Can Obama do it for Brown? No, he can’t

Amid the global outbreak of Obamamania, the desperate British political class seems to be suffering from a particularly acute case.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics USA

Since last week’s US elections we have witnessed nothing less than an outbreak of Obamamania around the world. The symbolically historic election of the first black American president has been hailed as a global victory for goodness by politicians and people everywhere desperate for some positive sense of change. Even al-Qaeda issued what was interpreted as a semi-positive response to the election of Barack Obama.

Nowhere has this Obamamania been more clear, or more pathetic, than in the British political and media class. The day after the elections brought the sorry spectacle of New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and Conservative opposition leader David Cameron squabbling in parliament over which could really claim to be Obama’s soul mate. It looked like a couple of schoolboys arguing about which one was going to ‘be’ Cristiano Ronaldo in a playground football match.

Then a couple of days later, after New Labour confounded its own dismal expectations by winning a parliamentary by-election in Scotland, there was talk of how the ‘Brown bounce’ created by his handling of the financial crisis had combined with the ‘Obama effect’ to revive the Labour Party’s fortunes and bring about a major shift in British politics. By the weekend, foreign secretary David Miliband was not only denying that he had ever dreamt of plotting against the great leader Brown, but had published a newspaper article in the News of the World which, under the headline ‘Obama’s there for Britain’, claimed that the new US president ‘shares the same progressive values as Gordon Brown’ and that the two leaders would ‘help solve the world’s problems together’.

That same day, Brown himself turned up in the Observer to repeat the mantra that Obama’s victory meant America had ‘embraced progressive values’ that his Labour government shares. Meanwhile the search for ‘the British Obama’ who could lead the next generation has reportedly been hotting up over the past week (see How to become ‘the British Obama’, by Tim Black).

These responses seem equally wrong about both the meaning of Obama’s victory and its impact on British politics. His electoral breakthrough in America does not necessarily mean there has been any sort of historic ideological shift to the left or to ‘progressive values’ in the USA, never mind anywhere else. This was a huge personal victory, largely built on the politics of personality, with few immediate implications for the state of broader political opinion.

Even within those US elections, for example, voters in California, Florida and Arizona voted to outlaw gay marriage at the same time as voting for Obama – to the consternation of many media Obamamaniacs. In The Times (London), Gerard Baker compared the outcome of an exit poll on American voters’ politics with an identical one conducted when George W Bush won four years ago: ‘In 2004 exit pollsters asked voters how they would identify their politics. The answers were 21 per cent liberal (left), 45 per cent moderate, 34 per cent conservative. On Tuesday, the same question elicited these responses: 22 per cent liberal, 44 per cent moderate, 34 per cent conservative.’ That looks like a one per cent swing from ‘moderate’ to ‘liberal’. So much for a political earthquake across America.

In international terms it must make even less sense to talk about an ‘Obama effect’ on political opinions. Thus shortly after his victory last week, New Zealand voters elected the right-wing National Party to power and kicked out the Labour government. The only apparent thing this had in common with the defeat of the Republicans in the US elections was a vote for ‘change’ against whichever party happened to be in government. Elsewhere, Italy’s conservative premier Silvio Berlusconi may have outraged international liberal opinion with his crass remarks about Obama being suntanned, but the fact that he has recently returned to office suggests the Obamamaniacs do not necessarily speak for the politics of Italian voters. It is striking that Berlusconi’s defeated opponent in this year’s Italian elections, Walter Veltroni, posed as the ‘Italian Obama’, yet he still lost (see Why Berlusconi beat the ‘Italian Obama’, by Dominic Standish).

Here in Britain, behind all the hype, there is no real sign of an Obama effect re-energising progressive politics. In fact it would be more accurate to see things the other way around: it is the utter exhaustion of British political life that has led parties and pundits to fantasise about Obama riding to the rescue. It is clear to almost all that British political leaders have nothing more inspiring to offer the voters than incompetent bank management. This has prompted an outbreak of Obamamania as a sort of national displacement activity, where everybody wants a piece of the excitement being generated across the Atlantic. It is the weakness of politics here, rather than the power of any Obama ideology or ‘progressive values’, that explains why they all want to claim him as their new best mate.

New Labour may claim that its surprisingly clear-cut win in the Glenrothes by-election last week demonstrated the impact of the Brown bounce and the Obama effect. But the rest of us would do well to calm down and consider a few facts. Glenrothes has long been a very safe Labour seat, part of which was once within Prime Minister Brown’s own constituency. The fact that holding on to such a safe seat, albeit with a five per cent swing against, is now portrayed as a major triumph shows how low New Labour has sunk. And remember the Scottish National Party, whom New Labour beat, is now the incumbent party of power both in the Scottish parliament and the Glenrothes council. In that role, the SNP’s fantasy of turning Scotland into a prosperous independent nation has been thoroughly exposed by the financial crisis and the ruination of Scotland’s once-respected banks. Anybody for a bigger version of Iceland now?

Mention of the dire state of the opposition parties gives a more realistic clue to the claimed ‘Brown bounce’ than any talk of Obama and progressive values. Not only the SNP but the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have been struggling to say anything coherent or distinctive in the face of recession. They have been making John McCain look like Ronald Reagan by comparison. It is less Brown’s allegedly masterful management of the economic crisis than the political crisis of his opponents (both within and without New Labour) that has allowed him some temporary respite. Brown has not really bounced, but the opposition has bombed, allowing the media to create the impression of some rise in his fortunes. Even so, the latest British opinion poll shows New Labour still trailing the Conservatives by a dozen points in the real world.

The underlying sense that, Obama or no, British politics is still in poor shape has encouraged the feverish search for ‘the British Obama’ – as I predicted on spiked when Obama broke through in the Democratic primaries. Leaving aside the laughable attempt to portray the posh white boy Cameron in this role, all sorts of New Labour hacks and apparatchiks are now being proposed seemingly on no apparent basis other than that they happen to be black. They have as much chance of stepping into Obama’s shoes as the ugly sisters did of fitting into Cinderella’s glass slipper.

Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights and himself a former up-and-coming black figure in New Labour, has now claimed that there has not been a British Obama because of ‘institutional racism’ in our political parties. That notion seems as outdated as New Labour. However, Phillips is right to see the problem as lying within the political class rather than with the British public. It is not institutional racism but the institutional rottenness of British party politics that has prevented the emergence of any leader with the dynamism of an Obama. Whatever the colour of their skin, our political parties tend to get the leaders that they deserve.

It is perfectly understandable that everybody should want to share in the excitement of the momentous American elections. But shouting ‘I wanna be Obama!’ at one another is no way for grown-up politicians to behave. And whatever big questions we face in the crisis, Obamamania will not provide sensible answers.

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics USA


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today