lessons from America

Marching and flag-waving: the two sides of my week

So as AirForceOne lifts off from Stanstead airport and Obama’s UK visit is over, it seems a good moment to reflect on events of the past week. Friend and fellow blogger Lonnee (aka Barack Oblogger) asked me for my Londoner’s perspective to share with her American readers. Here’s what I wrote:

I took part in the Put People First march last Saturday. That was the big trade union and NGO (non-profit) ‘fluffy’ march through central London in advance of the G20; trying to push job creation, different ways of tackling the financial crisis apart from bailouts, and put climate change higher up the agenda. Tens of thousands of people; carnival-atmosphere; lots of banners, placards, creative costumers and marching bands. I was with a group of Manchester University students – photos here. Some positive London-based media coverage in the run up to the event; but by Sunday the focus was more back on the G20 leaders and the summit logistics.

I’ve been working flat out at work because of a management committee meeting, so haven’t been able to saviour the protests or the streets of London yesterday or today. Am I selling out by focusing my attention on voter education and promoting participation in electoral politics, specifically the European Parliamentary elections coming up in June? I would argue not; but some may choose to disagree.

I have had plenty of friends and even some colleagues out there these past two days. Certainly Wednesday’s ‘climate camp’ seems to have been a colourful, peaceful and productive way of demonstrating. Not sure of the rest. One friend in the thick of it sent me a text this morning – responding to my wish that the protests have some impact – saying: “not sure anyone had thought of impacts … or much of anything”. And the traditional media inevitably was focusing on the sporadic (and very minimal) outbursts of violence and property destruction. I’ve seen far worse though – both here in London one MayDay and particularly, in my Summit-hopping days, at the G8 in Genoa.

I did happily leave my office yesterday evening. Not for protesting, but for Obama welcoming duties. I joined the fantastic ‘Brits for Barack’ group and members of Democrats Abroad lining parts of the Mall and Parliament area awaiting Obama’s arrival for dinner with Gordon Brown. I took my place outside the famous gates to Downing Street and had an enjoyable few hours. We spotted Michelle, but the man himself entered underground and never came out to give us a wave.

Yet, as Steve, the Brits for Barack organiser, put it:

“it was a great atmosphere. I’m sure the President and other world leaders will have seen the supportive banners and posters adorning the area we were in – with slogans like ‘Hope Restored – Thank You America’, etc. Members of Brits for Barack gave interviews a variety of world media – backing up those messages.”

Those outlets included ABC News, The New York Daily News, Time Out, France 2, Nippon TV and German TV. And yes, there was me getting in on the act too. I was dressed for the part: wearing my inauguration beanie; a selection of buttons (including a ViaDelia special); holding a ‘Vote Today’ door-hanger left over from my election day efforts in Cincinnati; and of course waving an American flag that I had been handed on the Mall for the inauguration. In fact the whole thing was like re-living the great campaign rally days (minus the huge crowds); especially as I was in ‘blogger’ mode too and interviewed various of the Obama-philes. And the crowning glory: two North Carolinans had flown across to London especially to sell Obama memorabilia. Awesome! Though because there were no big public Obama events, business was hard-going for them. Over the weekend I’ll write up the interviews and post pics here on my blog.

Overall, the atmosphere in London is not what I had envisaged some months back, when the G20 and Obama’s visit was first announced. Where were the cheering crowds; the Obama-mania; the big public speech (our own Berlin moment) or at least a ‘rope-line’ meet-n-greet? Yes, the political and economic climate is quite different than last November, especially here in the UK where the effects of the global downturn have been felt later than across the Atlantic. Yes, there are protests and security concerns to contend with. But I really feel that Obama – and his advisors – have missed a trick. There are plenty of people here still fervent fans; or just wanting a glimpse of the President in person. There would have been the uptake for some public event or speech, especially I believe within London’s large black and ethnic minority community.

Wednesday morning I went to the launch of the Hansard Society’s ‘Audit of Political Engagement 2008’. My intern Laura has written on our work blog about the meeting and gives more details about the report, including links to a summary and a pdf copy for download.

The Hansard Society do this report annually and this time they specifically looked into whether there was an ‘Obama Effect’ in the UK – in terms of interest in, knowledge of and belief in the efficacy of politics and political activity. In the population as a whole, there was no real change in any of these indices; but amongst the minority ethnic communities there were significant increases in engagement levels and the feeling that politics mattered and could bring change. So was an observable Obama effect. However we shouldn’t get too carried away – this is from a low base; and is still on levels below the population as a whole. And to me what the Audit showed was that “we have failed” – “we” as in all of us involved in politics in all its form. For we have failed to capitalise on the amazing spectacle and symbolism of Obama’s campaign and victory and turn that into reasons why British people should care about British electoral politics and get involved with Politics with a big P. I’m not sure whether the events of the past week – whether the protests or what went on inside the G20 summit – will have rectified that. The challenge is to find some way of doing so.

April 3, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment