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23 August 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 10:55am

To challenge the Tories and avoid a split, build a left wing political infrastructure outside of Labour

Divided MPs on one side and a mass movement on the other won’t help counter the government; we need think tank, media and donor muscle, as parties have in the US.

By Ben Lyons

Forty-five years ago today, a director of the US Chamber of Commerce had a fateful meeting with his neighbour in a Virginia town about 100 miles south of Washington DC. The man he had come to see was a softly spoken Southerner named Lewis Powell.

At this point, he was best known as a corporate lawyer who represented the tobacco industry against “socialist” attempts to regulate the advertising of cigarettes, but he would go on to be appointed by President Nixon as a Justice of the Supreme Court.

On this day, however, Powell’s neighbour had come to ask him to write a memorandum for the Chamber advising it on how to respond to the country’s liberal consensus. Powell said that the American system was under threat. He called for a comprehensive strategy to source conservative speakers to address universities, monitor “bias” in television, and mass produce political adverts.

The analysis of Powell, and the call of Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan for an institution outside the Republican party, which would support an “enduring Republican majority”, had profound implications.

Several think tanks were created in the 1970s, most notably the Heritage Foundation, which aimed to build support for conservatism among the population at large as well as among elites. As its President, the unassuming workaholic Ed Feulner, put it, Heritage would market conservatism like Procter & Gamble sold Crest toothpaste, “reselling it every day by keeping the product fresh in the consumer’s mind”. 

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Heritage delivered rapid response briefings to Capitol Hill, syndicated a biweekly column across 450 newspapers, and deployed a file of over 1,000 conservative academics to speak at events and Congressional committees. Its reach helped to shift public opinion rightwards, popularising concepts such as the Laffer Curve, so that when Ronald Reagan became President he was able to pursue an agenda that a decade earlier would have been unimaginably right wing. Indeed, the President advanced 60 per cent of the 2,000 policies Heritage proposed in 1980.

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***

The British right has learned these lessons. Matthew Elliott, CEO of Vote Leave, as well as the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and No2AV, is another quiet workaholic with close ties to the US conservative movement. During the referendum campaign, the Heritage Foundation’s president came to London to advise Elliott and Brexit-supporting ministers, while during Elliott’s leadership of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Heritage and the Tea Party’s Americans for Prosperity funded the group’s conference.

While the British right may be generally less effective than the left at creating single issue campaigns, it has had the strategic foresight and patience to build infrastructure for the long term.

For instance, years before he set up Vote Leave, Elliott created Business for Britain, a campaign to neutralise the argument that Brexit would hurt the economy. It emphasised opportunities for people employed outside of London. In contrast, the pro-EU group mobilised the City and preached to the converted.

For 15 years, MigrationWatch has worked to move the debate on immigration to the right. Is it any surprise that Britain voted Brexit when progressives only gave themselves little more than a two-month campaign to challenge these arguments?

The right’s prioritisation of political infrastructure can also be understood by its determination to destroy the left’s infrastructure. One of the coalition government’s first acts was a “bonfire of the quangos”, an initiative justified in the Spectator on the grounds that it would “slash the institutional base” of the left.

Campaigning charities were next in line. George Osborne urged members of the Institute of Directors to defend the economy against charities’ “anti-business views”. Anti-poverty charities such as the Trussell Trust were pressured against taking public stances on welfare policy. The Lobbying Act restricted the ability of organisations to campaign on issues like inequality and the rising cost of housing.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance, supported by a right-leaning print media, has worked to delegitimise trade unions. Indeed, a recent poll by YouGov showed that the public thought politicians should pay more attention to pressure groups – referencing the Taxpayers’ Alliance – than trade union leaders. This group, which is funded by a small network of Midlands businessmen, has managed to position itself as a better representative of taxpayers than the 6m taxpayers who pay union dues. 

***

A focus on building far-sighted political infrastructure could help a British centre left that has badly run out of steam. We seek to change the world, but our natural instinct is now deeply defensive. Our fear of the right, and its critique of centre-left economic competency, means that any attack on inequality is half-hearted. Our fear of the hard left means we’re afraid to think about how to improve public services. The shadow of Iraq means we are unable to talk about foreign policy.

This lack of intellectual confidence forces our leaders into ever more tortuous formulations that voters know they cannot believe. In this environment, it is no surprise that a third-rate politician like Jeremy Corbyn is able to defeat those who appear to stand for nothing.

The British left has always relied on the Labour party and trade unions as the means of winning hearts and minds, and developing political talent. However, as public faith and participation in these institutions have declined, no one else has stepped in to the fill the gap. The centre left’s renewal cannot just come from within its existing institutions. New groups will be needed to create the political space to recover our voice and bring in new people who are not aligned to a party. 

But rather than talking about splits, the centre left must focus on building influence outside of Parliament. There are several functions that a British progressive infrastructure must deliver, to lay the ground work for real change.

First, in the absence of a functioning opposition, there must be a well-financed organisation to scrutinise the government during Brexit negotiations, and chronicle its economic impact.

Second, and for the same reason, there needs to be a body that holds the Tories to account, through opposition research, media relations and creating content like videos. Progressive think tanks should also more actively campaign for their ideas, and prioritise the media calendar over their own publication timetable.

Third, there must be an effort to begin the long and unforgiving task of shifting public opinion on immigration. This should be separate to any political party given the electoral pressure on Labour politicians to move to the right on this issue.

Fourth, we must look again at the opportunity posed by community organising to find a new generation of leaders and bridge the gap between Westminster and the rest of the country.

***

The American experience of political infrastructure is also instructive for the left. 

The Heritage Foundation – and the conservative movement of big business, evangelicals and foreign policy hawks that coalesced around it – went on to dominate American politics for 30 years. Its ideas were so powerful that even Democrats accepted its thinking, and a much weakened President Clinton adopted a Heritage proposal for his signature welfare reform bill.

By 2004, Democratic strategist Rob Stein felt America had become a one-party state. He demonstrated the strength of conservative infrastructure with a detailed Powerpoint analysis, which he presented across Capitol Hill and to the party’s donor base. This thinking influenced the creation of the progressive infrastructure which has supported Barack Obama’s victories and presidency.

Stein created the Democracy Alliance to act as a cooperative for major progressive donors to prioritise their expenditure in media, ideas, developing leaders, and community engagement/voter turnout. The Democracy Alliance funded a new think tank, the Center for American Progress. CAP emulates the Heritage Foundation’s evidence-based rapid response approach and puts as much effort into arguing for its ideas as developing policy.

Other groups that emerged at this time included Fox News monitors Media Matters, which spawned Republican watchdogs like the American Bridge PAC, and the ProgressNow organisation of state level campaigns. Progressives also renewed their efforts to train a next generation of leaders that better reflect America.

This has led to a reenergised Democratic party, which is able to combine principle (Obama and Hillary Clinton are more confidently progressive than the New Democrats of the 1990s) and power (they have become the most successful left wing party in the West).

***

Any attempt to build progressive infrastructure in Britain will require funding, and so it will be necessary to create an organisation that can manage donors and prioritise spending. If decoupled from the Labour party, there is a large pool of people who could be prepared to fund the infrastructure to hold the government to account.

But it needn’t cost big bucks on an American scale: Will Straw lifted the idea for the Left Foot Forward blog from the Center for American Progress’ Think Progress. The US blog has a team of 35 – but, as a team of two, Left Foot Forward was still able to uncover stories that made the blog a regular fixture on BBC News.

On a recent trip to Washington, I was told that another one of the obstacles to building progressive infrastructure is frustration among those involved about the time it takes to reap rewards. But with predictions of Conservative rule lasting until the late 2020s, time is one thing we have on our side. We must use it wisely.