What Britain can learn from the US
Campaigning for Barack Obama ahead of Tuesday's historic election, there are some valuable lessons for UK politicians
3 November 2008
Campaigning for Barack Obama in the still warm and sunny battle-ground of Virginia, what lessons are there for British politics in this historic election?
1) First, find your Tony Blair. Watching Obama give a long interview to Rachel Maddow, a woman who the BBC could hire tomorrow to show how political talk shows can be interesting and fun, I was struck by his uncanny resemblance to Blair. It was time to get past tit-for-tat politics, said Obama. Capitalism was OK. The Republican party had many fine people in it, the Democratic candidate declared. Obama is as devout a Christian as he is devoted family man. Welcome to Barack Blair!
2) Speak well. The old rules of rhetoric never go away. Obama is a terrific public orator. Every time he stands at a podium, still, slim and in control of his body as he speaks without notes in short, effective sentences, he exudes command and control. By contrast, David Cameron's conference speech this year was as interesting as John McCain's Tory conference speech in 2007. 3) If you are a Conservative, be one. McCain is tarred with being the continuation of Bush-Cheney years by other means. In fact, he opposed much of the Bush ideology over the years. His latest TV advert shows Obama praising McCain for initiating environmental legislation in the Senate. This makes Obama look good but dismays American rightwing voters who don't like to see their man hugging the enemy close.
4) Gear up for door-to-door canvassing. Spending time with Democrats gives the lie to the view that American elections are all about big money and TV campaigning. They are but the intensity of phone canvassing and door knocking is greater than I have ever seen in the UK outside byelections. Canvassers have handheld personal data machines that allow instant transfers of voters' intentions and interests. As I write friends are taking leave from work to drive hours to North Carolina to get out the vote in a state where Obama and McCain are neck and neck.
5) Hit greed but love business. Obama lashes Wall Street but talks up Main Street. Small businesses are the new working unrich in America. The Tories chez nous are now the party of the super-wealthy as the millionaires' frontbench presided over by Oligarch Osborne and super-rich Cameron demonstrate. But Labour can come dangerously close to being anti-business especially in the rhetoric from those looking to a post-election leadership fight.
6) Be tough on international issues. Obama wants to increase troop commitments in Afghanistan and has taken India to task over Kashmir where nearly a million Indian and Pakistani soldiers face off against each other, instead of the latter being transferred to Pakistan's western borders to help uproot Islamist jihadists seeking to reconquer Afghanistan to close down every girls' school. His vice-presidential running mate, Joe Biden, is friend and supporter of Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili in contrast to Tory footsying around with Russian money or Tories on the Council of Europe collaborating with Kremlin puppets. Obama wants to work with Europe as a whole, not deal one by one with EU member states rejecting European unity as in the Hague-Cameron vision of Europe. His promise of an undivided Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel is a further example of a foreign affairs approach that his mixed-message language on Iraq should not occult.
7) Don't invite losers to speak at your party conference. Cameron cosied up to McCain who has been the only major international speaker at the Tory conference since Cameron became leader. At least one Tory shadow cabinet member has been spotted sitting with Republicans at the McCain-Obama debates. While some Tory MPs keep Obama buttons in their pockets and I came across a Tory activist working for Obama, the Cameron-McCain link is another example of Cameron's shallow judgment on international politics.
8) Talks about individuals not just families. Obama has dropped the tired Clinton line about hard-working families and now talks of hard-working Americans. This is right. In Britain, 30% of households are not family units. They are single people, widows, the divorced, parents alone. Tax policy now has to focus on the individual as much as the family.
9) Don't promise too much. Obama is riding two waves. One is the deep sense of despair mixed with shame that the Bush-Cheney years have done so little for America at home and abroad. The second is a deeper tide-of-history movement that is bringing to an end the long 30-year era of global market capitalism which begun with the arrival of Thatcher and Reagan just as they ended the 30-year era of welfare state capitalism initiated after 1945. Americans hope Obama will be the new Roosevelt. He may be a new Carter. But underneath the rhetoric of change, Obama is centrist, cautious and careful in limiting specific pledges. But he is offering a tax cut to all middle- and working-class Americans.
10) Don't fall for populism. Obama exudes thought and intellect. He can speak clearly and vividly. He acknowledges differences and seeks to bridge them, not use the culture and other wars throbbing in American civil society as a vehicle for partisan point-scoring. The arrival of 50 million non-Americans in the last 15 years as legal or illegal migrants has provoked political storms across the red (Republican)-blue (Democrat) divide. In Britain there is a loser-takes-all auction between politicians on immigration. Obama refuses to play that populist card and British politics could learn from him.