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Who's left? Mehdi Hasan on the top 20 US progressives

The New Statesman profiles the leading American progressives who are keeping the cause alive.

The list

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert

Van Jones

Paul Krugman

David Graeber

Elizabeth Warren

Rachel Maddow

Matt Damon

Congressman Keith Ellison

Sonia Sotomayor

Noam Chomsky

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Markos Moulitsas

Cornel West and Tavis Smiley

Cecile Richards

Danny Glover

Angela Davis

Glenn Greenwald

Tim Robbins

Michael Moore

Bernie Sanders


Don't dare say the "S" word around Barack Obama - or his advisers. In March 2009, a New York Times reporter asked the US president whether his spending priorities might suggest that he was a socialist. "The answer would be no," Obama replied. However, following a discussion with his ultra-cautious, centrist White House aides, a panicked president called the reporter back to add, defensively: "It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question . . . It wasn't under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks."

The president proudly declared that he had been "operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principle" and that "some of the same folks who are throwing the word 'socialist' around can't say the same".

Obama, of course, isn't a socialist - except in the fevered imagination of far-right opponents such as the Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who titled a recent book of his To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine. Over the past three years the US president has disappointed not just leftist radicals and card-carrying socialists, but even the mildest liberals, having refused to push for a bolder, European-style, single-payer reform of the US health-care system and having signed off on spending cuts that, in his own words, will result in "the lowest level of domestic spending since Dwight Eisenhower was president". To the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (see page 26), Obama is a "moderate conservative"; to the former Reagan policy adviser Bruce Bartlett, he is the "Democrats' Richard Nixon".

Authentic leftists - either socialists or social democrats - are few and far between in the United States. There is just one self-described socialist sitting in Congress: the independent senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders (see page 33). In fact, the US is the only advanced, industrialised nation whose political system remains bereft of a large, mainstream, avowedly social-democratic political organisation such as our own Labour Party or the French Socialist Party. "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" the German sociologist Werner Sombart famously asked in the 1880s. More than a century later, the question stands - and still has no adequate answer.

Signs of life

In his acclaimed new book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, the US historian Michael Kazin argues that socialists and progressives have had a huge transformative effect on American culture, helping to boost the rights of women, racial minorities and
homosexuals. Yet even Kazin concedes that the US left has lacked impact: it has never succeeded in building durable institutions or movements, winning elections, or enacting its economic programmes. And the present era, he argues, could be described as "a nadir of the historical left". The latest polls show that only one in three Americans has a positive reaction to the word "socialism"; one in five Americans self-identifies as "liberal".
Yet all may not be lost. There are flickering signs of life on the US left. An energised Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Keith Ellison (see page 29), is now the single biggest Democratic bloc on Capitol Hill. In recent months, the CPC has helped push Obama to the left on job creation. In Wisconsin, public-sector unions mobilised tens of thousands workers who took to the streets to protest against Republican plans to restrict collective bargaining rights.

Meanwhile, the Occupy movement, which erupted on Wall Street in September 2011, has spread across the United States - from Arizona to Alaska, from California to Colorado. Astonishingly, a Pew Research Centre poll released in mid-December showed that 44 per cent of Americans support Occupy Wall Street and just 35 per cent are opposed to it.

What next? What forces can these nascent, populist left-wing movements call on for support in the worlds of politics, economics, academia and the media? We've profile 20 leading American progressives (see list above), from a range of backgrounds, who have been at the forefront of efforts to defend not just liberal, but left-wing, social-democratic ideals. Some of them are well-known names; most of them have little to do directly with the Democratic Party; all of them are defiantly and unashamedly partisan.

As Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos blog, once said: "I am a progressive. I make no apologies."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama

Photo: Getty Images/Richard Stonehouse
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Here's how Jeremy Corbyn can win back the Midlands

The Midlands is where elections are decided - and where Jeremy Corbyn can win. 

The Midlands: this “formless” place is where much of Labour’s fate lies. The party witnessed some of its most disappointing 2015 results here. In those early, depressing hours of 8 May, Nuneaton was the result that rang the death knell of Labour’s election chances. Burton, Cannock Chase, Halesowen & Rowley Regis, Redditch and Telford weren’t far behind. To win here Labour need to build a grassroots movement that engages swing voters.

Luckily, this is also a place with which Labour’s new leader has a natural affinity. The bellwether seat of Nuneaton is where Jeremy Corbyn chose to hold his last regional rally of the leadership contest; just a couple of counties over you’ll find the home Corbyn moved to in Shropshire when he was seven. He cut his political teeth round the corner in marginal constituency The Wrekin; it was in this key seat he did his first stint of campaigning. Flanked by a deputy leader, Tom Watson, who represents Labour stronghold West Bromwich East, Corbyn has his eye on the Midlands.

As MP for Islington North since 1983, Labour’s leader has earned London-centric credentials that have long since overshadowed his upbringing. But Corbynism isn’t a phenomenon confined to the capital. The enthusiasm that spilled out of Corbyn’s summer leadership rallies across the country has continued into the autumn months; Labour’s membership is now over 370,000. It’s fast catching up with 1997 figures, which are the highest in the party’s recent history.

London is the biggest beneficiary of this new movement - with 20 per cent of Labour’s members and 19 per cent of new members who signed up the week before conference coming from the capital. But Corbynism is flourishing elsewhere. 11 per cent of all Labour party members now reside in the southeast. In that same pre-conference week 14 per cent of new members came from this mostly Tory blue area of the country. And since last year, membership in the southwest increased by 124 per cent. Not all, but a good deal of this, is down to Corbyn’s brand of anti-austerity politics.

A dramatic rise in membership, with a decent regional spread, is nothing to be sneered at; people are what you need to create an election-winning grassroots movement. But, as May proved, having more members than your opposition doesn’t guarantee victory. Corbyn has spoken to many who’d lost faith in the political system but more people need to be won over to his cause.  

This is clear in the Midlands, where the party’s challenges are big. Labour’s membership is swelling here too, but to a lesser degree than elsewhere. 32 per cent of party members now and 13 per cent of those who joined up in seven days preceding conference hail from this part of the country.

But not all potential Labour voters will become card-carrying members. Corbyn needs to speak to swing voters. These people have no party colours and over the summer they had mixed views on Corbynism. In Nuneaton, Newsnight found a former Labour turned Ukip voter who thought Corbyn would take Labour “backwards” and put the economy at risk. But a fellow Ukip voter said he saw Corbyn as “fresh blood”.

These are enduring splits countrywide. Voters in key London marginal Croydon Central gave a mixed verdict on Corbyn’s conference speech. They thought he was genuine but were worried about his economic credibility. While they have significant doubts, swing voters are still figuring out who Labour’s new leader is.

This is where the grassroots movement comes into play. Part of the challenge is to get out there and explain to these people exactly who the party is, what it’s going to offer them and how it’s going to empower them to make change. 

Labour have nascent plans to make this reality in the Midlands. Tom Watson advocated bringing back to life this former industrial heartland by making it a base for manufacturing once again – hopefully based on modern skills and technologies.  He’s also said the leadership team will make regular regional visits to key seats. Watson’s words chime with plans floated by shadow minister Jon Trickett: to engage people with citizens’ assemblies where they have a say over Labour politics.

But meetings alone don’t make grassroots movements. Alongside the economy, regional identity is a decisive issue in this – and other – area(s) of the country. With the influx in money brought in by new members, Labour should harness peoples’ desire for belonging, get into communities and fill the gaps the Government are leaving empty. While they’re doing this, they could spread the word of a proper plan for devolution, harking back to the days of municipal socialism, so people know they’ll have power over their own communities under Labour.

This has to start now, and there’s no reason why the Midlands can’t act as a model. Labour can engage with swing voters by getting down to a community level and start showing – and not just saying –  how the party can make a difference. 

Maya Goodfellow is a freelance journalist.