Friday, July 25, 2008
Fabian Review column: The Obama factor
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.
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.