This is a sometimes 'cheesey' blog about British and American politics and anything else which tickles my fancy!

Friday, 28 November 2008

The Cream of the Crop

Barack Obama is filling his Administration with former LSE Graduates, so the FT reports today.

According to the newspaper, there are more LSE graduates about to become Obama Administration figures, than any other university except Harvard.

I think this is quite interesting. Most American students who make it to LSE tend to be highly educated, latte-drinking, liberal, international-looking, fashionista lefties who like to party.

President John F Kennedy was a General Course student at my old university, for example.

What does this tell us about who Barack Obama will surround himself with?

Well, I think it probably shows a President who has a diverse selection of friends and advisers. Smart, liberal people, with different backgrounds who have spent time abroad and probably have a background in economics – quite helpful, you would think, at the moment.

Maybe, this will encourage even more Yanks to come across the pond to experience the joys of a LSE education!

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Cameron: Must Do Better

This is very good:

Exceptional times call for exceptional measures

So the battle lines are drawn.

It is a return to the usual politics.

On the one hand, are the Conservatives sticking rigidly to a policy of monetarism and on the other hand sits the Labour Government - social democratic to its core.

The choices couldn’t be clearer. The consensus politics of the last few years has disappeared in a flash.

Yesterday’s pre-budget report was Labour at its best. Exceptional times call for exceptional measures.

The Chancellor introduced a fiscal stimulus which will help families and businesses through the tough times ahead. Some of the announcements were eye-watering:

• £775 million for investment in social housing

• An extra £100 million for energy efficiency measures, as part of a £535 million “Green stimulus” package – help for people suffering from fuel poverty now

• Extra money to help pensioners in the New Year - £120 extra for a couple on top of the Winter Fuel Allowance

• Child Benefit increases brought forward

• A £3 billion capital spending programme brought forward to be spent on motorways, housing, GP refurbishments and a school building programme

The Government has chosen a simple, clear approach to help families and business now.

More to the economy.

More to the public finances.

And more to society.

It is a stimulus which is supported by the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the IMF to name but a few.

At the same time, the Chancellor announced that VAT would be cut from 17.5% to 15% - helping business now and putting £12.4 billion back into the economy.

Alastair Darling’s best line of the speech was when he tackled head on the Conservative line of attack. “We did fix the roof when the sun was shining,” the Chancellor said. “And we fixed the roofs of the hospitals and schools up and down this country”. It quite rightly got a big cheer.

Some newspapers this morning have talked about the end of New Labour but news of its death is premature.

One of New Labour’s strengths was its essential pragmatism and the wielding together of middle class and working class voters into a grand coalition.

I thought yesterday’s budget fitted into the New Labour narrative. It was a pragmatic response to the economic problems we face, with something for everyone: business, the City, middle England, low and medium income voters and even the green lobby.

This pre-budget will revitalise New Labour – give the Party a sense of purpose and direction which it has sometimes lacked over the last year.

On the other side, George Osborne gave a shrill performance which at times made him sound slightly unhinged. The Conservative backbenchers didn’t take the occasion seriously enough either – there were far too many interruptions.

But at least, after weeks of dither and delay, the Conservatives have settled on a position.

And that seems to be “do nothing”.

Osborne and Cameron don’t look like leaders. They look out of their depth.

The electorate now faces a simple and stark choice. In nine months time, we will know which side was right.

After yesterday’s announcement, I wouldn’t bet against Mr Brown.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

We must listen to Hazel

Writing in yesterday’s Guardian, Hazel Blears the Communities Secretary, said that the rise of the BNP had been made possible because the political parties have abandoned sections of the white, working class.

She is absolutely right.

Since 1997, the grand coalition of middle class and working class voters that elected the Labour Party has broken down. We have lost about one million voters.

In her article, she urges the Party to take the fight directly to the BNP. We need to devise a long-term strategy to win back support, she says. Estates that have been ignored, voters who are taken for granted, services that are failing in some of the poorest communities and a political class which looks like it’s from a different planet, lead to voters who are primed and ready to listen to the BNP’s message of pure poison.

As one of the few genuine Labour MPs who comes from a working class background and who represents a working class community, Hazel Blears is the best person to lead this fight.

She ran a great Deputy Leadership campaign, which was admirable for the fact the she stuck doggedly and correctly to a new Labour message, when ‘Blairism’ - lets be frank - wasn’t that popular. She is a great campaigner with sound political judgement and in one hustings famously said, “I don’t need a sociologist to tell me about the views of the white working class” and meant it. Her brother still drives a bus in Manchester.

I would argue that the way for the Party to win back the working class – white or from any community – is to remember what motivates working class people in the first place and that’s ‘aspiration’. Working class people are aspirational to own their own homes, to send their kids to great schools and then university and to have the tools at their disposal to feel empowered. And yes this does mean more academy schools, greater choice in public services and more devolution of power to local communities.

Blears understands this. She instinctively gets it. We need to listen.

I would also add two other areas.

First, until the Government takes the legitimate and genuine concerns of working class communities seriously when it comes to immigration, we will continue to cede ground to the BNP. Communities are worried about the effect immigration has on housing and local services. I am still not convinced that the Government has found a Labour way of making a case for immigration that would eliminate the need for voters to turn to the BNP.

Second, whatever happened to the Respect agenda? We used to own that. Working class communities suffer disproportionately from anti-social behaviour. It is people like my grandparents on their estate who fear yobs and hooligans and worry about petty street-level crime. I can’t remember a single government minister who has spoken out about it over the last eighteen months. By not doing so, we have totally ceded ground to the Tories and more worryingly to the BNP on this issue.

It is time Labour sorted this out. This weekend, Hazel Blears kick-started that debate.

We must listen to her.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Hillary for Secretary of State!

If the rumours are to be believed then Hillary Clinton will be offered the job of Secretary of State by Barack Obama this week.

She should take it.

There are strong reasons why she would be the best person for the job.

First, she is qualified to do it. Her knowledge, experience and judgement make her the best candidate.

Second, she demonstrated her energy and ability in the gruesome primary campaign. It marked her out as an important and serious political and intellectual street fighter in her own right. She would be a strong advocate of American foreign policy abroad – helping to take on America’s foes and win back its allies.

Third, she would be competent. She has an excellent grasp of the issues and her experience working in the Executive and the Senate will help her to navigate “foggy bottom” (the State Department).

These reasons easily trump a) the sense of dynastic politics that would be created by her ‘return’ b) the foreign policy differences with Obama that she exhibited during the primary season and c) the argument that she isn’t enough of a change.

President-elect Obama has already united his Party, but by bringing Hillary on board he gets unconditional support from the second most powerful Democrat in the country. Together, they look like the sort of strong team that would enhance America’s profile abroad and reverse President Bush’s disastrous decisions.

On a personal level, Hillary should heed the lesson of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “there are no second acts in American lives”.

With Barack Obama looking like a two-term President (fingers crossed), Hillary would be past her prime in eight years time and she isn’t mad enough to challenge him in 2012 anyway. She had her go and she didn’t do it. There are no second chances in politics anymore. So the best she can hope for, if she really wants a “legacy role” is to take the job of Secretary of State and do it well.

It would be a mistake for her not to.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Yes he can! Labour romps to victory in Scotland

Labour’s surprising by-election victory in Glenrothes this week is the first indication that Gordon Brown’s political fight-back is beginning to work.

The Party – which only a few weeks ago looked set to lose the seat in spectacular fashion – defied the odds and romped home with a majority of 6,737.

The candidate, Lindsay Roy, proved to be an excellent campaigner too. A street-fighter with impeccable local credentials and a strong grasp of the issues, Roy proved adept at winning over sceptical voters and shoring up the base.

And on this occasion, the Prime Minister led from the front. Defying convention, he visited Glenrothes twice during the election campaign and Sarah Brown visited over seven times. The victory will be a boost to their morale.

Labour opted for a long campaign. This proved an effective strategy. The Party, which had suffered in Glasgow East because of poor organisation and low voter identification, had time to organise effectively. As we have just witnessed in America with Barack Obama’s victory, the importance of grassroots organisation should never be underestimated.

Secondly, Brown’s handling of the economic crisis undoubtedly played a part. Of course, it helps that he is a local lad, but voters recognised that in an economic downturn what they wanted was a safe pair of hands and Brown has proved adept and assured.

Labour activists on the ground said from the start that the mood up in Glenrothes was good. Party campaigners outweighed SNP activists by a significant margin. The mood and the atmosphere was all good for Labour and attempts by the SNP to work Obama’s message don’t seem to have come off.

Of course, we mustn't get carried away. A bounce is different from a sustained lead and there is more for Labour to do. Let's wait until the local and European elections next Spring to see if there has been a reversal.

However, as Nick Robinson’s blog notes, today politics is all about momentum. Labour’s victory has given Brown a huge boost. It has given the Party north of the Border a huge bounce.

Could the ‘Big Mo’ - as the Americans call it - be with Labour again?

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Obama Seizes Victory!

Cometh the Hour, Cometh the man.

Change has finally come.

Barack Obama's stunning victory on Tuesday night has changed America and the world irrevocably.

It is a testament to his outstanding qualities as a leader and a testament to the American people for embracing change and hope, rather than the politics of fear.

I was lucky enough to watch the night unfold from the US Embassy in London. The atmosphere inside was electric. Obama supporters predominated, although the McCain contingent was sizeable too. Everyone was wearing campaign badges, bunting was dangling from the ceiling, there was a real carnival atmosphere. There was even a Starbucks, Subway and Burger King inside the Embassy! Lots of celebrities and lots of politicians mixed with political anoraks like me. It was great.

There were some spine-tingling moments from the night - like when you saw Jesse Jackson crying or Obama's girls ran on the stage at Chicago. That sort of took my breath away as you realised for the first time that actually the image of that family in the West Wing will be incredibly powerful.

In the end, Obama won an electoral college landslide and took a comfortable majority of the popular vote.

6 million more African Americans voted Democrat than they did last time.

3.5 million more under 30's voted Democrat than they did last time.

These are the beginnings of a new electoral alignment in American politics.

People feel it is their victory. They are energised and engaged.

McCain made a gracious and moving concession speech, characteristic of the dignity that has always been a feature of his personality and politics. He is a good man but he wasn't right for now.

Obama made a brilliant speech. Uplifting, powerful and strong. Perfect.

His greatest problem now is how to manage expectations. He is not a miracle worker and the problems facing America are daunting. It is a difficult task but I believe he has shown he has the qualities necessary for the challenges ahead.

The whole night reminded me of the void we have in British politics though. Where is our Obama?

Ouside the White House, crowds had gathered and were apparently chanting "goodbye, goodbye". Brilliant.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Why I'm supporting Barack Obama

This is the most important election of my lifetime.

What happens tonight in America will reverberate around the world for decades. And have huge consequences for all of us, everywhere. Will America slip backwards for more of the same? Or will it embrace change and become the leader we so desperately want it to be?

It has been the most exciting General Election campaign of my life so far. I remember when no-one, other than my dad and I, had even heard of Barack Obama – but we have followed his progress from the start. And tonight we will be watching from the US Embassy in London as the results come in.

I will be looking, in particular at three states: Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Virginia used to be the most important state in the union. All the early Presidents came from there. It has not been Democratic though for decades. Republicans have dominated state and national elections.

Tonight it could all be different. The demographics of Virginia have changed. It is younger, richer, more liberal than ever before and there is a large chance Obama will take it. Results for this state should be in by midnight our time. If Obama wins it, I think he is on course for a landslide.

Ohio is the stereotypical bellwether state. In the election of 1828 when Andrew Jackson became President, it was a fiercely fought, close contest even then. The polls show Obama is ahead but I think things are finely balanced. If Obama wins this state he will be President.

Pennsylvania is a real fight. The polls show Obama leading here, but each campaign says things are much closer. In the last two weeks, both candidates have traversed the state up and down. In the primary campaign, Obama struggled to win over white, working class voters. But over the last few weeks, as the economic crisis has deepened, he has really connected with them, while McCain’s efforts have been lacklustre. If McCain wins this state, it will be a major setback for Obama and probably create a frisson of nervousness in every Obama supporter’s living room. However, if Obama wins he will be President.

All of these results should be in by 3am our time. I predict turnout will be huge – particularly amongst African American voters in places like Georgia and North Carolina.

And they will be voting for a candidate who offers real change and real hope.

I do not just support him because he is an eloquent, brilliant speaker, nor because he is ferociously bright – he is all of those things by the way - but because he offers a real antidote to the cynicism and spin we have come to associate the Bush Presidency with.

He is authentic. He speaks with passion and conviction. He appeals to our better natures.

He is inspirational yet thoughtful – capable of making momentous decisions and let’s not forget he has an awful lot in his in-tray when he enters the Oval Office.

His campaign has tested him and proved his metal. He grew up through the hard knocks school of Chicago politics. He had the Clintons and the Republicans throw everything at him, but he remained cool and measured and determined. Important qualities which make him fit for the White House.

His election would truly be transformational and have huge symbolic value for African Americans living in the States who still remember what it was like to grow up under segregation.

In one important way though, his election would also prove an age old truth: The politics of change and hope will always triumph over the politics of fear.

Come on Barack!

Monday, 3 November 2008

Who is Best for Britain?

Does it matter to the ‘special relationship’ which man is next elected US President?

I think the answer is most definitely yes.

First off, neither McCain nor Obama should be thought of as the British candidate. The relationship between Britain and the United States is founded on national interest and personality. It really doesn’t matter which party is in power on either side of the Atlantic. Harold Wilson and Lyndon Johnson never got on, Thatcher and Reagan got on well but weren’t afraid to disagree with each other and Tony Blair just got on well with everyone!

But personality is important and John McCain does seem to have more sentimental attachment to Britain than Obama does.

At the end of the day though McCain will only ever be concerned with what is in the national interest of the United States.

We also don’t know whether Obama’s Kenyan father has given him a view of Great Britain either. Maybe he has, but the candidate has not said much.

This leaves two questions.

Which man is more likely to work with Britain on the issues that matter to us like Afghanistan, Climate Change and the Middle East and be more agreeable to our goals?

And which one is more personally suited to a role which requires calm and serious decision making under pressure?

The answer to both of these questions is Obama.

He has calved out a distinct position on the Middle East through his proposed policy of talking to Iran. It may not work, but relations cannot possibly be worse between the US and Iran than they are right now, so why not try it?

He has promised to engage with the Middle East peace process and he has vowed to do more to win the ‘just’ war in Afghanistan.

McCain, on the other hand, seems to think the solution to Iran is to bomb it. He thinks international organisations can afford to be ignored and he argues that the way to deal with Iraq and Afghanistan is to leave troops there for a hundred years and forget about a political solution.

On climate change, Obama’s policies are the genuinely interesting ones. He proposes greater carbon trading, a more activist approach from the US administration in setting up a post-Kyoto framework and he hasn’t pandered to the lobbyists and big business either.

McCain, on the other hand, did once have a good record on the environment and climate change but with every passing day of this election campaign he has run further to the right. He does not have an admirable green agenda anymore. At one point the slogan of his campaign was "Drill, baby, drill!" Enough said.

This finally leaves us with the question of personality.

Whoever takes over from George W. Bush will have the legacy from hell – financial, political, diplomatic, military.

We need a President who has the temperament and judgement to deal with all of this.

McCain loses his rag every minute. His pathetic, panicky and destructive attempts to involve himself in the financial bail-out a few weeks ago looked like the last acts of a desperate man and hardly inspired confidence.

His decision to choose Sarah Palin as candidate for VP shows a recklessness and contempt for ordinary people which should bar him from the White House.

Obama, on the other hand, has had the Clintons and the Republicans throw everything at him. He has risen up through the hard knocks school of Chicago politics and all the time he has remained cool, calm and collected. He has never lost it. If this is any indication of what he will be like as President, then it is a bloody good one.

Britain should be rooting for Obama.