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

Denver Diary – Mon 25 Aug

“This November again the torch will be passed to a new generation of Americans.”  Wow. Deep intake of breath time.  There could only be one man alive who could so meaningfully invoke JFK’s famous image, and that man is Senator Edward Kennedy. Here in Denver tonight we have witnessed something special in terms of Democratic history, dynasty and symbolism.

But first back to the beginning of the day. I walked down 16th Street Mall and here are some of the sights and merchandise I passed, including that infamous Obama action doll.




And so to the Big Tent. 


Here are some views of the hive of activity, networking and blogging that is the ground floor:


People I chatted to today included the official Maine State blogger and a precinct captain from Pasedena, California.


I also attended several sessions upstairs at the Digg Stage.  A veritable who’s who of progressive politics and community-building, including Markos, Arianna Huffington, John Podesta et al.  Surprisngly, these events weren’t as well attended as I expected and that they merited.


Away from the hall, I did a radio interview with a New York progressive radio station WBAI 99.5FM.  They have a news show called ‘Building Bridges’ and they asked me to give a UK perspective on the Convention so far and on my impressions of the US progressive movement.  I was on with two other bloggers / non-profit campaigners and the entire thing lasted 20 mins.

Then it was back to the Tent for dinner and following the coverage of the opening night of the Convention. Teddy Kennedy’s speech was so emotional.  The crowd in the Big Tent was applauding and shouting.  The crowd in the Convention Hall (on screen sadly) went just wild.  Senator Edward Kennedy’s live appearance and speech was powerful stuff, full of poignancy and meaning.  He even promised he’ll be on the Senate floor come January. 

Michelle Obama tugged at different heartstrings. Sitting in front of me in the Big Tent three Chicago natives whooped it up at her entrance.  There were big cheers when Michelle mentioned (and praised) Hillary – the “18 million cracks on the glass ceiling”.  Someone pipped up “that’ll be the only story tonight … she mentioned Hillary”.  Cue lots of laughs.  It got qute buzzy; the speech went down very well, aided probably by the free beers at the Big Tent. And with a crescendo of phrases that echoed her husband’s soaring rhetoric and campaign messages she ended her speech … and the screams and applause continued for a quite a while.


The humanising of Barack, projecting him as an ordinary guy for those people who still see him as elitist and out-of-touch, then went into absolute overdrive. Immediately after Michelle’s speech you had a live video link up with Barack.  Michelle and the kids on stage, Barack on the screen.  Sasha and Malia talking to their dad, we all went “ahh, that is so sweet” and laughed and cooed and cheered. It seemed so natural, so happy families, so cheesy, apple-pie ‘American’.  It was a winner here in the Tent.  It seems to be a winner on the blogs. And I reckon it is likely a vote winner more widely; a step towards that goal of the Obama’s becoming the First family. 

Back to my evening. I finally made it out of the Tent and back to my host’s watering hole, the champagne bar where Tyler works.  The alcohol flowed into our glasses and beautiful people flowed through the door.  But politics wasn’t entirely absent …



August 26, 2008 Posted by | Denver Diary | , , , , , | Leave a comment