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Learning from US elections

Labour must realise that the right can only win when progressive the majority stays at home

There's a lesson for Labour in the Democrats' drubbing at the hands of the Republicans in elections to the US Congress.

President Barack Obama, who inspired such hope on the left when first elected in 2008, faces his final two years in office hemmed in by a hostile, right-wing legislature.

Republican success can seem bizarre. Attacks on Obama from the so-called Tea Party have been as incoherent as they are passionate.

The movement pushes a nihilistic rejection of the concept of society and its replacement by an every-man-for-himself vision invoking a mythical past where individuals lived free from state interference.

This "pioneer spirit" sanitises the US's bloody origins, where the colonisation of a continent involved the ethnic cleansing of the native population.

But the political right's reliance on nation-building myths is nothing new. Nor is the periodic tendency of the US right to attack the country's first black president in racist terms.

What is disturbing is that a party representing the interests of what the Occupy movement has labelled the "1 per cent," the wealthiest slither of the population, is able to beat the Democrats at the ballot box.

The poisonous role of big money in US politics, and links of oil barons like the Koch brothers to the Tea Party movement, has been well described in the pages of this newspaper by columnists such as Greg Palast.

But on this side of the Atlantic we face a similar problem. The Conservatives are similarly propped up by dirty money from bankers and hedge-fund managers, health privateers and oligarchs. Unlike the Republicans, the Conservatives - an ageing and shrinking party - have not succeeded in energising any sort of grass-roots anti-welfare state movement.

But with Labour similarly failing to inspire anything but bored indifference from the electorate this may not matter.

Voter apathy is the friend of the right. As Communist Party USA chairman John Bachtell recently wrote: "It is increasingly difficult for Republicans to win on the basis of the issues.

"Majorities now support a higher minimum wage, taxing the rich, marriage equality, immigration reform, reproductive rights and equal pay for women, action on climate change and student debt relief."

"The only way that anti-worker candidates become the majority in the Senate or take over in the states tomorrow, however, is if those progressive majorities stay home," an editorial on the People's World website added.

That is obviously what happened in the US on Tuesday. The reasons are not hard to find. President Obama's election was first welcomed on the left not just because he would be the first African-American leader of his country, important though that was.

It was his emphatic rejection of George W Bush's invasion of Iraq, his opposition to torturing captives to elicit confessions of terrorist activity and his pledge to close Guantanamo Bay which resonated with progressives worldwide.

Six years on, Washington continues to direct an aggressive global foreign policy involving bombings, drone assassinations and political interference in other countries such as its backing for the defeated far-right uprising in Venezuela and the successful one in Ukraine.

The wretched inmates of Guantanamo are still suspended in legal limbo and still subjected to brutal and degrading treatment.

Even signature domestic policies such as so-called Obamacare emerged so emasculated by compromises with the private medicine juggernaut that they have not met people's hopes.

The lesson for Labour is clear. Mobilising Britain's progressive majority - which exists in overwhelming support for public ownership, higher taxes on the rich and opposition to foreign wars - means leading from the left. Pandering to the right will only see David Cameron returned to No 10.


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