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Lessons from Obama?

Martin Kettle in the Guardian suggests:

Labour high command, past and present, is privately conflicted about Obama. They want a Democrat to win in November, but they do not really want it to be Obama. Labour resents Hillary Clinton’s defeat this year almost as much as the Clintons do. They looked at Clinton and saw someone they recognised. They thought, somewhat naively, that she was the safe and therefore the better choice. That is why there is a kind of schadenfreude in Labour circles about the way the campaign has gone in the past two weeks. It is as though Labour people almost want the Democrats to lose this year, because in some twisted way that outcome would validate their own failure. At one level a lot of them feel very threatened by Obama and his success.

There may well be some truth in this and there certainly is truth in Kettle’s comments about the failure of many in the U.K to recognise just how different American politics is from our own. The problem, however, with Kettle’s otherwise typically astute analysis is in his conclusion:

He (Obama) offers a different political temper for different political times. He embodies hope and change and still, perhaps, victory. Brown offers none of these. Obama’s lesson is staring Labour in the face – but Labour seems simply too demoralised now to learn it.

It is of course, undoubtedly true that Brown does not embody hope and change, let alone a spirit of victory. Merely seeing his glum face on television reminds Labour supporters of the dreadful error of judgement they made. But, having pointed out how very different the two polities are, Kettle then returns to the old method of suggesting there is a lesson for Labour to learn from Obama’s success. I am really not sure there is much Labour can learn and here are a few reasons why.

1. Obama has energised the Democratic base in a way that John Kerry couldn’t four years ago and with a skill which most of his rivals for the nomination could not get close to matching. He has energised it mostly through excellent rhetoric which is based upon a feel-good optimism and a visceral dislike of the Bush administration. Even if Labour possessed a charismatic figure (which it currently does not), British political culture, particularly at this moment in time, is not exactly open to such an approach. There is not a visceral hatred of the Conservative Party anymore (memories have faded) and the Labour Party no longer has a base, or if it still does, it certainly doesn’t want to energise the trade union activists.

2. The politics of hope, the politics of change, the politics of aspiration – the widespread cynicism in British society towards politics makes Obama-style rhetoric unlikely to resonate. A major part of the problem is the media of course. In the U.S the liberal media saw and heard Obama and loved him and set about enthusiastically charting the wonderful ‘story’ of his rise to president. If an optimistic Obama figure did emerge in bitter Britain he would be mocked ruthlessly in print and on television. Read some Obama speeches and put them in a UK context and ask yourself if the whole of the political class (including the media) would not be laughing out loud.

3. Obama is able to frame his appeal in terms of a liberal form of patriotism – this is absolutely crucial to his success. While privately many Democratic activists may roll their eyes when there is talk of the American dream or American ‘exceptionalism’ – in public they are able to comfortably put forward their combination – of not-quite social-democratic notions of the enabling state and aspirational individualism – as a patriotic package. Tony Blair, briefly, managed to manufacture and popularise some form of progressive patriotism (the ‘Cool Britannia’ period) but patriotism, feel-good politics about being British is a minefield in contemporary UK politics. Brown has tried to ignite some enthusiasm for Britishness but it has utterly failed. Celtic nationalisms, which Labour (for good reasons at the time), de facto allied themselves with, have undermined Labour’s position in Scottish and Welsh heartlands. English (and what remains of British) nationalism remains essentially reactionary, defining itself by dislike of Europe and/or America. British culture is sarcastic, pessimistic and cynical – hardly fertile ground for the politics of hope.

4. The Obama story itself – the son of a Kenyan who can rise to be president – resonates beautifully in America and is a major factor in explaining the momentum Obama was able to pick up and maintain. But such a story remains sadly unthinkable in the U.K., however much Brits may like to consider themselves more tolerant and superior to ‘racist Americans’. British voters elect neo-Nazis to their local councils.

5. Kettle suggest that one of the lessons to be learnt from Obama is boldness:

Both Blair and Brown (Brown in particular) have always been haunted by the fear that their success could suddenly go irreversibly wrong. It is why they are such frightened control freaks. They worry that Britain is, at heart, a Tory-voting nation that must be appeased not challenged. And so, having feared the backlash so much, they have now helped to make it happen and seem powerless to do anything about it.

But Obama has not challenged the Republican voters in a bold way at all – he has reassured them he is a patriotic, God-fearing Christian, a decent family man, pro-military, tough on terrorism (but more effective) who wants to help them deal with rising fuel costs and the credit crunch. His ‘hope’ and ‘change’ is for everyone – conservatives included. In that sense he could not be more Blairite.

Labour has a leadership crisis because it has no effective leadership and (as yet) no credible alternative leadership. If there is an early lesson to be learnt from the Democrats it is a very modest and simple one – that a political party needs to be able to choose from more than one candidate for leader.

The Democrats could have gone for Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. Like them or not, the Republicans had a host of credible leadership contenders aside from McCain. Labour had one, chosen unopposed.

Labour’s number one problem, staring its supporters in the face every day, is how to resolve the absence of leadership talent in the party.

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