Jerry Brown, American pioneer of small-donor funded, technologically innovative, grassroots Presidential campaigns (see 1992 and his use of freephone numbers), three times failed Presidential candidate and former Governor of California, has had a remarkably successful last few years – thanks to be re-elected as Governor nearly thirty years after he last left the post.
On a range of progressive issues, such as climate change and immigration reform, Brown has been using his power as the Governor of a state whose economy would be the 12th largest in the world if it were an independent country. Progress on them may be stalled at a federal level, but when an area the size of California goes ahead with change, that has a bit impact.
What is relevant for the Liberal Democrats is how in each of these areas the steps Brown is taking are significant yet also fairly modest compared to the demands of the keenest campaigners:
Brown’s initiatives are far from perfect, of course. His climate change policies have failed to address fracking beyond moderate regulatory adjustments. His law-and-order approach helped fuel mass incarceration, and he refused to lift a finger, at least publicly, when hundreds of inmates went on hunger strike against brutal conditions of solitary confinement. Those failures only show that social movements have more pressure work ahead, since Brown is careful about positioning himself too far in front of public opinion. [My emphasis]
Tackling the big issues, but one cautious step at a time, rather mirrors the Nick Clegg / Ryan Coetzee attitude towards how radical, or not, the Liberal Democrats should be. As I wrote in Liberal Democrat Newswire #37:
The idea of appealing to “centre ground” voters is now firmly part of the party’s official approach. It’s so heavily part of it that a recent internal briefing on electoral tactics managed to use the phrase 9 times in just 3 pages…
The influence of Ryan Coetzee and his polling is a key factor here. The picture it paints of people willing to think seriously about voting for the party (“the party’s market” in the current jargon of choice) is of a group large enough to elect 100+ MPs, but also not a group of people eager for radical change.
Superficially this is at odds with the emphasis from both the man and the figures on the importance of building a larger core vote for the party. This is being reconciled in an approach that is about being 1 step, rather than 10 steps, ahead of where the party’s market is. Equal marriage rather than disestablishment of the Church of England, for example. By being 1, rather than 10, steps ahead, the party can move the country in a more liberal direction whilst still appealing to a wide enough tranche of voters. That requires, of course, the party to be strong enough to influence political decisions consistently over a long period of time, so that all the 1 steps cumulatively add up to 10 steps, eventually.
Governor Jerry Brown’s success is a promising sign that such an approach may work.