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.
But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough.
This blog is about the new ideas that can change our world and how a 'new multilateralism' can tackle the global challenges of our age.
Change the World, Reports from the Fabian new year conference

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.

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.