lessons from America

In the hall for Brown

I tried liveblogging Gordon Brown’s speech a week ago at the Labour Party Conference, but that didn’t work out – or rather the internet connection didn’t.  And then this post got swallowed up on my system and I’ve only now had the chance to retrieve it.   So here’s my impressions of being there, trying to compare with what it was like for me four weeks ago being at the stadium to hear Obama’s speech.  I know, very different contexts.  But, hey, it proves an interesting contrast.

At Labour we also had our queueing problems to get in for the big speech, but not on the same scale.  Hey, none of it is on the Denver scale!  45mins was how long I had to wait to get in, accompanied by some slightly chaotic queuing procedures …. and former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott going down queue handing out stickers.  Or rather using a mixture of jollity and his big physical presence to get us to take the stickers and wear them. The stickers said :Go Labour 4th term.  The GO highlighted as a non too subtle reminder of the first nam of the man we were meant to be supporting!  Some people commented thought thats what we were all meant to be doing anyway”.

Just about managed to get Into hall – was full, but just squeezed in.  Only a few thousand here in hall.  It seems quite small and not much in way of tiered seating. No flags, banners, anything. Except a winning the fight for Britains future”  logo on stage and dias. Only one big screen as no need for anything else. Overall quite stark, minimalist and  -to me – a dampened down atmosphere.  This was intimate unplugged venue rather than a stadium rock concert.erious speech for serious times. He used those words himself. This doesnt seem a rallying of troops or a pre-election speech unlike Obama’s.  The times have changed since end August.

One bit copied straight from the States. Sarah Brown, wife of Gordon Brown, introduces him and introduces a film about him and Labour achievements. Big cheers for clip of London winning 2012 olympic games. Obama-Brown film clips cheered widely too. As was Alan Sugar (Apprentice),

Applause and standing ovation for Gordon as he comes in.  Not 5-10 minutes of it though. Indeed he has an easier time of quietening the crowd and beginning his speech than Sarah did a short while before. 

He makes the kind of joke on popularity and celebrity that Obama could never do.  And is getting some genuine warmth and connection with audience, more than expected or he got the previous year.

He rolls off stats and then gives each one a human face.  “Thats not just a number”, he says each time.  Yes, hes finally learning from how good speeches are made.   Its also actually our first rallying cry and coherent message.  There are echoes of some of Obama’s lines when GB talks about “changing one person / life at at time”.  Certainly reminds me of one of Obama’s primary night speeches when he movingly rallied the crowd by saying: “We can change this country: brick by brick, block by block, calloused hand by calloused hand. Together, ordinary people can do extraordinary things.” That to me is what Labour is about – a movement – and I wasn’t the only you thinking so.  Brown’s lines got huge applause. 

The Democrats have been expanding their activist base over the past few years, especially but not only thanks to the netroots.  This has meant the party need rely less on the so-called special interest groups of organised labour, teachers, anti-abortion activists and other causes; eventhough these people still from a significant base within the party.   Here in the UK the situation is different.  The party is reliant on trade unions for funding and the bedrock of its support still comes from public sector workers, especially the health service.  Hence that is one of the reasons why Brown spent a chunk of his speech praising nurses and other NHS staff, stressing that “we are the party of the NHS”.  This played to traditional strengths and support clearly worked inside the hall, heralding not just hige applause but a standing ovation too.  Incidentally, there was something almost West-Wing about the announcement of free repeat prescriptions for cancer patients.  It reminded me of one of Bartlet’s State of the Union addresses, when he makes a bold statement about the quest for cure for cancer.

Something quite different from Obama’s speech, was Brown always emphasising names of cabinet members e.g Alan [Johnson] and myself etc”.  This was to show it isn’t a one-man band and trying to emphasis the team and the talent. Its a big difference between cabinet government here and presidential style in the States.

He [Brown] is Hillary.  He’s just said: “this is no time for a novice – bashing Cameron (and his own nemesis in the party David Miliband] for being inexperienced. Followed by more clever lines tory-bashing on change in appearance but no change elsewhere.  I’ll be returning to this theme shortly in my write-up of the Conservative party conference.

We don’t do flag-waving (except on Last night of the Proms), but we can do understated patriotism that still hits home.  That’s what Brown did in his passage on “Britain isnt broken and has never been – historically and now.”  He successfully reframed the debate on a broken society (the Tory position) to say we are strong as a country and it is unpatriotic to think otherwise.  Very clever.

On foreign affairs there was an unexpected but good twist to Brown’s comments, and which Obama could learn from.  Rather than bashing the axis of evil, or just a focus on where our troops are (ie. Iraq and Afghanistan), Brown raised a very different trio: “Burma, Zimbabwe and Darfur – an emphasis on democracy and human rights, rather than on terrorism and conflict.

Obama’s closing paragraphs included the reference to MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, which it was the anniversary for that day.  That was a truly emotional moment, infused with so much history, symbolism and hope.  There was no way – or need – for Brown to have such a moment.  He couldn’t and didn’t.  Yet he still had a very good closing which managed to evoked some of that same emotional reponse from me.  Brown talked about Rwanda and then said ” Never again – on genocide, on starvation, on human suffering. He was genuine in his conviction, in his anecdote about the genocide museum in Rwanda that he mentioned (which I’ve visited), and on international partnership meaning something again.

And then the words ended and the applause and ovations began.  Restrained more than usual for these occasions perhaps to fit in with the more serious tone of his message and the situatin. Of course no fireworks, no ticker-tape.  Even the pop music only started up once he had left the stage.   And while the media’s post-event analysis, spin and delegate reaction kicked off as we were leaving the hall, its all done in a much tamer and smaller way than in the States.  I even saw a Cabinet minister (Douglas Alexander) sharing an informal joke and exchange with a senior Guardian journalist (Jonathan Freedland) as both were queuing to leave the hall.


October 2, 2008 Posted by | global perspective | , , , , | Leave a comment

Believing in Obama’s ground game

I spent the last week at Labour Party Conference, in Manchester.  I proudly wore my Obama buttons – brought enought for a different badge each day – and consequently had lots of conversations about the US elections.  I was surprised how many people were asking me “can Obama really do it?” and were pessimistic about his chances.  They were simply looking at the polls from the past few weeks, Palin’s bounce for McCain and adding in a dose of British natural cynicism for good measure. And hey suddenly they were downbeat about Obama.  Our media was also doing down Obama’s chances too. 

So there I was, almost single-handedly I felt, having to reassure and convince Labour people that Obama was still ahead and going to win, albeit in a close election.   I guess most people just read a couple of blogs or newsites, see the realclearpolitics tracking figures and take the state of the race at face value.  But that is a complete misreading of what is actually going on. 

As Bill Clinton didn’t quite say: “it’s the ground game, stupid.”  What we don’t see in the polls and focus groups is what’s actually happening on the ground; the mobilising, voter registration, get-out-the-vote efforts; and the changing demographics.  All of these favour the Democrats this time, and have been doing all year.

Joe Trippi (Howard Dean’s campaign manager from ’04) describes the electoral significance of this:

“[Obama’s] campaign organization should deliver a 1 to 3 points in additional voters to the polls in get-out-the-vote operations in key states the campaign is targeting. So if these states are close in the closing days of the campaign Obama is likely to win most of them.”

Disappointingly many at Labour Conference just didn’t get it, or didn’t believe it, or thought it the wrong tactics.  But if we are not into believing in the power of humanity and collective effort; that by talking to and persuading our peers, building a movement “brick by brick, block by block, calloused hand by calloused hand” (as Obama said in one of his speeches), that is the right thing to do, as well as what can win us the election, then what is the point in being Labour / progressive at all? It’s certainly what helps drive me and makes me optimistic that Obama will win in the end.

September 28, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, the world wants obama, Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

One week on

As I stay up waiting for McCain to give his big speech, I’ve been thinking back to that wonderful evening exactly one week ago in Denver.  It was an incredible experience and am still on a high from it.  But my one disappointment had been that – due to the acoustics of the stadium and the crowd noise – I struggled to catch every word of Obama’s speech.  Sure, I got the jist and the big lines, but not the nuances of his message, the cadences of his voices and the full extent of the content. 

So earlier I went on youtube and listened to Obama’s speech again. The full transcript a also be read here. I can really appreciate now the plaudits he got for it in the media.  I would have loved it if on the night he had soared to the rhetoric heights of his New Hampshire ‘yes we can’ or breakthrough ’04 convention speeches, but that wasn’t the case and rightly so.  There were some real policy meat – mapping out the “change” that the campaign is based upon.  There were many more of the kitchen-table anecdotes of ordinary lives and hurdles that he was criticised for not including during the primaries.  There was a real focus on the financial struggles and challenges many Americans are (and feel they are) experiencing; something noticeably absent from the Republican Convention.

The night was a historic one for all the well known reasons.  And call me a softy, but when listening again tonight I was almost in tears with the emotion of the Martin Luther King reference and remembering (and seeing again) the moving reaction in the crowd to Obama’s words:

“And it is that promise that 45 years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream. The men and women who gathered there could’ve heard many things. They could’ve heard words of anger and discord. They could’ve been told to succumb to the fear and frustration of so many dreams deferred. But what the people heard instead — people of every creed and color, from every walk of life — is that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one. “We cannot walk alone,” the preacher cried. “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” “

Having been at the Emily’s List reception, it was noticeable that one of the big issues delegates (especially but not exclusively women) were fired up about was the inequalities in pay between the genders. Obama was always going to say something about it, but you get the feeling he truly believes in the cause, given the feeling he gives to the line:

“Now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day’s work, because I want my daughters to have the exact same opportunities as your sons.”

One aspect I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time was the repeated echoing of Obama’s famous refrain from his 2004 speech “there are no red states or blue states, only the united states of America”. Here perhaps is the most obvious one:

“The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America – they have served the United States of America.”

But also this passage, where he goes beyond platitudes and takes on some of those wedge issues that have split the nation:

“We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. But this, too, is part of America’s promise — the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.”

One of Obama’s phrases that has most captured my imagination is “the audacity of hope” – the title of his 2nd book.  I’ll go into that in more detail later, especially in terms of the resonance with my experiences in Africa.  But it was fitting that one of his closing passages – consciously I’m sure – echoed this theme:

“This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores. Instead, it is that American spirit — that American promise — that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend. That promise is our greatest inheritance. It’s a promise I make to my daughters when I tuck them in at night, and a promise that you make to yours — a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a promise that led workers to picket lines, and women to reach for the ballot.”

Words cannot really capture the atmosphere, especially the finale: the curtain calls, cheers, applause,  flagwaving, confetti and fireworks.  So instead of more words from me, here are photos from the night from Denver resident Diane Dubois:

September 5, 2008 Posted by | Denver Diary, global perspective | 1 Comment

An African perspective

Back home in England, two sets of good friends got married today. I chose to be in Denver and with the Democrats at this time, but it still makes me a little sad to be missing these happy occasions and time spent with friends.  So mazel tov and I’m thinking of you Danny, and Arry & Keith. 

But something does connect these friends, Denver and Obama: Africa.  Africans. And the audacity of hope.  Arry I first met whilst living in Tanzania; Keith when campaigning on drop the debt and other international social justice issues; and Danny on the British Council’s Interaction leadership programme, which has at its heart the philosophy of ubuntu and the celebration of what’s good from and we can learn from the continent.

Danny and I spent a week in Zambia, attending a conference with 200 community leaders from across Africa.  That was back last October, and already the positive support for Obama amongst the delegates there was papable.  They were proud of Obama – his Kenyan roots, his dark skin – and they were excited by his message.  And the ‘audacity of hope’ that Obama wrote about was very much part of their lives and resonated hugely with them. 

 That overwhemingly positive reaction continues to this day.  Even the Senegalese taxi driver who i just got a lift from this evening enthused about Obama and the opportunities that his presidency might open up – in foreign relations, in community relations, and in the self-worth (and maybe even real-worth) of Africans.

August 25, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, the world wants obama | , , , , | Leave a comment

Life imitating art imitating life

How to prepare for Denver? That’s my challenge. In under a week I’ll be there, following the Convention from my base in the Big Tent. So I’ve watched the West Wing – the final two series all about the post-Bartlet primaries and the general election. You can see the Obama candidacy emerging first on screen, mapping the path to the White House for a political outsider with a funny name and non-white skin who proclaims a message of change and fires up the young people and Democrat activists.

Then I watched the entire run of Commander-in-Chief. A Hillary-vehicle, some cynically said, as it offers us a world with a credible liberal woman as the first female occupant of the White House. The series ends as battle lines are drawn for an election run, so we never know what happens next. Intriguingly, the show not only sympathetically features a black chief-of-staff, but also has him about to take up the post of Vice President. A case of hedging bets before the primary season perhaps?

Now, I’m at the Edinburgh Festival. Along with happily sampling the usual comedy, musical and theatrical fare – and some fantastic live African music – I’m trying to discern if there’s an American election undercurrent around. In past years (this is my 4th Festival in a row) I’ve managed to pick up and follow a theme: one year it was blogging and diaries; another it was constitutional reform (you gotta believe it). I am on the hunt to see if US electoral politics is on the menu. And I don’t just mean anti-Bush rants / jokes. I’m looking for Obama and McCain gags, “Si si peude” chants and November references.

Leafing through the fringe guide, there weren’t nearly as many obvious references to election year as I imagined. Only two shows have it in their titles: Jeff Kreisler ‘08 (an American comedian’s stand-up show taking aim at contemporary political and pop culture); and ‘Tina C – Tick my box‘ (a spoof about a country & western singer running for president). Both have ads in the guide which depict electoral images, like ballot papers or campaign posters.

There were another two shows that focused on politics and elections stateside: ‘The Americans’ (a sketch show from a trio of Comedy Central actors depicting the nation as a once proud family on the verge of collapse); and ‘Queen of Wyoming’ (a musical about the protagonist’s father running for Governor of a Midwestern State). ‘Attack of the Soccer Mums’ sounds like it could be an account of the 1996 election, or even a Obama horror story, with women rising up to support Hillary Clinton, but is no such thing; instead being about over-competitive parents. Another that flatters to deceive in its name is ‘Jaik Campbell – The audacity of hopelessness’ – but full marks to the riff on Obama‘s book title. I wonder how many people here actually get that joke though?

I did however manage to dig up one show that Obama would be proud of. ‘Word-up’ is billed as an insight into the hip-hop generation, dealing with the post-segregation world and the fall out from global economics. That sounds more like the spirit of change.

Two long-running Festival favourites that draw heavily on the elections are ‘News Revue‘ (the satirical look back at the year) whose finale features Bush, Condeleeza, Clinton and Obama in a Bat out of Hell pastiche; and ’Political Animal’, a revolving group of comedians talking and joking about politics nightly.

The legacy of Bush‘s ‘War on Terror’ is perhaps the one issue that has captured the passion and imagination of artists. The Patriot Act (a serious play); ‘The Axis of Awesome’; Jesus: the Guantanamo years; Eco-friendly Jihad all draw inspiration in their titles – if not always their content – from that rich artistic vein.

Iraq may be a lot less prominent that in previous years, but Bush’s chief ally – our very own former PM – still attracts an audience; with two shows about him (Tony of Arabia / Tony! The Blair Musical). He is on a par with Mugabe, who also gets two shows about him: ‘I am Mugabe’ and ‘Requiem to Robert Mugabe’. Compare that to Gordon Brown or John McCain: neither get to be the subject of shows. Neither may get to win an election either.

And so the November election. ‘The Americans’ ends with Obama in the ascendant, but possibly about to be denied victory by someone fixing the election for the Republicans. Only time will tell whether life imitates art in this respect.

August 24, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, lessons from America, the world wants obama | , , , , , , | Leave a comment