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Gary Younge
Winners and losers

Dean is the great red hope. True, the polls place him fifth in the Democratic field, with only 6% support. But if he cements his place as the only left challenger with a chance - there are three others vying for that title - there should be a base of around 20% from which he can mount a serious bid. He has been drawing large crowds in Iowa and is a frontrunner in New Hampshire - two of the first key states in the primaries.

The faithful like his message. "The only way to beat George Bush is to be as very direct and clear as he is," he says. "The reason people like George Bush has not much to do with his policies. It has to do with the fact that he has a clear, unambiguous message."

But his delivery is off. He is a fluent speaker, but not a passionate one. The embarrassing pauses between the end of his sentences and the beginning of the applause come from an audience that likes what he says, but is not quite sure when he has finished saying it. In a campaign that will be as much a beauty contest as a policy debate, you wonder whether there will be enough time and money for a decent makeover.

In a lift coming down from the meeting, two women, each wearing anti-war badges, discuss Dean's prospects.

"He's good. He's really gonna' shake things up," says one.

"He's saying the right things to us," said the other. "But I just hope he's saying the kind of things that will get rid of Bush."

Therein lies the dilemma for the left, not just in America but globally. How to harness the energy and determination of the myriad social movements that have emerged in recent times into consistent political influence without giving hostages to the right? How do we balance the growing cynicism with mainstream politics, which is contributing to low turnouts and increased support for the hard right, with growing optimism in the strength of radical resistance, which is contributing to huge demonstrations and a growth in support, in some areas, for leftwing parties?

In short, the political strategy that has both nurtured and sustained broad-based mass action has been refined. What we are lacking is a coherent electoral strategy to go alongside it.

We must ask ourselves how a principled stand against war, globalisation, racism or service cuts is best served come election time. Did it make sense, last year in the French presidential elections, to have six candidates - a variety of communists, Trostkyists and Greens - winning 21% of the vote only to see Jean-Marie Le Pen beat the Socialist party into second place and go through to the run-offs with 16.9%? Does it make sense not to vote Labour even if it results in a Tory victory? Was the American Green candidate Ralph Nader right to stand (yes, that old chestnut) even though Al Gore would be in the White House now had he not done so?

For what masquerades as opposition to the rightward drift in social democracy is often little more than petulance - an emotional response to political estrangement. When Labour activists tell Tony Benn that they are ripping up their membership cards and leaving the party, he is fond of responding: "That's very interesting. What else are you doing?"

This is not quite the dilemma which mainstream Labour supporters, Democrats and other centre-left loyalists imagine it to be. Their answer to all the above questions would be no. To even pose them, in their minds, is evidence of utopian naivety. The reality, they say, is that elections present simple, crude choices and, particularly under first-past-the-post, the electorate's job is to choose the party they would most like to win.

When the election of a centre-left candidate held at least the glimmer of hope for progressive change they had a point. Now that it stands for, among other things, deportations, bombing, welfare cuts and privatisation, that logic is sorely lacking. Their argument reveals not only a limited imagination that equates political progress with the acquisition of office, but also an arrogant sense of entitlement to their core voting base regardless of how they treat it in between election times. It is a conceit that lost Labour London to Ken Livingstone and may yet lose it the country.

Last week's local and devolved elections gave a hint of the effect such arrogance can have at the polls. Where Labour had sufficiently distanced itself from New Labour, as in Wales, it did well. Where it had not and there were popular left alternatives, as in Scotland, both the Scottish Socialist party and the Greens made gains. Where the electoral system gave no room for alternatives, as in England, people simply stayed at home. The only reason Labour emerged without a more bloody nose is because the Conservatives are even more out of touch than it is .

Nonetheless, it is incumbent on those of us who do not wish to choose between the lesser of two evils to have a response to the greater evil that might triumph and a strategy for proposing viable alternatives. Such an approach demands qualities that do not come easy to the left - namely flexibility in practice and unity in purpose. The issue in France was not that the left stood, but that so many stood against each other. Had they come together behind one candidate and under one banner, their combined vote could have beaten Le Pen and the Socialist party.

Even had they lost their efforts would have raised issues of economic equality, environmental sustainability and anti-racism which the centre-left has all but abandoned. The issue for the left is not just who wins, but how and whether the outcome furthers the interests of the poor and disenfranchised whose needs are no longer addressed by the mainstream. Those two factors are related, but by no means identical.

Elections are important. But politics does not stop at the ballot box. The problem with Nader was not so much that he stood for office. So long as the Democrats continue to allow themselves to be bought up by corporate America, the voices of the 75 million Americans without health insurance, 2 million Americans in jail and one in three black children who live in poverty will never be heard. The problem with Nader is that he did not keep running, for peace and economic justice, after the election was over.

Which brings us back to Dean. The Democrats will be doing both themselves and the world a great favour if they get rid of Bush in 2004. But that favour won't amount to much if they replace him with another tax-cutting, warmonger. Whether Dean wins the nomination or not is far less important than whether he, and the other left-leaning Democrats, gather enough support both inside and outside the party to force their issues on to the agenda. Whether middle America would respond to such an agenda or not is a moot point - the truth is they have never really been asked.

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