As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world.
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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Record turnout ... by US standards

This election has been a wonderful example of how democracies can renew themselves.

writes James Forsyth as The Spectator's CoffeeHouse prepares to blog through election night.

And he's certainly right about the many different ways in which the intensity of interest and participation has broken US records. Forsyth reports on turnout predictions:

The latest predictions I’m hearing for turnout is 64 percent. This would exceed the 63 percent turnout in the 1960 Kennedy v. Nixon race and be the highest since 1908; this in a year where already a record number of people have donated to the candidates and where more people watched the convention speeches than ever before.

This is impressive in US terms - and some states may get up as high as 90 per cent. But it isn't exactly in a different universe than the 61.4% which was seen as a pretty devastating indictment of voter apathy in the UK last time, well below the historic norm if a little up on 2001.

The US and international media are making a lot of the possibility of record turnout.

But we should hold off on the comparisons with South Africa 1994. That was unusual in that there was no official electoral register, but the 19.7 million votes cast accounted for around 90-91% of the estimated 21.7 million eligible voters.

Somebody with more academic expertise might explain why US turnout levels might not be directly comparable - but I would guess that the headline figure might also be artificially boosted by registration being more difficult in the US than several other democracies, although the Democrats seem to have made impressive inroads into that this year.

I would suggest that the level of intensity and the large number actively engaged in following the election closely is more impressive than the breadth of participation across the entire electorate.

And if they weren't interested this year ...

How to help Burma's democrats

The global civil society campaign Avaaz and democracy campaigners in Burma believe they have found a pressure point on the Burmese Junta, which keeps the democratically elected leader Aung Sung Suu Kyi under house resist and so often seems to regard itself as immune to international criticism.

Avaaz have put out a call to action, asking supporters to put pressure on Lloyd's of London - as "the world's oldest, most respected insurer, which cares a great deal about its global reputation" - to stop insuring the Burmese Junta, to meet with campaigners for Burma to hear their concerns, and to disclose all Burma-related risks.

They recommend that we all write to Lloyd's chairman Lord Levene about the issue.

The Observer reported, on Sunday, cross-party political pressure on Lloyd's chairman Lord Levene, with Conservative John Bercow and Labour's Glenys Kinnock quoted. This should be an issue on which British political leaders and parties can unite: Gordon Brown has shown a strong interest in Burma, and the opposition parties have also been advocates of the democracy movement.

Several big insurers have pulled out - with Willis and Aon, and global reinsurer Swiss Re declaring earlier this year that they will cease their business relationships with Burma, as have Arab Insurance Group and others.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Obama and McCain would 'talk to Taliban'

Time's Joe Klein has a significant interview with Barack Obama.

It includes a significant development in his thinking on Afghanistan.

Actually, Obama and Petraeus seem to be thinking along similar lines with regard to Afghanistan. I mentioned that Petraeus had recently given a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in which he raised the possibility of negotiating with the Taliban. "You know, I think this is one useful lesson that is applicable from Iraq," Obama said without hesitation. "The Sunni awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally," he said, referring to the Petraeus-led effort to turn the Sunni tribes away from the more radical elements of the insurgency. "Whether there are those same opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored," he said.

Wired's Noah Shactman, one of the most respected reporters on security issues, has, perhaps significantly, got a McCain campaign source to respond consensually.

"There are differences over timing, strategy, etc. But there is consensus that at some point there will need to be an effort to talk with some of these [Taliban] guys and peel off more moderate elements".

This might be surprising in the final phases of a campaign when there could have been a late partisan advantage to be made in politicising (perhaps misrepresenting) Obama's position on 'talking to the Taliban'. (Maybe Schactman has got a view informed more by McCain's foreign policy advisers rather than his political operatives).

That Obama is here endorsing the emulation of an important part of the Petreaus strategy in Iraq may have a good deal to do with that. But perhaps, and despite all recent appearances to the contrary, 'Country First' is still an argument which holds some sway with the McCain campaign on issues that really matter.

PS: Even outside of the campaign context, the British experience shows why politicians can be wary of this debate in public.

Last December, British discussion of strategies to "split" the Taliban generated front-page Brown: It's time to talk to the Taliban headlines. A Parliamentary statement which generated We will not negotiate with Taliban, insists Brown headlines the following day.

The proposed strategy was always, rationally, somewhere in between. Or as Paul Woodward of War in Context put it: 'We will not talk to the Taliban who we won’t talk to, apart from those who we will talk to'. And that appears to be the policy which both US candidates are converging on too.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

McCain's future: the market was rigged!

Trading in political futures on the leading InTrade market gives Obama an 84% chance of the White House, against 16% of McCain.

Check out the graphs - and notice how late the Obama surge broke.

And now we know why. InTrade has revealed in a statement that a single institutional investor spent hundreds of thousands to make McCain look more competitive on the market than he was. This reduced the Obama probability of winning down by around 10 points over a month. (This is not simply counter-cyclical betting by somebody who thought the herd were getting it wrong: they were deliberately betting at much worse odds on InTrade than were readily available elsewhere).

CQ has all the details of how it was done. I heard about this on Paul Krugman's blog, but even the Nobel winner has to doff his hat at Nate Silver, who spotted something suspicious and worked out from the betting patterns a few weeks ago. (Sliver's blog takes political numbers to a new art form).

But there wasn't enough of a future in it. You can buck the market for a while. But you can't buck the election.

'I can live with defeat says McCain' probably isn't the best headline in the momentum stakes either.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Belgians for Dubya

About to catch the Eurostar to speak to the Flemish Social Democrats' conference in Brussels tomorrow morning.

This could also be a chance to investigate a mysterious quirk in yesterday's international poll on the US election, carried by The Guardian, Le Monde, Le Soir and other newspapers.

The public in all eight countries preferred Barack Obama to John McCain, with the lead ranging from 17 to over 60 points, and majority support for the Democrat everywhere except Poland (43-26) and Mexico (46-13)

A second question asked Since the start of the Bush Presidency, how has your opinion of the US changed?

In seven out of eight countries, opinions of America had changed for the worse.

But not in Belgium. Voters there do back Obama over McCain by 62% to 8% - quite a similar result to those in Britain and France. Yet 52% of Belgians have improved their opinion of America since 2000, while for 39% it has deteriorated. That's a 13% positive Bush bounce in America's global appeal among Belgians, compared to deficits of 44% in Britain, 64% in Canada and 68% in France.

Why? I shall try to ask around and report back ...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A deserved Nobel

Has the Nobel prize lost its glitter?, the Observer asked this week. Like the rest of its panel, I didn't think so.

There are good tributes to this year's peace prize winner Martti Ahtisaari from fellow Finn Reijo Ruokanen and from ex-Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans for the International Crisis Group. But celebrations in Aceh or at the Martti Ahtisaari Primary School in Namibia may best capture the reasons for the award.

If securing Namibia's peaceful independence is Ahtisaari's proudest achievement, the award of the prize this year was also intended to bring renewed attention to Kosovo. The International Crisis Group - which is among the most focused and valuable of any foreign policy think-tank - has recently published a report recommending how to support Kosovo's fragile transition.

Friday, October 10, 2008

McCain may take Macedonia

And that's about as much good news as can be found for the Republican candidate right now.

McCain is still within 6 points in RealClearPolitics' poll of polls, but the InTrade futures market now gives Obama a 76.6% chance of victory with McCain back to 23.3%. The dramatic slump in his prospects over the last month is also captured by PoliticalBetting's graph of the UK betting markets.

Meanwhile in Macedonia, McCain's appeal is holding up a little better, according to The Economist's totally unscientific Global Electoral College based on reader's online votes.

This would be fun, but election night isn't going to be cliffhanger. Only Georgia has John McCain on its mind, where the Republican has 68% of the vote at time of writing, while he was hanging on to 53-47 leads in both Macedonia and Andorra. And that's it. In a much expanded worldwide electoral college, Obama's current lead is 8501 to 16

This web-based self-selecting methodology may well have a pro-Obama bias: The Economist gives him an overwhelming lead in the US too. But there are similar messages from conventional worldwide opinion polls. Obama had a clean sweep in a 22-nation BBC poll and Reader's Digest global Presidential poll.

Obama also edged ahead in Israel this summer, though another poll found McCain ahead in the Palestinian territories: both somewhat counterintuitive results.

Only Americans get to vote on November 4th. These global polls are never too good for the Republicans - and they can be more of a headache than a boon to the Democrats. But George Bush was more popular than John Kerry in 2004 in Poland, the Phillipines and Nigeria, and tied his opponent in India. All four countries have now swung behind the Democrat contender in 2008.

Its unfair to say that McCain is less popular than Bush. But Barack Obama's distinctive global appeal suggests that he could yet make the world fall back in love with America again.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Post-debate, it was no contest

The debate was a no-score bore, though voters gave it to Obama.

Wonkette has a fascinating review and full C-Span video showing Obama excelling at retail politics, Clinton-style (after being snubbed when attempting to shake his Presidential opponent's hands)

And after 90 seconds, there was one side on the field.

As Michael Tomasky has been pointing out on his excellent Guardian blog, McCain isn't competing in the ground campaign either. And that could prove an even costly mistake come election day.

Boring, boring Barack Obama

Boring Barack Obama. And Boring John McCain. And boring, useless Tom Brokaw, wittering on about the clock but doing nothing useful as a moderator, though in all fairness that much exalted Town Hall format could have been devised to take the life out of the political debate.

Were there any interesting nuggets at all? Let’s at least try.

* Is John McCain spending so much time with Sarah Palin that he’s turning into her?

Asked about the financial bailout, did he really say "I have a plan to fix this problem, and its to do with energy independence”

* Did six million Americans really email in their questions in the hope of getting them put to the candidates?

Another difficulty for the politics is broken brigade is that when we get unmediated politics (even on as flat a night as this one, then voters’ impressions of both candidates tend to rise. And that happens once large numbers of non-anoraks, about to undertake the solemn duty of electing a President, decide to pay just a little more attention for a couple of nights once every four years. Perhaps that’s because of the all too well hidden secret of national politics: it can be much more often about decent people thinking sincerely about how to solve difficult problems than anybody tends to let on.

* Does anybody really think that McCain’s “that one” comment cuts it as a historic debate “moment”?

This definitely won’t ever be there with Reagan and Dukakis on the tape of those famous debate moments in years to come; my guess would be that few people will remember it by this weekend.

Spin alley is very old news now that campaign press secretaries can simply ping over an email to reporters during the debate. But that also entails the risk of losing all perspective. I doubt this would have been much more than the briefest of footnotes to news reports twenty years ago.

Yes, McCain is getting snarkier. Like Ezra Klein, I didn’t spot any racist connotation – but McCain is pissed off that he is losing. And no, it won’t work while Obama maintains the contrasting Presidential demeanour which has served him especially well ever since the financial crisis broke, somehow seeming above the fray even as his bid to be President enters its critical final weeks.

This may still be more of a referendum on the Democratic contender than his party would like it to be – but he’s more than passing that test, And its enough of a referendum on Bush-McCain and the economy for him to be an increasingly confident as front-runner.

So he is now running down the clock from here until November 4th, I guess that means we’ll be hearing much more of nothing much new from this new, boring Barack Obama.

As long as he gets to take the rhetorical fireworks out of the box again on January 20th 2009, then what is there to complain about?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sarah Palin: unqualified, but still alive

I couldn't quite stay up for the VP debate in St Louis (full transcript), but was grateful for our two year old daughter waking us up at 6am so I could watch the recording as live before hearing anything about it.

Campaigns always try to manage expectations downwards: none can ever have played quite such a blinder in the expectations game as Sarah Palin. And no politician since Al Gore has done quite so much for the internet as Palin.

Her CBS interviews have conclusively proved that she is not yet qualified to be President. But Palin's lack of knowledge is perhaps less scary than her confidence in spite of this. In her clarity, certainty and lack of all nuance, she very much resembles the current President George W Bush. And like Bush in 2000, she performed confidently and well, by combining her talking points with a folksy anti-politics appeal, in the controlled debate format in which it was relatively easy to duck specific questions.

Joe Biden's strategy was a smart and effective one. He never challenged Sarah Palin and was wary of contradicting her directly - though he was very clear in his rebuttal of the Cheney doctrine of the vice-presidency. But he hammered McCain again and again. Biden won the debate comfortably according to the immediate polls of viewers and undecided voters, with clear and focused advocacy of Obama's domestic and foreign policy platform. And the weakness of the McCain-Palin ticket in current conditions came across too: on domestic policy, the answer is always for government to do less and get out of the way.

But Republicans will be relieved too. Palin's performance - an honourable defeat - will end the question of whether she can remain on the ticket.

As she gets back to energising the base, Palin is unlikely to be exposed to much more media scrutiny during the rest of the campaign. The PalinSpeak interview generator will have to suffice.

If the faltering McCain campaign were to recover and win, then there would be an immediate priority for development assistance to our long-standing ally: Gordon Brown should ensure that Britain urgently sends the best heart surgeons we have to Washington to be on permanent stand-by for the next four years. Any 'special relationship' would demand no less.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

'When was the last time America elected an angry President?'

Karl Rove asked that of Howard Dean's surge last time around.

Joe Klein contrasts the Obama and McCain temperaments in an excellent Time column.

McCain, playing the underdog, is getting angrier as the race closes. But he risks confirming the growing impression that Obama is President-elect.

But Klein also warns against the idea that the race is over, and suggests some possible game-changers on the Time Swampland blog.

Above all, let's hope Osama bin Laden - following his somewhat machiavellian contribution in 2004 - can not seek to intervene in America's democratic choice,

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Washington's blame game

The House of Representatives vote to reject the $700 billion bailout, by 228 votes to 205, has sent shockwaves through the financial markets, hitting London this morning following the dramatic fall in the US in response yesterday.

Efforts are being made to rescue the rescue, but almost as much energy seems to be going into the blame game. House Republicans split two to one (65 to 133) against the bill, though 95 Democrats also opposed it, with 140 (60%) of Democrats in favour. That was about ideological aversion to government intervention - but it was also about electoral politics. Nate Silver's analysis shows that representatives in competitive races voted heavily against.

Still, Republicans want to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for making a partisan speech, though it is hard to credit the idea that this could have swung a dozen Republican votes.

Few have taken John McCain's dramatically erratic interventions in the bailout negotiations seriously - not least because he didn't manage to find time to read the original three page Bill, still less to express a clear view on it. But McCain had already claimed the credit for bringing the House Republicans on board, somewhat prematurely.

And John McCain's latest response - its time to leave the politics out of it, as long as everybody realises that this is the fault of Barack Obama and the Democrats!

Our leaders are expected to leave partisanship at the door and come to the table to solve our problems. Senator Obama and his allies in Congress infused unnecessary partisanship into the process. Now is not the time to fix the blame. It’s time to fix the problem.I would hope that all our leaders, all of them, can put aside short-term political goals and do what’s in the best interest of the American people.

Shameless. But at least it isn't working. The economic crisis has significantly damaged McCain's prospects of winning the White House.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Debate verdicts round-up: Few minds changed

If there was no clear winner, most people seem to have ended the night thinking pretty much what they did when they began. A debate transcript is available from RealClearPolitics.

One of the most interesting pieces of analysis is from The Plank at The New Republic, arguing that the pundits don't understand why voters put Obama ahead.

The CNN poll [detail] suggests that Obama is opening up a gap on connectedness, while closing a gap on readiness ... Specifically, by a 62-32 margin, voters thought that Obama was “more in touch with the needs and problems of people like you”. This is a gap that has no doubt grown because of the financial crisis of recent days. But it also grew because Obama was actually speaking to middle class voters.

But here are the best of the pundits' verdicts anyway ...

Ezra Klein says that McCain's passion came from contempt for his opponent and a failing ideology.

McCain has every right to be angry: He would have been an excellent, maybe unbeatable, candidate in 2000 or 2004. Instead, he's facing down the excesses of his own ideology in 2008. And that's what McCain doesn't understand. He's not behind because he doesn't deserve this, or because he's not served his country honorably. He's behind because events have disproven his agenda. Because the success of the surge does not outweigh the blunder of Iraq. Because the appeal of tax cuts does not outweigh the costs of deregulation and wage stagnation. And even the best debate performance can't obscure that.

Joe Klein says McCain was tactical where Obama was strategic.

Obama emerged as a candidate who was at least as knowledgeable, judicious and unflappable as McCain on foreign policy ... and more knowledgeable, and better suited to deal with the economic crisis and domestic problems the country faces ... Neither man closed the sale, and I don't think many votes, or opinions, were changed.

Matthew Yglesias says McCain failed to gain the ground he needs.

All things considered, it’s about a draw. McCain got a couple of good punches in and so did Obama. Insofar as the idea is supposed to be that McCain has a domineering advantage on national security he certainly didn’t prove that point. And for the candidate who’s losing, a tie amounts to a loss.

Jim Geraghty of National Review thinks it was a surprisingly strong night for John McCain, after a bad week, perhaps proving his own point.

My guess is, everybody thinks their guy won tonight. From where I sit, McCain had a surprisingly strong night — it'll change the storyline from "uh, what was he thinking?" ... it's really hard to say McCain had a bad night, and I think Obama seemed a little shaky at times tonight - his performance didn't boldly and clearly say, "I know I'm new on the scene, but you can trust me; I am ready to succeed in the hardest job in the world."

Andrew Sullivan - an Obamacon - believes the Democrat was more focused.

It strikes me as a mistake for McCain to end the debate on his commitment to staying in Iraq indefinitely. Obama's emphasis on the broader global conflict and our broader responsibilities will reach more people. His vision seems broader, wiser, and more focused on ordinary people. A masterful performance tonight, I think. Obama's best ever debate performance. McCain was fine, but it's wrong for him to attack his opponent at the end. And then he gave a slightly rambling defense of his experience. I give Obama an A - and I give McCain a B.

Chris Cillzilla of the Washington Post thought McCain gave his most relaxed debate performance to date and is not convinced that Obama pinned the Bush record on McCain.

Obama had a simple goal in this debate: tie McCain to the policies of George W. Bush. Right from the start, Obama sought to link the economic policies responsible for the financial crisis to Bush and McCain; he noted at another time that although McCain as casting himself as a maverick, he had voted with the current president 90 percent of the time ... It's a smart strategy on paper. But, will the average voter become convinced that McCain and Bush are one in the same? Remember that the lasting image most voters have of McCain is as the guy who ran against Bush in 2000.

Michael Tomasky of The Guardian wants more time to decide before accepting the instant reaction.

Let's watch what happens over the next two or three days. The McCain campaign, as I've written a hundred times, is geared toward winning news cycles. They will see the above numbers and go into overdrive to counter-spin. I don't think Obama's win, if that's what it was, was so decisive that the McCain team can't reverse spin it. It's McCain who's behind, and it's McCain who needs to change minds here.

First Presidential debate: McCain snark hands Obama slight edge

There was no great dramatic moment, certainly no knockout blow, in a close fought and reasonably substantive opening Presidential candidate's debate.

John McCain began shakily on the economic crisis, where Obama was better. However, the Democrat made a tactical error in allowing the discussion to remain so focused on a traditional 'cut government spending' debate about earmarks for so long. McCain's detailed view of what should happen on the financial bailout remains rather opaque, yet was largely untested.

On foreign policy, I felt that Obama had the better of the exchanges on Afghanistan, and probably Iraq too. McCain's strongest debating passage was on Georgia and Russia, where he projected his experience most effectively. However, his claim that he saw only the letters 'KGB' behind Vladimir Putin's eyes sat slightly oddly with, in more or less the next sentence, his assertion that he had no interest whatsoever in any new cold war. On negotiations with Iran, what Henry Kissinger has said is somewhere in between what both candidates claimed: he has been for direct talks, without preconditions, but preferably at Secretary of State level.

The most important question of the night was whether uncommitted voters who have not followed the race closely would think Obama as qualified to be President. McCain's strategy was to consistently say "what Senator Obama doesn't understand". This came across as snarky. When he finally decided to say outright in his closing remarks that Barack Obama was not qualified to be President, he muffed the line, with Obama barely even needing to retort.

By contrast, Obama was consistently gracious. The McCain camp have issued an instant campaign video drawing on the times he acknowledged points of common ground. But this was a foreign policy debate and that is a major part of Obama's claim to bipartisanship, which is supposed to be part of McCain's "reform" credential too.

So Obama passed the 'ready to lead' test comfortably, being Presidential, knowledgeable, fairly robust in his views and carrying off his somewhat Kennedyesque persona in a substantive way. Voters worried about the experience gap will probably have felt that Obama held his own on his opponent's specialist subject. And Obama was considerably better at connecting foreign policy issues back to their domestic impact, which is an important part of the framing of the final month.

The economy is back at centre stage, McCain has had an erratic week, and the Palin pick looks somewhat less smart as time goes on.

So a drawn debate would have been to Obama's advantage. And he may just have done a little better than that. The "snark" factor may well explain why each of the instant polls of debate viewers had Barack Obama ahead on the night, though not dramatically so.

If John McCain was seeking to get a major boost from the debates, this may have been his best opportunity. And if his response as the underdog is to become more aggressive in the next two encounters, it may well do him more harm than good.

Overall, last night's debate didn't change the Presidential race very much.

So this remains the Democrats race to lose on November 4th.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Great debate moments

It's game on. John McCain is going to turn up for the first Presidential debate.

Time has put together a good package of 10 of the most memorable debate moments.

The Obama campaign has put out an expectations memo which doesn't just talk up McCain's experience, but circulates reviews of their own useless candidate - "“Lifeless, Aloof, And Windy.

This is almost beyond satire - but Amy Sullivan of Time recommends a classic 2004 Daily Show clip which tries to keep up with reality.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Next Left

The Fabians have a new blog called Next Left, to which I will be contributing regularly.

Its at

Polarising America

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Sunny Hundal thinks Obama needs to fight the culture wars, in response to the Palin nomination.

I disagree.

The Democrats should avoid being baited from the election they want to run.

And, Obama can't be Obama if he reneges on the message of his 2004 Convention speech and his campaign.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Fabian Review column: The Obama factor

Our prime minister is a fan of reality television, seeing in the X-Factor a metaphor for unlocking talent. So how he must have thrilled to the Democracy Idol show which has gripped America this primary season; catapulting a new star, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, to the brink of a historic presidency.

The contest has demonstrated America's remarkable capacity for democratic renewal. Whoever wins, John McCain's vanquishing of the Republican right means that the next US president will know that global warming is real, and that using torture is both wrong and counter-productive. But Obama offers transformative potential. Even if he must ultimately disappoint some of the diverse hopes projected onto him, his inaugural address could begin to repair America's battered global reputation much more rapidly than has ever seemed possible during these disastrous Bush years.

Britain is not America. As we celebrate sixty years of universal healthcare, that remains a cause unfulfilled for progressive America. But winds of political change do frequently cross the Atlantic. After the Thatcher-Reagan era, the New Democrats deeply influenced New Labour and a generation of European social democrats. Many policy lessons for governing in the global age remain relevant. As politics, this once-modernising formula is badly dated. Hillary Clinton's Democratic primary defeat brings the long 1990s to a symbolic close.

Clinton was, in part, unlucky. She won over 17 million primary votes. If her 'inevitability strategy' fatally underestimated Obama, she was hardly alone in that. She ended a much stronger campaigner than she began, when championing lower-income Americans left out by a boom which never trickled down. (But note too how badly the populist gambit of an August gas tax holiday flopped).

Obama's success is not simply down to personal charisma, or the symbolic possibility of the first black president. Two important lessons are not about his race or his personality:

Firstly, words matter. New Labour's response to Mario Cuomo's dilemma - that 'we campaign in poetry but govern in prose' - was too often to manage expectations downwards and make sure we campaigned in prose too. 'Forward, not back' and please take care not to wake up the voters. Hope-mongers face their own challenges. A President Obama would need to educate his movement for the longer haul of delivering change through politics.

But the Clinton campaign's argument that this was to offer 'false hope' was deeply conservative. Labour must rediscover its sense of mission. Only by standing proudly for our cause of a fairer Britain, and what government must do to make it possible, could Labour make a fight of the next election.

Second, inspiration needs organisation. Obama's bottom-up movement out-organised a formidable political machine. The lessons go much deeper than fundraising. This was a revolution in political mobilisation. Obama has brought a new cohort of younger activists and voters into politics because he was prepared to let go and trust supporters with the power and tools to organise on his behalf.

As David Lammy argued in his recent Fabian lecture, this is light years away from the way we do politics here. The spectre of past divisions makes the instinct to control paramount. So our institutions do much to sap political energy and boil off hope. As the Fabian Society's Facing Out pamphlet advocated, much lower barriers to entry and an openness to internal pluralism are essential for the Labour party to be part of a broader campaigning progressive movement.

This would be to turn the culture of our party politics inside out. This may be too much to ask. If so, the US election, like the much missed West Wing, would offer nothing more than a shot of political escapism, an idle reverie amidst the deepening Westminster gloom. Yet we know that Labour has a mission and a soul. Might we even now rediscover the audacity to hope?

* This commentary appears in the new Fabian Review, and is also published in The Scotsman and by Progress online.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A nuclear free world?

Perhaps the most striking passage in Barack Obama's Berlin speech was the prominence he gave to his call for the goal of a world without nuclear weapons

This is the moment when we must renew the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The two superpowers that faced each other across the wall of this city came too close too often to destroying all we have built and all that we love. With that wall gone, we need not stand idly by and watch the further spread of the deadly atom. It is time to secure all loose nuclear materials; to stop the spread of nuclear weapons; and to reduce the arsenals from another era. This is the moment to begin the work of seeking the peace of a world without nuclear weapons.

This will sound radical to American and to European ears, perhaps especially in Britain.

I can not imagine a British Labour party leader giving the issue a similar level of prominence in a major campaign speech.

That is largely because of British domestic politics - and the way in which unilateralism divided the party in the 1950s, then became a symbol of Labour's unelectability in the 1980s. The Trident renewal debate has often seemed to be as much about electoral politics as national security.

Obama first made this commitment last Autumn in his New Beginning speech. Its inclusion in this flagship European address reinforces the signal that an Obama administration intends to seriously engage with the growing bipartisan support in the United States to replace the theory of deterrence with a strategy to reduce and elimate nuclear weapons.

Henry Kissinger is the standout counterintutive name for a European audience, but he, George Schultz, Sam Nunn and William Perry were able to boast an astonishingly impressive list of the great and good of American diplomacy who have rallied around the goal.

We have also been encouraged by additional indications of general support for this project from other former U.S. officials with extensive experience as secretaries of state and defense and national security advisors. These include: Madeleine Albright, Richard V. Allen, James A. Baker III, Samuel R. Berger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci, Warren Christopher, William Cohen, Lawrence Eagleburger, Melvin Laird, Anthony Lake, Robert McFarlane, Robert McNamara and Colin Powell.

More recently, the John McCain campaign have also signalled an interest in this agenda, referring to Ronald Reagan's dream of a nuclear free world. While McCain's approach is less specific than Obama's it has led John Kerry to highlight the opportunity this creates for a bipartsian initative.

In Europe, the debate has largely been confined to diplomatic circles, though David Owen's 'pro-nukes' policy was one of the defining issues of his political career, and so his involvement in a joint cross-party initiative with Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind and George Robertson was an attempt to emulate the US elite foreign policy initative.

The British government does share the goal. Former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett gave a significant speech including this commitment in one of her final speeches as Foreign Secretary. The speech was given to the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference in Washington DC, and took place in the week of the Blair-Brown transition, and so was little noticed except by specialist audiences.

Perhaps the Obama commitment may now lead to a greater public debate on this side of the Atlantic too.

Obama in Berlin

It may not have been at the Brandenburg Gate. But the genuine Obamamania among Berliners means that the keynote moment of the Obama European tour will have generated the right Kennedyesque images back home.

Perhaps, in such an atmosphere, the speech itself was always likely to be something of an anti-climax.

Diplomatic and campaigning conventions (and political prudence) meant that the critique of the Bush Presidency was rather a muted one, though commitments to oppose and end the war in Iraq (in the right way) won some of the largest cheers. So the candidate was never going to do what the Berlin crowd wanted, and lead them in a chorus of 'yes, we can' (though they did their best without him).

But if it was largely a speech of platitudes, they were always the right platitudes.

Being against torture, in favour of working with allies, aware of global interdependence, concerned about global warming, and committed to a fair peace for Israelis and Palestinians should hardly be earth shattering statements.

But, after the Bush era, they are statements which are needed, and which are even capable of generating great enthusiasm.

That may be more important than Obama's rock star status in explaining why a speech aimed at Americans can play so well with a European audience.

The challenge to Europeans, over Afghanistan in particular, might have been stronger than it was, not least to help allay fears that Obama's popularity abroad was a sign of weakness in international affairs. But the US mood has changed since 2004, and there are less takers for isolation as a badge of pride.

One of the ironies of Bush's polarising Presidency is that it has made it relatively easy for Obama to give a speech which has narrowed the Atlantic.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In search of inspiration: could Britain build a progressive movement?

As Obamamania comes to Europe, the main focus is on what the Democrat nominee will say about US foreign policy and the future of the transatlantic relationship, and how it will affect the election race in the US.

But there is another debate bubbling under is what political campaigners in Europe can learn from the US election.

The Guardian reports on the debate which has followed David Lammy's recent Fabian speech.

Lammy, and other party thinkers such as Sunder Katwala, the Fabian general secretary, argue: "Obama is showing the political messages and methods of the 1990s now look very tired and out of date." Lammy warns that managerial language has alienated people and left the public disorientated. "For many people, the good things that we are doing sound more like a list of bullet points, rather than a mission to change society. So they switch off, or worse, become alienated from a party that looks like it has become part of the establishment."

Andrew Grice also wrote about this recently in The Independent.

Mr Brown will probably not welcome Mr Lammy's speech but he should. His criticism of "the politics of control", made when he took questions, could be seen as an attack on a micro-managing prime minister, but it wasn't. Nor was his rejection of "triangulation" – positioning between left and right but also "above" them to move forward.

Mr Lammy was calling for a cultural revolution in our politics to reconnect it with the people, as Mr Obama has done. New Labour, he admitted, was never "a movement that filtered down to ordinary people".

UPDATE: I have written a Comment is Free piece about whether Labour and the broader British left could create a movement politics of our own, and how this can be "boot-strapped" without a George W Bush or John Howard.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What could Labour learn from America?

It's been a really tough few time for Britain's Labour government, with defeats in the local elections, the election for London Mayor and by-elections. Many are looking enviously at the energy in the US campaign. But could there be more to it than that?

David Lammy MP gave a Fabian speech last week 'Lessons from America' arguing that both the Obama and McCain campaigns have important lessons for Labour.

I think it is one of the most candid and punchy political speeches given by a government minister in the last year. Lammy argued, taking questions, that, as the youngest member in the government, he should advocate an opening up of the cultures and structures of politics.

Lammy was pretty careful to speak warmly about both the Obama and McCain campaigns (and rather inventive in finding quite so many McCain reference points to do this), and to observe the formalities of government neutrality, but of course his personal views are very obvious.

In many ways much of the core argument is a statement of obvious truths, but it is sometimes difficult for government ministers to do that! And it is good to see some acknowledgement that we need to think radically about our message and mission, and the way we do politics too.

Some of the key arguments:
* The winning candidates are both political 'outsiders'.

"The real problem with the toff campaign was that it picked the wrong target. Because the issue is the political class, not the upper class."

* The 1990s looks very tired and dated.
"the use of triangulation, of defining yourself against your own party, of a managerial language which drains the values from policy also became a habit – a reflex –which alienated people in the party and left the public disorientated".

Labour needs a greater confidence in its distinctive collectivist mission and willingness to assert the values behind policies. Our achievements sometimes feel like bullet points on a list, not a mission for social change.

* Obama mobilised from below. He was prepared to let go. This is "light years away" from the culture of politics within the Labour Party, where the barriers to entry are much too high. Lammy went on to say that "New Labour was never a movement".

This is an analysis which is along similar lines to that of the Fabian pamphlet Facing Out.

As Andrew Sparrow says in his incisive blog post at the Guardian, I am sure that it is a contentful speech trying to open up a discussion about how we change how we do politics, rather than a Westminster critique of the PM, but the implications are pretty radical.

If these are the right lessons from the US, or about the culture of our politics, then the bigger question will be about how change can happen in practice.


After rather a long hiatus, I'm going to start reblogging here.

Obama seems well placed for the General Election race, with the Obama-Clinton reconciliation going as well or better than could be people expected.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Obama as McGovern?

You are a Democrat on the brink of your party's Presidential nomination, as long as you can calm down any late fears about electability. Which previous Democratic Presidential nominees would you be keenest to avoid being compared to?

I would suggest, in reverse order ...

5. Adlai Stevenson
4. John Kerry
3. Walter Mondale
2. Michael Dukakis
1. George McGovern

This is a pretty competitive race. I've let Adlai Stevenson pip Al Gore for the final spot. Stevenson lost twice. And, whatever the weaknesses of his campaign, Gore won. Sort of. Hubert Humphrey has faded from the frame.

EJ Dionne was worrying about whether Obama resembles Adlai Stevenson on Tuesday. Now John Judis asks if he has something of the McGovern factor.

if you look at Obama's vote in Pennsylvania, you begin to see the outlines of the old George McGovern coalition that haunted the Democrats during the '70s and '80s, led by college students and minorities.

Is Obama turning from a candidate with the ability to transcend the usual electoral blocs into a classic latte liberal insurgency Democrat?

Jonathan Chait has fired off a response to Judis, the most important point of which is that "Extrapolating from primary dynamics to general election dynamics is very dicey business".

However, it was not a good idea for Obama's campaign strategist David Axelrod to make a similar point in a way which could sound as though the campaign is conceding the white working-class vote to John McCain.

The white working class has gone to the Republican nominee for many elections, going back even to the Clinton years. This is not new that Democratic candidates don’t rely solely on these votes

Jay Cost's analysis suggests that Hillary Clinton's Pennsylvanian numbers don't change the voting dynamics enough from previous primaries. Still, the victory gives Clinton the opportunity of gaining momentum. The TV news narrative is about who won and who lost, rather than the expectations benchmarks of inside the beltway. That could make some difference in the next primaries. But she is some way short of giving the super-delegates reasonable cause to change the result.

Clinton's problem is that probably means turning up the volume again. But the charge that she went too negative in Pennsylvania was not confined to the media, and seems to have cost her votes.

The Clinton-supporting New York Times editorial page criticism of her 'low road to victory captures the fears of many Democrats that the last few weeks have made both candidates less attractive:

Voters are getting tired of it; it is demeaning the political process; and it does not work. It is past time for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to acknowledge that the negativity, for which she is mostly responsible, does nothing but harm to her, her opponent, her party and the 2008 election.

There was a fascinating set of interviews with the 'white house losers' - including Dukakis, Mondale and McGovern - in the Guardian's Weekend magazine at the end of last month. The next month may have a crucial impact on whether Obama can avoid joining their 'misery circle'.

Organising the movement

One of the themes of the Democrat primary has been 'the movement against the machine'. A Time Magazine piece back in the Ohio primary did a good job at capturing the two campaigns different philosophies about the politics of organisation.

The Obama method involves giving away the tools for supporters to campaign for him. For the conventional campaign, this means a significant loss of control. But the gain to Obama has been clear - in his fundraising advantage, his ability to engage and mobilise new voters, and his striking victories in each of the caucus states.

But it would be a mistake to think that the politics of inspiration and engagement does not need organising too, as Noam Scheiber's fascinating profile profile of Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe shows.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The marathon continues

It's something of a relief that the voters are finally getting another say in the Pennsylvania primary. The six weeks since the last primary have not been good for the Democrats, as the race has got more negative, and more trivial (not helped by the much critcised ABC candidates' debate)

Obama has firmed up as favourite for the nomination. But the long slog has exposed some weaknesses: his 'bitter' comments could prove a storm in a teacup or, in retrospect, seem like a clear clue about a Dukakis or Kerry style weakness. (EJ Dionne puts it well in a column asking whether Obama is JFK or Adlai Stevenson, or perhaps both. (It is an interesting contrast to today's politics of self-destruction to think that the Democrats ran the same candidate twice against Eisenhower).

Hillary Clinton is expected to win tonight. But the expectations game has her needing something like a 10 point victory. A race where she is favourite is more dangerous for her, since her campaign depends on achieving an 'away win' - overturning the odds in a state which Obama would have won - both to try to catch up on the popular vote, or put the issue in doubt for the super-delegates.

Obama seems to have weathered the storms without looking like imploding.

The excellent Jay Cost looks at the conventional wisdom and challenges some of it, defending Hillary Clinton's decision to stay in until the buzzer sounds.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Globe and Mail: The waiting game

As Gordon Brown prepares to head to the United States, Doug Saunders in Canada's leading quality newspaper, The Globe and Mail, says a good deal of international diplomacy is on hold in an analysis piece published on Saturday.

Around the world, Jan. 21, 2009, has become the key date in politics. Diplomats and senior officials in a half-dozen countries have told me frankly that little of any significance is going to happen until that fateful Wednesday when either Hillary Clinton, John McCain or Barack Obama is inaugurated into office.

I am among the various think-tankers quoted in the piece - and there's even a plug for this modest blog.

"I think everyone's agreed that there is not going to be a literal Love, Actually moment — though there are certainly lots of people at Number 10 who would like to see that — but there is a real sense in this government that many important items on the international agenda are just going to have to wait until after Jan. 21," says Sunder Katwala, head of the Fabian Society, a venerable think tank with very close ties to the Brown administration (and keeper of a blog titled "Life after Bush").

Sunday, March 30, 2008

How (not) to get a British Obama

The Obama effect is being claimed by both sides of the debate about whether political parties should introduce all black shortlists for some parliamentary seats.

Harriet Harman has commissioned the pressure group Operation Black Vote to report on how the scheme would work. The report has not been published, but an accurate summary of the main proposals
was published in The Observer last month. Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote told The Observer that:

Unless we take positive action measures we are not going to have a representative democracy for more than 75 years. It's not that we don't have Obamas, but we don't have the mechanisms for them to see the light of day.'

In a commentary in this week's New Statesman, I argued against the proposals as a regressive step, arguing that "ethnic faces for ethnic voters" would be a big step backwards - and the opposite of the Obama effect.

The Independent reported reaction from several MPs, and the criticism from several Asian MPs has been picked up by the Times of India.

Sunny Hundal on Comment is Free and Kanishk Tharoor on OurKingdom agree with me about the dangers of this approach.

Simon Woolley of the Operation Black Vote makes the case for all black shortlists on Comment is Free. In the Independent, Diane Abbott believes that critics are being 'both silly and selfish' and seeking to kick away the ladder from everybody else, and is reluctant to believe that anybody could have a different view. I don't think the claim that it would take 75 years to achieve fair representation stands up, and had a short letter published in response.

Clearly, it is a debate which will continue. Two thoughts about the reaction:

The claim that the division is between Afro-Caribbean and Asian MPs is not the whole story. The reaction does suggest that is one factor. But two of the most senior Asian MPs Keith Vaz and Virendra Sharma back all-black shortlists, while Chuka Umunna, recently selected in Streatham, is a sceptic. So this could equally be seen as a generational division. Those born before 1970 are more likely to be in favour; those born afterwards to be against. And MPs with high numbers of black and Asian voters are more likely to be in favour; those in seats which are predominantly white are opposed.

And, while Labour's black and Asian MPs are almost equally divided, this should not be a debate about minorities, among minorities.

I think we need to look at ethnicity, gender and class cohesively, and will be doing more work on this.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Five years on: the death of liberal internationalism?

There has been an avalanche of commentary and analysis on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war. Back in 2003, I was working for The Observer, which very controversially supported the war, primarily on liberal humanitarian intervention grounds against Saddam's regime.

A thoughtful five years on editorial last Sunday is probably as close as the paper is going to come to admitting that this was a mistake.

Terrible miscalculations were made in the preparation for war and a catalogue of blunders made in its prosecution. As an
intervention, whether for moral or strategic goals, it failed. The consequences are grave, and not just for Iraq.

The 2003 decision to back the war of recently departed Observer editor Roger Alton is lambasted in Nick Davies' Flat Earth News. However, Davies charge which is essentially that Alton turned the Observer into a pro-war propaganda sheet, simply ignores both the way in which both its reporting and commentary gave a great deal of space was also given to anti-war analysis and arguments, with columnists including Mary Riddell and Will Hutton arguing just as stridently against the war as David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen were arguing for it, while external critics including Terry Jones, Dilip Hiro and John Pilger also wrote scathingly about Blair and Bush for the paper. (It is interesting that Nick Cohen became the fiercest critic of left opponents of the war, many people forget that he took that position himself against the Afghanistan war, and argued against the Iraq war, before he was for it).

I am looking back on that now because that debate which raged inside the Observer reflected the way in which liberal-left thinking about foreign policy and intervention had shifted after 1989, largely in response to Bosnia and Rwanda.

The Observer on Sunday asked:

It is a blow to the idea of 'liberal intervention'. But does that blow have to be fatal?

For me, this is a central question. Can we learn from the mistakes of the Iraq war without forgetting the lessons of Bosnia and Rwanda?

Richard Norton-Taylor, as part of his extensive series reviewing the Iraq legacy for the Guardian, notes the retreat from intervention and asks if

Would there have been a consensus to intervene in the humanitarian disaster of Darfur, had Iraq not been invaded?

At the Fabian conference, John Kampfner accurately diagnosed liberal internationalism as at its weakest point for two decades. Andrew Grice makes a similar point in his column reviewing the Iraq inheritance this morning:

The other casualty of Iraq is the noble cause of liberal interventionism against evil regimes. Supporters expressed the hope this week that events in Iraq would not make it less likely to happen in future. I hope they are right, but fear they are wrong.

Still, a rescue, however difficult, is also necessary.

I argue in a Comment is Free commentary that a any rescue must also involved recasting liberal internationalism.

Rescuing liberal internationalism requires what Blair never offered: a much clearer analysis of where it should differ deeply from the neocon project.

This should be a central project for creating the 'after Bush' agenda we need.

Learning the lessons would create a different, humbler agenda. But if we have to accept that the neocon embrace has killed off liberal internationalism for good then it will prove impossible to replace Bush's unilateralism with the "new multilateralism" we need.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama in Philadelphia

This is Obama's time of greatest peril in the primary race. Though he trails heavily in the last big contest in Philadelphia, Obama is all but uncatchable in pledged delegates and should be able to hold on to his popular vote lead too. The nomination is definitely his to lose. But that means a month, without a run of electoral contests to punctuate the campaign, where the overriding question is his viability as a General Election nominee.

Hillary Clinton has (only) performed well when the underdog. Twice - before New Hampshire, and before Texas - voters decided against crowning Obama, instead keeping the contest going. Now, the last hope of the Clinton campaign is an Obama implosion, sufficient to give super-delegates cause to put the nomination back in play at the convention. And Obama has had to address the issues - the Rezko relationship and Reverend Jeremiah Wright's 'God damn America' comments (video) - which could derail the candidacy, or (perhaps just as damaging) turn him into just another politician.

So today's Philadelphia speech (which is well worth watching in full: video; full text) mattered a great deal. Obama's response to a potential campaign crisis is being called bold and unconventional. Yet it was also entirely predictable. Obama could do no other. And that helps to explain why he got it so right.

It was good for Obama to be able to deepen the campaign message beyond the 'change' and 'hope' slogans; and to make sure his audience understood that the aspiration to a post-racial politics and society will be much more complicated than wishing it were so, but no less noble an ambition for that.

Obama's candidacy has been too much, too often discussed through the prism of race. That is inevitable. I have done it myself. But this has led to something of a tendency to patronise and underestimate Obama: because he will symbolise change, he can not hope to do more than that. Perhaps, that would be how it ended: that his Presidential campaign would prove the high point, of hopes promised but never fulfilled. But let us hold on to the possibility too that he could make much more use of the bully pulpit than that.

I can flinch at his appeal to 'unity'. Despite its rhetorical flight, Obama's breakthrough 2004 convention speech flirts a little too much with the anti-political zeitgeist for my tastes. Yet I am increasingly convinced that Obama is doing something more nuanced and more complicated and - crucially - that he will be able to engage his audience of this. Today's speech was strongest on the need to build coalitions for social justice - and, moreover, coalitions which recognise that grievances can be real, and yet still compete with others which may have no less validity.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances - for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans - the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family

.... In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds - by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.

Progressive politics has space to breathe only when it can bind these together so that coalitions for change defeat a battle of competitive grievances. Ever since the passage of the civil rights act, dividers have had better tunes than uniters. Obama is often accused of naivety. But there is a central strategic logic to an argument about how to call time on the politics of Nixon's piano strategy, of Lee Atwater and Willie Horton, of Dubya and Karl Rove. Progressives have been consistently outmanouvered by the mobilisation of white grievance politics.

I think Obama would, if President, be more likely than any President since LBJ to start a national debate about class disadvantage and the American dream. (Though the post-LBJ competition is not so strong). The interaction between class and race was a key theme of today's speech, albeit in a minor key.

Again, it is worth acknowledging that this language that pledges that "It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams" could be empty or substantive. The least conventional part of today's speech was Obama's explanation of Wright's anger. I can't imagine his campaign advisers were so keen on this, yet it added a depth and truth which the conventional politics of distancing and moving on would not have done.

For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

What Obama again demonstrates here is that he has an unusual ability to empathise with those with whom he does not agree. (Normally, that extends to conservatives; today, more riskily, to his left). This talent offers the opportunity to offer his audience a defence of democratic politics itself and the opportunity to participate in it. The quest for consensus is not simply for consensus' sake. There was an excellent description of this in a response to George Packer's New Yorker blog.

His instincts are not confrontational, but rather dialogic. It’s not so much that he seeks consensus (although he does) as that he seeks to instill a commitment and desire for some solution to, or resolution of, a problem which the group now “owns.” Perhaps more significantly, Obama tries to get people to recognize that they will not succeed in achieving all of their policy goals, that not all solutions or resolutions will satisfy everyone, and that we can accept solutions with which we strongly disagree, so long as we are heard and respected in the political process.

The Wright-Obama contrast also animates Shelby Steele's analysis of 'challenger' and 'bargainer' strategies on race. Yet Steele has got Obama wrong. Steele wrote (again) in today's Washington Post that:

No matter his ultimate political fate, there is already enough pathos in Barack Obama to make him a cautionary tale. His public persona thrives on a manipulation of whites (bargaining), and his private sense of racial identity demands both self-betrayal and duplicity. His is the story of a man who flew so high, yet neglected to become himself.

But this charge of opportunism, of cynicism, is misplaced. Obama is himself. Reading Obama's Dreams of My Father, published thirteen years ago, I was struck by the authenticity of his personal journey, how he reconciles himself to his family history, to being black and mixed race, how he is attracted by a range of different ways of dealing or not dealing with race, and how he comes to forge a sense of self and a set of views which are very directly reflected in his campaign message over a decade later.

That rootednesss lies behind the most impressive thing about this rookie campaign: how Obama has consistently turned every challenge and attack into a chance to reaffirm, to strengthen the core, consistent message of his campaign.

It was because today's speech rang true in its claim to be bigger than the politics of a presidential campaign that it will probably turn out to be good political strategy and tactics too. (Contrast Bill Clinton's 1992 challenge to Sister Souljah: he was right, and it was good politics, but how transparently tactically driven that was).

I've been consistently stressing that that this race isn't over. (Before Ohio and Texas, I was prepared to offer Obama the garlands of having won the campaign; but not the nomination).

But I feel ready to stick my neck out now. In two or three days time, I expect the conventional wisdom will be that this Philadelphia speech was the moment when it became clear that Obama had clinched the nomination. And - this time, just for once in this campaign year - I think the commentariat are going to turn out to be right.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Why Brown's Iraq inquiry pledge - to me! - matters

I very much welcome Gordon Brown's commitment to an inquiry " to learn all possible lessons from the military action in Iraq and its aftermath" - even aside from the unusual experience of this very welcome political development coming in correspondence between myself and the Prime Minister. (Naturally, one also expects that other Cabinet ministers will take note. We were very pleased with last week's budget commitments on child poverty and will be thinking about where else we should now be pressing for progress).

On Iraq, the Prime Minister's spokesman says "that there is nothing new in the letter to the Fabian Society". I am not particularly concerned about a Westminster village debate about how much we have learnt from the letter. If an inquiry has been the government's intention all along, then I very much welcome the fact that this is now clearly on the public record and in the Prime Minister's own words too.

For me, the most positive aspect of Brown's letter are that it adds to the sense that he is planning and ambitious and rather different foreign policy for the 'World after Bush' - a pursuit to which this blog is dedicated.

But the letter has also naturally been the subject of considerable political and media interest today because of that clear, personal commitment by the Prime Minister on behalf of his government. The Independent's powerful front-page coverage of the Brown letter helps to take forward the newspaper's own sustained campaign for an inquiry. It is striking too that The Times and the Evening Standard, two papers which were editorially supportive of the government's decision to go to war, also report that Brown's letter marks a significant development of policy. That is also reflected in reaction from Labour backbenchers and the opposition parties, with Nick Clegg and William Hague stepping up pressure on the issue.

The Times reports that:

Since succeeding Mr Blair last summer Mr Brown has stopped short of calling outright for an inquiry. Last September he said the time would come to discuss whether one should be held. His letter to Sunder Katwala, the Fabian Society’s general secretary, suggests he has accepted that one should be conducted.

The Evening Standard says that

There have been hints before of an inquiry but this was the first confirmation from No 10.

I wrote my letter to the Prime Minister mainly to make the case as to why an inquiry is important, and why the fifth anniversary offered the government the right context to announce this. But, as I told The Independent, the letter was also motivated by the fact that I wasn't clear what the government's policy on an inquiry was, despite trying to follow these issues clearly. I am not omniscient about these issues, but I was not aware of any public statement from the current Prime Minister or current Foreign Secretary setting that out since the Brown administration took office in June.

Those of us trying to read between the lines of various statements as to what the final decision would be were coming to different conclusions. For example, David Miliband's comments rejecting an inquiry when interviewed by Fabian Review in December were reported as marking a significant cooling of the government's attitude towards an inquiry.

"I am obsessed with the next five years in Iraq, not the last five years in Iraq. And I think that the best 'inquiry' is putting the best brains to think about how to make sure the next five years in Iraq get that combination of political reconstruction, economic reconstruction and security improvement that are so essential."

Certainly, his words then were much more sceptical than both Margaret Beckett and Des Browne had been before the transition, in seeming to accept that an inquiry in due course would make sense. But as I - blogged at the time -

I think is too early to say "Government rules out inquiry into Iraq conflict". I don't see that Miliband has given a definite indication of future government policy ... The case for an inquiry will continue, within and outside government.

And, despite that scepticism. Miliband did, in his keynote speech to the Fabian Change the World conference, make a significant argument about the need to 'learn the lessons' from Iraq and Afghanistan.

'democratic institutions need to be built from the bottom up not just the top down; and military victories are never a solution in themselves; they need the backing of economic and social reconstruction'

By contrast, Tony Blair was, for the most part, strongly opposed to an inquiry. Competing quotes can be found on both sides. The authentic Blair view is, I would suggest, is the claim that "We have had inquiry after inquiry we do not need to go back over this again and again." It was only well into injury time towards the end of Blair's Premiership that Ministers began to suggest they were open to an inquiry - and again there was something of a guessing game as to whether this had been inspired by the Prime Minister in waiting, or might rather have been a case of other Ministers seeking to anticipate

It is certainly true that the Brown letter does not go into any detail as to the nature of an inquiry or its timing. However, it would be more than pushing my luck to complain about that, and I hope that the government will set out more details of its plans as soon as possible. (More formally, I expect, but I would like to place on record that the Fabian letterbox remains very much open).

Now, I hope somebody at Number 10 is also paying attention to the very cogent case made in Saturday's Guardian against the extension of detention without trial.

UPDATE: Andy Grice of the Independent also blogs about the Brown letter, pointing out that Brown had not previously said any more than that "there will be a time to discuss the question" of an inquiry. So the Prime Minister's support for an inquiry is new.

Iraq: the Prime Minister replies ...

A reply to my letter to Gordon Brown last month on the case for a public inquiry.

11th March 2008

Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
London SW1 2AA

Sunder Katwala
Fabian Society
11 Dartmouth Street

Dear Sunder

Thank you for your letter of 11 February about Iraq. I agree with you that there is a need to learn all possible lessons from the military action in Iraq and its aftermath. This Government has already acknowledged that there will come a time when it is appropriate to hold an inquiry. But whilst the whole effort of the Government and the armed forces is directed towards supporting the people and Government of Iraq as they forge a future based on reconciliation, democracy, prosperity and security, we believe that is not now.

We are making real progress in Iraq. The transfer of all four provinces in southern Iraq to the Iraqi authorities is ample evidence of the sterling work done by UK forces and our coalition partners. But the work is not complete. Our troops will remain in Iraq to train and support the Iraqi army, whilst our diplomatic missions will continue to work with the Government of Iraq to use the space created by the improved security environment to make real progress on political reconciliation and economic development.

Despite the progress being made on the security, economic and political fronts in Iraq, the situation remains fragile and could easily be reversed. At this critical time it is therefore vital that the Government does not divert attention from supporting Iraq’s development as a secure and stable country. Since October 2006, Parliament, when debating the need for an inquiry, has twice supported the Government on this point.

I have put reform of international institutions at the core of the UK’s foreign policy strategy. I want international institutions to be relevant to the twenty first century challenges, and credible and modern in the way they approach them. They need to command international engagement and be responsive to the needs of member states, civil society and peoples. The UK wants a Security Council that is more representative, but no less effective in tackling threats to international peace and security. I also support changes to the World Bank , the International Monetary Fund and the G8 that reflect the rise of India and Asia. As I said in New Delhi in January “we can and must do more to make our global institutions more representative”.

The first change we must consider is reform of our international rules on institutions to reflect the urgency of tackling climate change and global poverty. I will continue to explore with EU partners how we can take forward this agenda together.

Yours sincerely


Gordon Brown

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Why Brown should rethink on 42 days

I am a signatory to a letter in today's Guardian calling on the government to withdraw its proposal to enable detention of terrorism suspects without charge for up to 42 days.

Some will see those of us who have signed the letter as liberal-left 'usual suspects'. (As the letter was coordinated by Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy, so at least we can claim to be liberal-lefties who are 'out and proud'). Some, like myself, are pretty strong supporters of the Labour government in general (while challenging it on a range of issues) and I would judge the centre of gravity among the signatories as 'critically engaged' with the Brown government, though others probably represent strands of liberal-left opinion which is pretty disengaged from and despairing of Labour.

It is worth noting too that the signatories include those like Ed Husain and Martin Bright who have both tended to criticise the government for being too accomodating of Islamism, and who have challenged others on the liberal-left with being too inclined to underestimate this threat, but who can share the common ground of arguing that undermining civil liberties would be counter-productive for an effective anti-terror strategy.

The Guardian also reports today that the government may cut a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. I hope that the low politics of buying their votes "in return for delaying the devolution of policing and criminal justice in Northern Ireland" are not on the table. That is too reminiscient of John Major's European policy, and would just highlight the central problem of the parliamentary and public politics: that many of the government's own supporters are not convinced of the case for change, still less is there a broader consensus for these measures.

As the letter points out,

It has become clear, as this debate has proceeded, that there is no consensus on the case for an extension of detention powers. Rather, it has resulted in a broad consensus among independent and expert opinion outside government that no convincing case has been made.

I find it difficult to think of many people who have been convinced by the government's arguments, beyond those on the government payroll. (While some of those on the payroll, such as Admiral West, have needed persuasion too). There is certainly extensive backbench concern about the merits of the measure, reinforced by a very effective Liberty lobbying campaign, although MPs are always more likely to seek a compromise than to rebel in the voting lobbies in the end. (The Guardian also reports also states that the government is delaying the Commons vote from March 28th, although earlier reports had suggested that the vote would probably take place at committee stage in April or May).

As the letter notes in quoting Brown's speech on liberty last Autumn, there have been some welcome, positive shifts on the language and strategy to counter terrorism since the summer.

But "if the rules of the game have not changed", and there is a commitment to a democratically legitimate response to the threat of terrorism, then the right move is to reopen the search for consensus, rather than trying to force through this measure in its absence.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Obama has given hope to a generation ... but we could easily tune out again

Guest post by Ed Wallis

It’s a well-aired myth that young people are uninterested in politics. What they are, in fact, generally uninterested in is politicians. But that'’s largely because my generation isn’t used to hearing a politician being actively inspiring. Barack Obama, fueled by record turnout and unusual enthusiasm amongst young voters, has achieved the aura of inevitability in the race for the Democratic nomination by getting a new generation ‘fired up and ready to go.’

Cue sniffy dismissiveness about poetry, bubbles and fairy tales. This all somewhat misses the point – Obama is speaking to and for a whole other set of concerns, and is doing so in a way that feels entirely natural and authentic. Yes it’s broadbrush, but voters under 30 are responding in droves. He doesn’t feel like a fraud and is not making embarrassing attempts to get down with the kids. He is riding the zeitgeist, and inspiring star-studded campaign videos along the way.

This connection inevitably breeds a backlash. But it shows the slightly warped state of political commentary when charisma, freshness, and vitality become potential minuses to guard against. And the relative constitutional weakness of the Presidency requires an effective President to be a galvaniser, who can bring people together and get things done. The Obama campaign is being sniped at as a ‘cult of personality,’ but being able to spearhead a movement for ‘change’ seems no bad thing in a country crying out for some healing.

What particularly insulates Obama from these attacks, however, is that he reaches far outside the youth ghetto. That is the big difference between Obama and Howard Dean’'s insurgent campaign of 2004 - check out The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by his campaign manager Joe Trippi for an evangelical account - which used the internet to ride a wave of idealistic young supporters, and go from zero to hero heading into Iowa. Dean could not broaden his appeal enough to avoid being brought down by his own personal flaws as a candidate and the television attack ads of opponents. But he blazed a trail and showed that young people would still engage with politics, given the right circumstances.

Obama, unlike Dean, is a viable mainstream candidate who can command support from Williamsburg to Wyoming. So this could actually happen. But with great power comes great responsibility. On Obama'’s shoulders rest the hopes of a generation seriously engaged in politics for the first time. And there’s the rub. Political scepticism still runs deep and hope for ‘change’ remains fragile. If the Clinton Machine, superdelegates, or, most worryingly, legal wrangling in Florida can precipitate an unlikely Hillary comeback, then it will strike a devastating blow for the chances of a new kind of politics. A new settlement lies in the balance; the message is ‘'we are listening, but it won’'t take much for us to tune out again'.

As Anthony Barnett recently put it on OpenDemocracy, ‘for many she will be seen as the conveyer of the dead hand of prerogative and the instrument of disappointment, who crushed the hopes of the young now mobilising in droves for Obama. They, in all likelihood will nurse their wounds, withdraw from the campaign and some may even vote McCain.’

Obama'’s fusion of charismatic new appeal and electability in the face of an unpopular status quo is not unprecedented, but you have to go back to 1968 and RFK to see anything quite like it. The link between Obama and the Kennedy clan has been a feature of this campaign, and was made explicit by Teddy Kennedy’'s Obama endorsement. Bobby Kennedy appealed to the same type of constituency, and did so against the backdrop of a similarly unpopular war. And, albeit in more tragic and dramatic circumstances than can be foreseen today (although this spectre has been raised), the fall of his campaign was a landmark disappointment for a new generation of the politically conscious.

As Hunter S. Thompson reflected, his assassination ‘plunged a whole generation of hyper-political young Americans into a terminal stupor.

Of course there is no way for Obama to live up to the hype and expectation that currently surrounds him. At some point in the near or distant future, in the campaign or in government, we will be disappointed - such is the nature of politics and, indeed, life.

But if old-school politicking now conspires, be it in the guise of the Clintons, the Democratic establishment or the Republicans, and Obama falters, it will likely have a similarly numbing effect to that cataclysmic moment in California 1968 which opened the door to Richard Nixon.

No pressure.

As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world. The Bush Presidency will not leave the legacy its architects intended. But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough. This blog is about the new ideas which can create a 'new multilateralism' to tackle the global challenges we face.