With the US presidential election just over a week away, I’ve been reading the polls and comment about the state of the race, and I think it contains an emphatic and absolutely crucial lesson for the Labour Party:
Dare to be different.
On the face of it, the US election should be a foregone conclusion. In Obama, Americans are offered an incumbent President who has more gravitas, is more eloquent, more convincing, more intelligent, more aware of international issues and far more internationally credible than Romney. Romney, in contrast, has been repeatedly exposed committing unbelievable howlers, sucking up to the rich and making his venal and callous nature obvious, and offending host nations almost within minutes of arriving. He’s also – since these things matter to Americans – religiously suspect and less good-looking.
You’d think it was already a done deal. And yet, while Obama is still tipped to win because of the vagaries of the US ‘electoral college’ system for selecting its presidents, in terms of the actual popular vote the race has been neck and neck since Romney’s single superior performance in the first televised presidential debate, with some polls showing Obama ahead and some Romney.
Now, depending on your opinion of Americans, you might think this is just because they’re weird or crazy. But I don’t think it’s that. Reading up on the reasons for Romney’s unlikely competitiveness, one seems to stand out above anything else:
Obama as Bush-lite
If you have the time, google “Obama Bush lite” and see the vast number of hits. Based on his “Yes we can” and “Change we can believe in” campaign slogans of 2008, people voted for Obama in droves, sweeping America’s first black President to power in expectation of a genuinely progressive President who would effect real change after the dire Bush years. But the perception of liberals and floating voters since his election has been that Obama – with his support for drone attacks, readiness to order the extra-judicial killing of Bin Laden and support for the lunatic ‘war on terror’, as well as his closeness to business interests, has simply been ‘Bush-lite’, a slightly milder, possibly blander version of George W.
Obama’s core support – and the floating voters who got behind him in 2008 – have been disappointed by Obama’s sameness, his lack of distinctiveness in terms of policy. Even his success in implementing ‘Obamacare’ hasn’t been enough to really convince voters that he’s different enough from his predecessor – or from his current opponent for the presidency.
Obama’s opponents – the gullible and the venal who are fooled into voting Republican by the rhetoric and lies of the right and the right-owned media, or who are ruled by short-sighted self-interest rather than what’s best for everyone – were always going to vote for Romney no matter what. Treading a middle-of-the-road, ‘America first’, ‘war on terror’ path isn’t going to win them to his side. But it is going to alienate natural Democratic voters and those who don’t actively support either party but were heartily sick of of the corporatism and nonsense of the Bush presidency and desperately wanted something different.
So Obama’s turnout among his core support, and the motivation of uncommitted voters to get out and vote for him, are low in 2012 – and the result is a race that is neck and neck in terms of pure number of votes, and if the world avoids the disaster of a Romney presidency, it will entirely be down to the oddities of the US system of allocating votes by state.
And therein lies the crucial lesson for Ed Miliband’s Labour party. Recent tactics – Miliband’s inciting the TUC anti-austerity crowd to boo him in Hyde Park and Balls’ promise of a zero-based spending review among others – seem aimed at winning the approval of the business and financial communities, at convincing them that Labour are a ‘safe pair of hands’ who won’t rock the boat too much, won’t disturb the finance-capitalism feeding frenzy too much. Won’t threaten the status quo.
But the vast majority of bankers, stock-market players and ‘big business’ owners and CEOs are ingrained Tory supporters. They’re never going to give sturdy support to a Labour government and have much more interest in perpetuating the myth of the ‘Inherited Labour Mess’. What’s more, even if the Eds manage to win their approval, business leaders and the rich are not numerous enough to decide the election, let alone grant Labour the landslide victory that we should be looking for in the next General Election – and the bulk of rich, deceived or just plain foolish individuals in Tory heartlands are not going to vote Labour no matter what.
Any electoral upside to the tactic is negligible. By contrast, the downside is massive. Instinctive Labour voters, and the vast majority of British floating voters, want to hear and see a Labour party being drastically, emphatically different to the venal, self-satisfied Tories and the spineless LibDems.
In other words, they want to see Labour acting like a real Labour party. If Ed Miliband doesn’t show the strength to present a real, alternative vision to austerity, if he doesn’t stand squarely with unions and working men and women, with the disabled, unemployed and disadvantaged, he won’t inspire and galvanise people to vote for him in sufficient numbers to give Labour a clear majority in the next Parliament.
If Miliband and the Labour Party dare to be different, if they offer voters a clear, reasoned, bold alternative – not just less austerity but a complete departure from it and a refutation of the supposed need for it – they have the opportunity to galvanise, inspire and rally the masses who are disillusioned but desperate for something worth believing in. The opportunity to win an emphatic mandate for change, to remove the Tories from power for a generation or more, and to genuinely change for the better the lives of generations of British people.
But if Labour only offer ‘Tory-lite‘ and austerity-lite, if they don’t have the nerve to throw down the gauntlet and to dismantle the Tory narrative of inevitable austerity, people will justifiably continue to think ‘What’s the point? It doesn’t make any difference who I vote for‘. Too many will stay at home and remain disengaged, and we face the risk of another hung Parliament or even a continued ConDem coalition and the ongoing nightmare that will entail.