tasks that Gordon Brown currently faces. However, he did add that following a charismatic leader into office was always a challenge.

Nor has US foreign policy helped the occupants of Downing Street over the past eight years.

“There was a unique relationship between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, I think that relationship was abused under George Bush. Bush used the UK to justify his policies and then dismissed the analysis, judgements and policy suggestions that came from the British government on everything from how to organise an international coalition and climate change to the Middle East, to how to deal with Iraq after the war.”

Blumenthal is just as happy to take aim at the media as well as the political elite. “Each time I think the US media has reached the bottom, it finds a new cellar.” He argues journalists “were indispensable as Bush's instruments of disinformation”, and have now turned their fire on Hillary Clinton - “many of them are crudely misogynistic” and have “brazenly taken sides, in this case for Obama”.

Of course, Blumenthal, too, has taken sides. And in the dying days of a tightly fought war of words, this master of US political language is a good man to have as your lieutenant. Whether his championship will make a difference to Hillary Clinton is less clear.

The Strange Death of Republican America; Chronicles of a Collapsing Party, £14.99, by Sidney Blumenthal, is published on 1 June.

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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