The analogy is obvious. I suppose it isn’t surprising: when an official opposition is visionless, it is the grassroots who lead. But when it comes to elections, it is still the visionless opposition on the ballot.

This morning, we woke up to the news that Scott Walker has clung onto his job in Wisconsin. The controversial governor has faced vast protests against his attempts to break public sector unions. He saw his state house occupied, the biggest ever marches in the history of the state. Nearly one in five signed the petition to sack him. Yet when it came to the polls – when it came down to a choice between Democrat Tom Barrett and the axe-wielding Walker, people stumped for Walker.

A mass occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol building last year

The echo is already being heard across the world: the right is re-learning what Thatcher taught – be bold and the electorate will respect you for it. Polling in Wisconsin showed that 40% strongly opposed the union breaking measures. 40% strongly supported them. The job for each side was always to get out the vote – and that’s much easier if people know what it is they are getting out to vote for.

Already conservatives on Twitter are shouting the message at Washington – no more compromise (as though they were already compromising) – be clear in your intentions and people will respect you for it. Soon, this message will cross the Atlantic.

But this isn’t just about the strategy of the right (though the left must learn that boldness is an electoral advantage, particularly in tough times). Because Walker didn’t just win a recall. Tom Barrett lost – again. As Gary Young says, reporting from the state:

“Barrett did not stand as a defender of labour and did not produce a credible, progressive response to the state’s fiscal problems.

“Tom Barrett was the John Kerry of Wisconsin. In the five days I’ve been reporting from the state I have yet to meet a single person who voted for him as opposed to against Walker. In the end this was just not enough. His failure to give some vision for what Wisconsin under his stewardship would look like could not win over the coveted independents or sufficiently inspire his base.”

Replace “John Kerry” with “Ed Miliband” and this could easily be the UK in 2015. People know what Cameron and Osborne are about. They have a clear direction for the country. Many strongly dislike that direction, but despite a couple of recent U-turns, we know what it is. Does anyone really have a clue what Ed Miliband is about? Other than some meaningless soundbites about ‘the squeezed middle’, what is it that gets him up in the morning?

Replace the brave unions of Wisconsin – who organised the recall campaign, and the massive protests over the last 18 months – with our own radicals, and perhaps again we see a similar analogy: wolves with a chiwawa not so much leading as finding itself in front.

The lesson from Wisconsin is stark. Progressive politicians cannot watch the right smash the working class, then wait for them to come running back to us. We must provide a clear, radical and coherent message – a route out of the financial collapse, or people will follow those who claim to have one, whoever they are.

And radical organisers cannot allow weak and visionless leaders to continue to attract votes because they happen to be standing out in front. We need to work out how we are engaging with electoral politics and elected politicians. And if we are going to, then we need to do so seriously.

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.