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Searching for socialism in the New York mayoral primary

Bill de BlasioPrimaries, primaries. All this talk of bringing in a public vote to decide Labour’s next candidate for London mayor, and we can easily forget that another large, multicultural city is routinely going through the process of primary selection right now. Bill de Blasio is now in the lead in the selection of the Democrats’ candidate for mayor of New York, although it is still unclear as to whether his margin of victory is wide enough to avoid a run-off vote. He has promised affordable housing, used the rhetoric of the occupy movement and been arrested on a demo against hospital closures, when other mayoral hopefuls hung back. The writer Naomi Klein re-tweeted a community organiser’s observation that de Blasio “ran as an unabashed populist”.

I’ve been in New York for over a week, and I haven’t made a trip to my local high street in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, without being told I should vote for someone or other. Round here, there’s less focus on the mayoral race – primary selections also took place yesterday for the many districts of the New York city council. Humberto Soto is all the rage on Grand Street. His smiles look sincere enough in the windows of delis and hair salons, but all I can find out about him from the internet is that he raised $4,480. Still only enough for him to garner 5.5 per cent of the vote. Poor Humberto.

Have I been the only one wondering over the past month whether the Labour party apparatchiks are naive or cunning in the assumption that you can have one primary – for the London mayor – and leave it at that? It would seem not, given that constituency branches up and down the country, and not just in London, have already been passing motions against the entire concept of primaries. There is a fear that opening selections up to the influence of big money in London will be merely the top of a slippery slope.

Yet surely there’s a plus side to primaries too. Surely the whole of the city was enraptured in the excitement of being involved in the political process? Hardly. Today I visited an office of liberal-leaning professionals. Only one was registered to vote in today’s primary – and she had forgotten today was polling day. When she asked around the office as to whom to support, she was greeted by a sea of blank faces (including my own, of course).

Out on the street, trying to find someone to explain the election was not much easier. The first person who was willing to talk and who had been motivated enough to go and vote was Gary, an elderly artist, who had supported de Blasio because “I fucking hate Christine Quinn.” Like many New Yorkers, he felt betrayed by Quinn’s decision in 2008 to back the abolition of two-term limits for city officials, paving the way for current mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for a third term. “The city’s gone down the dumper,” he said. “It was better in the 70s when it was crime-ridden, for god’s sake. Now it’s just full of tourists, full of college students.”

To spice things up a little, I asked Gary if there was such a thing as a socialist candidate in New York City, knowing the word isn’t exactly the most fashionable in the USA. “No,” he said, scornfully. Was that a good or a bad thing? “Bad,” he said, and went on his way.

I next spoke to Lou Stringer, a white middle-aged business developer who described himself as a liberal, but professed an admiration for Boris Johnson. “I’m supporting Christine Quinn,” he said. “Being New York, all of the candidates are some way to the left, in comparison with American politics nationally, but she’s had to deal with difficult situations while in office, and I’m not sure de Blasio has that experience.”

Yet like all of the Democrats I spoke to, his heart was with de Blasio, who was also supported by New York’s largest trade union. “He’s closer to my views, and he’s more liberal,” he added, but laughed when I asked whether any of the candidates could be called a socialist. “Socialist has become a dirty word in the US, as has liberal,” he mused. But he thought that most New Yorkers supported the principles of progressive politics if not their demonised names: “Although 95 per cent of New Yorkers would vote against single-payer health insurance, 95 per cent would probably support it, they just don’t know what it is.”

Sharee, a black woman somewhat younger than Stringer, suggested she would both support and vote for a more progressive healthcare system, asking me about the NHS back in Britain. “De Blasio,” she said “is more like one of us. They all talk about the inner cities and racism, but with de Blasio, a white man married to a black woman, you can imagine he talks from experience.”

Another middle-aged Democrat, who did not want to be named, said: “This city has, like lots of cities, become more and more run in the interests of big business rather than ordinary people.” I asked her if Christine Quinn, who she was supporting, would do anything to combat this given that she has taken money from real estate for her campaign. She said she wasn’t sure, but again praised Quinn’s record in office and said she would be equally comfortable with de Blasio or several others.

Finally, some proper politics. But still no socialism. Perhaps I was asking too much throughout. It’s not like we’ll get any mention of the S-word in Labour’s London mayoral selection. There’s no clear left candidate to take up the platform of Ken Livingstone, one of the only Labour politicians in the past quarter century to articulate a populist left-wing vision.

On the way home, I was accosted one last time – by two youthful activists leafleting for one Jason Otano, a candidate for the state assembly. “Vote Otano,” said one. “Why?” “Cos he’s going to create jobs, that’s why!”

“Okay,” I said. By this point I was partially trying to wind them up. “Is he a socialist?”

“No!” said the first in a hurry. The other turned around. “He’s a Puerto Rican guy who’s gonna stand up for the community,” she said.

“Stand up for the community. Is that socialism?”



  1. swatantra says:

    Quite right. You won’t find any socialists in America, where ‘socialism’ is a dirty word. And even Obama is not even remotely ‘a socialist’.
    I am in favour of Open Primaries because its not just the half million Labour activists and supporters that win us an election, its the ten million voters that bother to turn out that do.

  2. Rob the cripple says:

    He sounds and looks more socialist then most of Labour front bench I’d say.

    But until he wins if he wins we do not know, but you never know one country turns slowly to socialism maybe another moves further away…

  3. Rod says:

    “It’s not like we’ll get any mention of the S-word in Labour’s London mayoral selection.”

    Good thing too. As far as most people are concerned, the ‘s’ word is utterly meaningless – so why bother using it? If you want to communicate, talk about policies.

    The sooner the Left abandons the ancient pageantry and the comfort zone it symbolises, the better.

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