Friday 29 August 2008

Looking for the promised land

Barack Obama's speech to the Democratic National Convention showed that he has heeded his critics, tempering his grandiose oratory both with policy specifics and stories of the ordinary working people whose votes he needs aggressively to court. To be sure, if he was attempting humility, the odds were stacked against him - speaking, as he was, in front of grand Roman columns, before 84,000 placard-waving, adoring fans, 45 years to the day after Dr King's "I have a Dream" speech.

But the way he chose to echo Dr King is illustrative of Obama's sensitivity to the "elitist", "celebrity" problem the Republicans have constructed for his candidacy. He spoke of King only mutedly, referring to him anonymously - "the preacher" - and quoting him just once, stressing the imperative to not "turn back" from the need to fix the economy, and educate America's children. Where King had been to the mountain-top and stared out at the promised land, Obama was anxious to stay on firm ground (something, nevertheless, he had trouble with: witness the last minutes of the speech, where, referring to King, he almost succumbs to the temptation to fall into those tremulous, soaring, religious cadences).

It's interesting to see how Obama's problem is diametrically opposed to that of Labour's. Where Obama deftly weaves his uniting theme of "The American Promise" through his speech (a promise, we are to understand, on which Republicans have reneged), Labour struggle to incorporate the flux of political events into a convincing narrative that can tell voters just who Labour are, and what they are for. Gordon Brown needs to be discouraged from concentrating on policy minutiae; Obama needs to be encouraged. Of course, Labour are more world-weary than Obama, having been in government for 11 years. British voters, too, are more cynical and more resistant to "promised land" hyperbole. But if Labour is to have any hope at all of regaining the political initiative, it must have a go at finding a progressive narrative to counter both electoral cynicism and Tory "broken society" rhetoric.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

(Another) lesson from America

Yvette Cooper took the first shot at denuding the Conservatives of their charming PR-veil on Monday last week, deriding "Cameronomics" as Labour gear-up for their autumn re-launch. Such negative attacks are crucial if Labour's re-launch is to convince voters of the vacuity behind the "frisbees and photo ops", but they also beg the question of just how Labour will choose to constitute the positive aspect of their re-launch.

Labour could do far worse than to look - improbable as it might seem - to the US, where congressional Democrats (among others) scored a interesting victory last month with the massive housing bill signed into law by President Bush. Notable, first and foremost, for the lifeline it extended to the delightfully named mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the bill also threw a lifeline to home-owners and first-time buyers, in what the New York Times called "perhaps the boldest attempt to aid troubled borrowers since the creation of the Home Owners' Loan Corporation in 1933 as part of the New Deal".

Whilst perhaps not obviously admirable for satisfying the chief imperative of propping up Fannie and Freddie (which was surely necessary), the housing bill is admirable for the $4bn it promises to states and cities to buy and redevelop abandoned and foreclosed properties (the measure, indeed, that Bush signed the bill in spite of), and for the $300bn pledged to allow hard-up homeowners to switch to fixed-rate, government-backed mortgages which should allow 400,000 homeowners to avoid foreclosure.

It is worth dwelling on how the political ground seems to be shifting, even ahead of November. 45 House Republicans - and, of course, Bush - supported the bill. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., appointed by Bush in 2006, and an architect of the bill, serves as a startling demonstration of how fast economic priorities can shift in a crisis: a former investment banker at Goldman Sachs, he was as recently as November 2006 ridiculing the "excessive regulation" that "slows innovation, imposes needless costs on investors and stifles competitiveness". Now - if we are to believe Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky - he is a socialist! ("When I picked up my newspaper yesterday, I thought I woke up in France. But no, it turns out socialism is alive and well in America.")

Socialism it is not. But along with the aggressive slashing of interest rates and the $150bn working its way into Americans' back pockets, it represents a certain boldness in dealing with the current economic crisis which is eluding this Labour government. This kind of boldness Gordon Brown must draw on if the re-launch of his government is to be a success. Difficult times evidently soften even the most ardent free-marketeers; as a social democratic party Labour cannot afford to abrogate its commitment to fairness at this crucial moment.

To be sure, Brown finds himself in a much different political climate. For instance, there was a media frenzy when it emerged that Brown's fiscal rules would have to be broken; in contrast, the Housing Bill raised the federal debt limit by $800bn, to the enviable soundtrack of relative (mainstream) media silence.

So what way for Labour? Their languishing poll results suggest they have no further to fall, so this autumn they have nothing to lose by acting boldly. For example, the current uncertainty over the windfall tax on oil company profits could be dissolved if they learned from another bold American, Obama, who backs a similar windfall tax to help those struggling to meet energy costs (see also former minister Chris Leslie backing the tax in the upcoming Fabian Review). Creating a fairer Britain must be at the heart of the re-launch.

Monday 18 August 2008

Incoming TXT: VP 4 ‘08

The much publicized (here, here and here for details. Here’s the original email) decision by the Obama campaign to announce the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee via an open email and text message list isn’t simply about public relations. It is both smart politics and wholly in-keeping with the message that Obama has been working to sell to the electorate since the middle of last year.

For all the optimistic talk of hope and change, Obama’s campaign has embraced one of the most aggressive data mining strategies ever attempted in any form of politics anywhere. He is certainly the most effective practitioner of this form of politics the Democratic Party have ever had, and is really competing in an arena traditionally dominated by Republicans. Unsurprisingly, the Obama campaign is continuing to work along these lines, dangling the carrot of inside information on the campaign (in this case immediate notification of the VP pick) in return for your personal details – your email, your mobile number. When you have millions of them, these details become priceless, as they allow candidates to construct a relationship with activists and voters that in previous election cycles would have been impossible.

But this move isn’t just about data. It is also about continuing a narrative which the Obama campaign has skillfully created over the past 18 months. They have cleverly linked their candidate with modernity and the blowing away of the old order. In this case, the announcement of the Vice Presidential message will by-pass both senior Democrats and the mainstream media, and go out to those on the list. In that sense, it is nicely coupled with Obama’s decision to give his acceptance speech not to the Democratic convention, but to an open audience in a sports arena in Denver. He is of the people, not of the establishment.  

What can Labour learn from these activities? Just over a year ago, Labour announced the results of its Leadership and Deputy Leadership contest at a special conference with all due accompanying pageantry. When viewed historically, a good case can be made that such arrangements developed in order to provide a linkage with wider society – independent labour expressing its preferences through its delegated representatives. However, while such arrangements would not have looked out of place in 1907, now, with the development of far more effective mechanisms of communication, they appear anachronistic and exclusionary.

Although it would be my preference, if the idea of Labour announcing its next leader and deputy leader (whenever that occurs) exclusively by using open text message and email list is a little too radical, then at the very least the two approaches should function in tandem, so as an announcement of national significance has a national presence, reaching outside the special conference and not relying on 24 hours news channels for dissemination. 

I’m actually off to the US on Tuesday, and will be visiting Washington and Boston, where I will be attending the American Political Science Association Annual conference. I will do my best to blog any interesting ideas I hear about or occur to me while I’m there. 

Thursday 7 August 2008

Why Europe needs to be a grown-up

Acres of newsprint and UK broadcast space has been given over to coverage of the US presidential race. When one of our close neighbours - Ireland or France, for instance - have an election we tend to care less. Right now I'd guess less than 5% of us Brits could even name the Irish Taoisech.
Perhaps the UK and the rest of the EU are just too focussed on what is happening over the other side of the Atlantic when we would gain more from knowing just a little bit more about other EU partners. If we knew a bit more about them, we might feel more in touch, and better connected. Whether it is Obama or McCain who wins the US race, the EU needs to establish a more grown-up relationship with the US. Stop moaning about all things American, and then buying them or mimicing them, and work out a way of establishing our own stances that balance or complement or disagree with the US. Americans often moan about having to spend too much time and money on "looking after" Europe, paying for "our" defence, etc. So what does happen next? Does the EU need its own defence force? It certainly needs to start working together more cohesively.

David Lammy: What Obama can do for us

Does David Lammy have the right idea? He reckons the Labour Party has lessons to learn from Barack Obama's successes in America.

In a recent lecture Lammy argued that motivating members, new ways of campaigning, a culture of open discussion and creating a buzz about what you can achieve are all ways forward for the party.

He spoke about a need to attract "new people into politics" and to "reinvent the way to do things". Lammy pointed at how Obama had opened up political activism in America. "Our rigid sense of membership is something we have to look at." He spoke of "real dialogue" and "less control".

"I believe it is possible to build movements around things that people feel passionate about today."

Does this thing about passion and politics really work? You see the Americans out in the street in their thousands for an Obama rally, but can anyone really imagine that happening here? Frankly we might be a bit too cynical to go out on the street and cheer. As a nation we seem better at heckling, but that is not to say we don't need a bit of passionate politics somewhere, sometime.