Douglas Alexander's speech on the Scottish independence referendum: full text

"The politics I believe in, an affirming politics of solidarity and possibility, cannot be built on the act of walking away from our neighbours."

Paisley, Renfrewshire                              

This week marks one year until the referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future. 

 

In some ways the 18th September is just another day, just another date in the calendar – but like so many seemingly random dates there is a deeper significance when you scratch beneath the surface.

 

The 18th September is a date with a fine progressive pedigree; as the day in 1895 that the Atlanta compromise was delivered – the precursor to the black civil rights movement in America. 

 

It was the day in 1919 when Dutch women won the right to vote, in 1987 it was the day that America and Russia agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenal.

 

And the same day when the so called Saffron Revolution began in Burma in 2007.

 

The 18 September 2014 is a date I've been reflecting on for some time. And throughout the summer, as well as spending time with my family, I took the opportunity to read, think and to try and consider the significance of this date for Scotland...with a year to go until the referendum.

 

Stepping back over the summer from the day to day exchanges confirmed to me just how arid (a strong but honest assessment) much of the contemporary constitutional debate has become. In the last year alone we’ve seen a debate characterised all too often by shallowness, grievance and personal vitriol.

 

There is a real risk that the vitriol, which at times has infected the debate, will not simply fade post 18th September 2014, and when people look beneath the surface of whatever numbers define the result, it will not be a pleasant view.

 

Whatever the outcome of the vote, that cannot and would not be good for Scotland.

 

Of course rigorous and passionate debate, differences and opinions strongly held are to be welcomed.

 

The choice that Scotland makes next year will matter....and matter deeply. It will not only be the biggest political choice that many of us will make in our lifetimes, it is a choice that will affect the lives, identities and opportunities of our children and grandchildren.

 

So over past weeks I’ve been reflecting on the following issue: how can the referendum debate be more worthy of this moment in our nation’s history?

 

How can we replace the superficiality of much that passes for our contemporary political discourse with a better discussion about who we are and who we want to be in the decades to come?

 

How can we dig beneath the numbers, the assertions dressed up as fact, the insult purporting to be opinion and explore the real opportunity this year gives us both as a nation and as neighbours?

 

Tonight I want to suggest that to secure that richer and more engaging discourse demands that in place of the shallowness that characterises much of the present debate, it’s time to dig deeper.

 

Now - with a year to go - is the time to consciously ask deeper questions about who we are, what we want for future generations and what kind of nation we want to be in the decades ahead.

 

It’s time to dig deeper into the traditions which have shaped our better values and instincts and seek to apply them anew to this debate.

 

And, tonight, in that spirit, I want to try and make three contributions to that discussion.

 

The first is an attempt to assess the enduring limitation of the Nationalist’s appeal, and second, to explain why I believe remaining part of the UK offers a more sure foundation on which to build a society and politics of the common good here in Scotland. Thirdly, I want to talk about how the way we debate these issues both before and after that referendum, can allow us to say something significant about the kind of nation we want to be in the years ahead.

 

So first, the Nationalists case.

 

Given the nature of the choice confronting Scotland next year, the debate inevitably has a binary quality: between those of us who want to stay together and those who wish to walk away. Because the end of the debate is a vote, the parameters of discussion are shaped by being for or against.

 

But of course the truth is that human relationships, for that is actually what our choice is ultimately about, are much more complex than that.

 

This is a discussion that is not just about the politics and power tied up in constitutional arrangements. It’s about neighbours, about families, about friendships, about solidarity, about what it means to share our lives together on these islands. 

 

The difficulty is that the deep timeless question of 'how do I love my neighbour’ is being forced into a single question of will I vote for or against separation. And it doesn’t fit. So the real texture of human relationships – what we mean by fairness and sharing, what motivates us to work, to volunteer, to give and receive, to help the stranger and campaign for a fairer society are too often lost in the debate.

 

That is a language of covenant - of relationships. Yet the Nationalists, under pressure from the polls, have chosen to retreat from covenantal language into a contractual language of economic absolutes and fiscal absolutes all too often absent facts, such as their claim that there will be £300k for every man, woman and child as a result of an oil bonanza.

 

I would suggest that one of the reasons the Nationalists are becalmed with a year to go is that this language just doesn’t accord with or even recognise the deeper emotional questions that underlie the choice of walking away from the ideas and institutions, the family members and the friends who have helped shape our sense of self in Scotland for generations and in turn our influence has helped shape the rest of the UK.

 

The ‘Yes’ campaign nonetheless endeavour to position themselves in the public mind as the optimists of the debate. They seek to describe their case for separation in terms that affirm a message of solidarity and community and claim a monopoly on the possibility of a more progressive future.

 

And setting aside their differences - between those in favour of the pound or the monarchy, or NATO, and those against as subjects for another day, it is fair to recognise that they have attracted support over the years by seeking repeatedly to claim for themselves the mantle of social democracy.

 

Today, instead, let's recognise and reflect upon the fact that so much of the Nationalist’s language is not about those very laudable aspirations.

 

For, if you look beyond the constant attacks on Labour, the denigration of ‘London’ and listen carefully, you see something more significant about these constant critiques.

 

You recognise that, for the Nationalist, this constant indictment of Labour, the UK, Britishness serves a central purpose in their constructed narrative of progress, possibility and uplift.

 

You come to see how at a deeper psychological level, their two messages - one relentlessly positive, the other relentlessly negative - actually rely upon each other.

 

For when the 'Yes' campaign speaks a language of solidarity and how we can make a new life for our nation, it expresses an implicit, if not explicit, criticism of the ‘other’ that holds us back.

 

For Scottish nationalists an assertion of fundamental differences and an implicit distrust of those beyond Scotland is a given. Loyalty extends to the Scottish nation and not beyond it. Indeed beyond Scotland's border notions of loyalty and solidarity cease to exist.

 

Nationalism in Scotland attempts to provide a simple and simplistic morality tale of decent, progressive Scots held back by whoever is their chosen 'other' of the day...Labour, London, the United Kingdom.

 

All too often this tale ignores causality and fault; it misinterprets our shared history, and at times our shared responsibility, and indulges a cultural conceit that not only are we – as Scots – concerned about social justice, but suggests that our friends, neighbours and family members in the rest of the UK are not.

 

The fact that the citizens of the rest of the UK are not all ‘austerity loving Tories’, but are friends, family, work colleagues, helps explains that while Scottish nationalism has proved to have some surface emotional appeal, it has struggled so badly to become an entrenched mainstream view of the majority of Scots.

 

And it explains the granite like resistance of most Scots towards embracing separation, whatever the anger we feel towards the policies and impact of a Conservative led Government whose mandate will have less than a year to run by September 18 2014.

 

But there is another reason why I and millions of other Scots resist the false claims of nationalism, and why I look forward to moving beyond the present terms of the debate towards a new discourse on the change we need in Scotland. A debate which will still be needed on September 19th next year.

 

Writing in a different context, in ‘Dreams of My Father’ Barack Obama explained his own encounter with and rejection of Black nationalism. Despite the evident differences between the ethnic nationalism of eighties Chicago, and the civic nationalism of Scotland today, his insight remains both powerful and relevant.

 

Speaking of the impact of nationalist discourse within his community, he wrote this:

 

“It was the distance between our talk and our actions, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as a people. The gap corrupted both language and thought: it made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication; it eventually eroded our ability to hold ourselves or each other accountable.”

 

As soon as I read these words, their relevance to the nationalists' claims here in Scotland seemed obvious to me. They highlight why, despite my passionate and continued belief in devolution, I am uncomfortable with much of what passes for contemporary argument about the constitutional question in Scotland.

 

For one of the central reasons all those years ago I stood in George Square, rallied in the Meadows or marched to Calton Hill to secure our Scottish Parliament, was in fact, to help liberate us from a political discourse of learned helplessness - where the challenges facing Scotland were always someone else’s fault.

 

I believed then and believe today in a culture of democratic accountability and shared responsibility.

 

Yet the centrality of the nationalist question to Scottish politics and their continued determination to avoid responsibility for every ill (while claiming credit for every success) has hollowed out and constrained too many of Scotland's debates. It is part of Scottish Nationalism's DNA that someone else is always to blame.

 

Of course supporters of separation believe they have obligations and responsibilities to their neighbours within Scotland. But central to their support for separation are notions of unbridgeable difference and mutual incomprehension that demands inevitable separation from those beyond Scotland's border.

 

Of course every society creates boundaries, but separation stands in a tradition that wants to put up boundaries, walls and restrictive definitions around the concept of our neighbour. Those with whom we can never fully identify, who are outside our group, who are different from us, or who might even place us in new uncomfortable, or even dangerous situations. In this case, it’s the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish.

 

The Nationalists' credo is not a politics of expanding and extending the identity of ‘our neighbour’. It is about limiting our sense of affinity and obligation to a line drawn somewhere from the Tweed to the Solway Firth.

 

For nationalists, the essential foundation for a progressive future is to walk away. For them not only is the United Kingdom the root of the problem. They also believe that exit from the United Kingdom is the only route to a progressive society.

 

And here, Obama’s further insights are instructive. Drawing on his experience as a Community Organiser he goes on to express a perspective that I think is highly relevant to where we find ourselves today:

 

“The continuing struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan - didn’t self esteem finally depend on just this? ... Our sense of wholeness would have to arise from something more fine than the bloodlines we inherited. It would have to find root in... all the messy contradictory details of our experience”

 

That insight that the true test of our esteem as a nation has to be rooted in those “messy contradictory details of our experience” rings true to me as a constituency Member of Parliament.

 

Politics is not about politicians, but about the people we are called to serve. And the true test for our national sense of who we are is not the false conceit of moral superiority, but the bracing and unyielding reality of the facts of everyday lives of the people we serve.

 

For my constituents today, the difference between pay and prices matters much more than any differences of outlook between Scotland and England.

 

For my constituents today, the real questions of will their children and grandchildren have a good school to go to, have opportunities to make the best of who they are for themselves and for others matters much more than Scottish separation.

 

For my constituents today, the challenges of welfare reform based on punishing those in poverty and blaming them for the national debt matters much more than the obsession with separation that is the lodestar of the present Nationalist Government at Holyrood. 

 

Frankly, looking for solutions to those real, every day concerns of my constituents are being lost amid the aridity and acrimony of the present debate about separation.

 

But in the year ahead, if we are willing, we can offer a different approach. Of course the competing campaigns, and their vision of what offers the best future for Scotland need to be and will be tested over the next twelve months.

 

But the referendum debate can and should do something else. Whatever the outcome, it can be a real opportunity to do something radically different with our public discourse and our political process, something that will transcend and last beyond a vote with its ensuing numbers

 

So of course the  critique of our opponents I have just offered matters, but, of itself, it is not and should not be enough.

 

If I and others believe, as we do, that within the United Kingdom our life together as Scots can be better, it is incumbent on me, and others, to also make that case.

 

And today I want to argue that the politics I believe in, an affirming politics of solidarity and possibility, cannot be built on the act of walking away from our neighbours.

 

On the contrary I want to suggest that the surest foundation on which to build that progressive future is instead determined by how we uphold an ethic of neighbourliness – both within Scottish society and beyond it, towards our neighbours across the rest of the UK.

 

Let me explain what I mean.

 

The coming 12 months give us all, on all sides of the debate, the opportunity to engage in a deeper discourse about who we are and what kind of nation we want to become.

 

Indeed, this time of deliberation and choosing challenges us to define anew who we are, but also how we are towards each other, those interactions intrinsic to human nature.

 

For myself, I believe that future of progressive possibility is best built not on false cultural conceit or assertions of grievance but on the very old idea of the common good – or, in the Scots dialect – the Common Weal.

 

As the newly published book by the American theologian Jim Wallis attests, the attainment of the common good rests on our answer to a question with deep scriptural roots: “who is my neighbour?”.

 

The pursuit of the common good not only challenges us to define who are labelled as ‘the others’, but also asks what are the obligations we owe to each other and how are we supposed to live together and why?

 

And it is in meeting those obligations that we owe each other that we best find out what we ourselves need and have those needs met.

 

The call to “love our neighbour” is the foundation of the common good, and the ethic of neighbourliness can be found in all of the great faith traditions.

 

Christianity, Judaism and Islam – each of the great Abrahamic faiths – all assert that you cannot separate your love of God from your love for your neighbour, your brothers and sisters.

 

Even the non-religious affirm the idea of “the Golden Rule”: ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’.

 

That’s why it is both so welcome and so emblematic to see the Church of Scotland and the Church of England collaborating over the creation of a credit union not just for clergy, but eventually for every community that wishes to have one.

 

The collaboration is to do much more than that however. Its deepest objectives lie in changing the culture of our financial systems by promoting mutuality and interdependency to be at the heart of our financial thinking. 

 

They seek to do this by changing the perception of credit unions from the “poor man’s bank” to one where, if many more become members, so many more who, at present, can't access any financial services, can have them made available.

 

By the Churches using their unmatched reach into every community across Britain, credit unions can cease to be for “others’ and gain a brand that is built of mutuality, common ownership and sharing what we have, so others can have something to share.

 

The founding principle of the project is that financial structures should be primarily built on common ground where we nurture human relationships, not economic ones.

 

It's that kind of thinking, and that kind of initiative that explains why I still believe that it is not time to walk away from our neighbours but instead here in Scotland to reclaim the too often neglected belief in the common good and seek to renew and live out that ethic of neighbourliness.

 

The fact that we are concerned about the actions of some of our neighbours is the time to engage with them, not give up on them and on those around them who share our concerns

 

It’s that foundation of common-good thinking on which we can best nurture our communities, promote a different and more civil national discourse, and approach our challenges in a mindset of hope and solutions rather than grievance and blame.

 

Now of course the referendum next year will represent a significant test of that ethic of neighbourliness.

 

Do those of us who believe in a politics of solidarity accept a diminished view that the limits of our neighbourliness, and the boundary of our solidarity is the border with England?

 

Yet even if, as I hope, Scotland rejects that view, we will still face the responsibility of translating an ethic of neighbourliness, and a politics of the Common Good, into practical improvements in the lives and opportunities of our fellow citizens.

 

And in particular the journey to the common good goes through the poorest communities.

 

Their voices - the voices of the dispossessed, the marginalised and the disadvantaged - are all too often the voices that are crowded out by the incessant chatter about separation. And when there is mention of those in poverty – it’s what will be done to or for them not what they will be enabled to do for themselves that is heard; it’s not enough to share a little more of any largess – it is power itself that needs to be shared.

 

Of course constitutional structures matter. I am and remain a committed believer in devolution - holding to the mainstream view that with a strong Scottish Parliament within the larger UK we can have the best of both worlds.

 

And as I have said many times - I am genuinely open minded as to how that devolution settlement can be improved.

 

I welcome the fact that Scottish Labour's Leader Johann Lamont has established a Devolution Commission to look at exactly that issue. It is necessary and important work.

 

But all of us – myself included - seeking to improve the devolution settlement need the humility to acknowledge that the debate about 'powers for the parliament', just like the debate about separation, has too often in the past left the public cold.

 

At best people need to be convinced how such powers will actually impact on their lives and the lives of their families and communities.

 

At worst an exclusive focus on 'powers for the parliament' has at times sounded like politicians talking both to themselves and about themselves.

 

So I would suggest that for Scotland to become a different and better nation, we need to have a different and better debate - both in the next twelve months and the years that follow.

 

In truth, for me that better nation would be characterised by a different balance of power in Scottish society, more than by a different balance of powers for Scotland's Parliament.

 

That’s why back in March I called for a National Convention ‘Scotland 2025’ - to chart a new vision for an old nation for the next decade.

 

It was a conscious attempt to break out of the narrowness of a debate bounded by support for nationalism on one side and support for the status quo on the other.

 

And the debate we have witnessed over the intervening months has only deepened my belief that we need such a new approach to chart a new way ahead for our nation. 

 

I suggested that, in another date of significance, such a gathering 25 years on from the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, would mark a new way of working together, at times in disagreement, but with a common purpose.

 

As a Scottish Labour MP I welcome the response from both the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats supporting the idea of a National Convention that I set out back in March.

 

And so I hope that such a National Convention could become a shared commitment - by those parties who believe that Scotland's better future lies within the United Kingdom.

 

It would be both an expression of our patriotism and pride in Scotland, and a mechanism by which to translate our sense of possibility for post-2014 Scotland into practical policies.

 

Indeed it would be a very tangible answer to the question 'What comes next if Scotland rejects separation in 2014?"

 

The Edinburgh Agreement – signed by both the Scottish and UK governments – anticipated a “referendum that is legal and fair, producing a decisive and respected outcome.”

 

All sides of this debate have an interest in the referendum outcome being respected.

 

So if, in a year’s time, Scotland does reject separation, then why shouldn’t Nationalists too come to see a National Convention as a constructive means to discuss, deliberate and decide together on what our better future within the UK looks like? 

 

For while the answer to the question put in a year’s time will resolve whether or not Scots want to be a nation separate from the rest of the UK, the deeper question as to what kind of Scotland we want to be will not be resolved by the answer given by the referendum.

 

A national convention could and should draw on initiatives taken in Iceland and Australia, both of whom have tried similar gatherings as catalysts for changing public debate.

 

In Australia, for example, in 2008 more than 1000 citizens came together in a convention that debated ideas and proposals across 10 areas of policy, ranging from productivity and the economy to health and aging, and rural Australia. While the Australian government was under no obligation to accept all of the convention’s recommendations, it was obliged to explain publically why any proposal made was rejected.

 

A Scottish National Convention therefore has the potential to enrich our civic life as a cornerstone of public debate and reflection, shaping the very framing of how we engage in dialogue and discussion.

 

It would lay out what would become political priorities but do so rooted in the authentic experience of the participants; whatever their background; rural, island, urban, wealthy or not so wealthy, bringing to the surface a sense of “this is what really matters to Scotland, for it is born in the lives of the people of Scotland”

 

And rather than pretending politicians have all the answers, it could engage the people of Scotland in deliberating together to chart a new vision for an old nation for the next decade.

 

Exactly this kind of thinking is already happening in the work of the Church of Scotland's “Imagining Scotland's Future” events.

 

These are 25 events in Churches and community halls are being held all across Scotland between March and December this year.

 

They are intended to open up discussion on the values folk want to see in Scotland in the future by focussing on three questions:

 

1. What values are most important to you for the Future of Scotland?

 

2. How can we make Scotland a better place to be?

 

3. How do we put our aspirations into action?

 

The events use “structured conversation techniques” (that is helping folk to listen to each other rather than simply waiting to answer back), and focus not on yes or no but on what are the participant’s values and beliefs and how do these then translate into political priorities. 

 

The views of all the meetings will be collated, reviewed and published next spring.

 

The Kirk may have decided to be impartial on the vote but that's given it the freedom to be very active in creating a new 'safe space' for much deeper conversations to happen.

 

In doing so they have transcended the usual coconut shy of point scoring hustings events and instead built the experience round the lives and aspirations of the people themselves

 

Others are doing similar things. Some of the passion for deeper debate is also to be found in the work of the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project. 

 

I know the foundation is itself in a different place to me on the issue of the referendum, but it has shown a desire to genuinely grapple with the opportunity that difference brings when it comes to political debate, rather than the usual statistical grenade lobbing that exemplifies much of the public discourse.

 

These types of conversation, and the development of places and spaces where such conversations are now taking place, are a sign that the coming year can be used to expose a deeper significance in our debates.

 

That the conversation about our nation's future can be about something more than power and process.

 

As a nation, the choice is ours: to be shaped by the future based on our vision of the common good, or to go back into the future bound by the continuing patterns of what has been.

 

So my question is this: whatever our individual views about how we will vote in a year’s time; are we willing to make the significance of this year something much deeper and longer lasting than is offered at the moment.

 

In disagreement and discussion, are we willing still to search for common ground, a common path, a common humanity that is undefined by boundaries and undefeated by disagreement?

 

That would make the months ahead a deeply significant chapter in our nation’s story.

 

Some say it was the Scottish enlightenment that invented some of the key ideas underpinning liberal democracy.

 

Have we something new to give the world, a new way to do democracy, rooted in real human experience, shaped by people's stories, understood as being about more than power; understood as being “all the messy contradictory details of our experience”?

 

That is my fervent hope as we look to the year ahead.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander speaks at the Labour conference in Liverpool in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”