lessons from America

Brown’s Palin moment

BBC One’s 1 o’clock news nicked my phrase.   I had been using it a few hours earlier in a phone call to a friend to describe Gordon Brown’s decision to bring Peter Mandelson back into the Cabinet.  Then suddenly it’s on TV.  To be fair, for us political junkies it was a fairly obvious observation: that this was Brown’s ‘Palin moment’, where he tries to pull off the same kind of stunt that McCain did when he surprised everyone and picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.  The idea is simple: to gain days of favourable press coverage which simply focuses on what a surprise the decision was, and which reinforces conventional wisdom about being a courageous, decisive, (and in McCain’s case maverick) leader.  Then you get several more days of positive coverage examining the actual pick itself and why it was such a good idea. 

And so far its working to some degree.  Witness first of all Nick Robinson’s “gobsmacked” reaction and Martha Keaney’s astonishment; the leads on Friday evening’s news programmes; then today’s editorial in The Guardian and the main comment piece in The Independent amongst other exhibits.   The Mirror and The Sun both use the words “shock return” in their headlines.  But the UK media works differently than their US counterparts, and are certainly less deferential and (some of the time) less easily fed a line. The Times today sounds a more sceptical note, and The Telegraph is hostile.

Whichever way the news cycle ends up playing it, the strategy from both McCain and Brown has its risks as well as its rewards.  There is one interesting difference though in the thinking behind the choices: Palin energises the Republican base and tends to turn off independents / undecideds; Mandelson could well do the reverse and strengthen Labour’s appeal to the centre whilst upsetting rank-and-file members.

October 4, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, lessons from America | , , , , | Leave a comment

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