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Ed Miliband can learn from Obama the salesman


President Obama’s State of Union address was a politically shrewd and inspirational sales pitch. At times it felt like a return to the stirring rhetoric of his election campaign which so captured the hearts of not only Americans, but citizens across the globe. He was playing his back-up card, his own magnetic charisma and charm, in an attempt to recover the legacy of his first term. It was a bold speech but it wasn’t flawless; occasionally Obama uncharacteristically tripped over his words and the key policy goals won’t win over everyone. But often his tone and message seemed perfectly tailored to the mindset of his nation. Despite the patriotic focus on America however there are numerous lessons leaders of left-wing political parties around the world, especially Labour’s Ed Miliband, can learn from the tactics, execution and content of the President’s speech.

There was a somewhat forced emphasis on pluralism and cooperation across the political spectrum. Ed Miliband has already started to learn this lesson himself. He began his tenure as leader aggressively pursuing the Lib Dem vote and he has now softened his approach to encourage teamwork against the worst of the cuts, and leave the way clear for a Lib-Lab coalition. In particular he’s gone to considerable lengths to retract comments he made about Nick Clegg, in the heat of the moment swept up by the public venom for the man, to appease the Lib Dem leader in the event of a close parliament once again at the next election. President Obama repeatedly praised the new Republican leader of Congress and even incorporated the story of his humble background into the appealing sense of patriotism and history coursing through the blood of his words.

This search for common ground with Republicans was of course necessary. The Mid-Term results left Obama in a desperate legislative position and in dire need of supporters for his landmark policies on both sides of American politics. Health Care has bogged down Obama’s Presidency thus far and in this speech he sought to draw a line under it. In the spirit of national cooperation, which Obama highlighted so much during his election campaign and then unwisely forgot during his first years in power, he asked anyone with improvements to the Health Care Bill to come forward and work with him. He also quipped that he had heard some people still had problems with it, laughing off the gaping ideological divide. Instead he set his sights firmly on a new ambitious primary objective and set about selling it in a way that would appeal to both hesitant Republicans and indifferent voters.

At the core of this address was a striking commitment to green-tech and clean energy. You could see the firm imprint of the devastating Gulf of Mexico oil leak on the President’s words as he announced wave after wave of intention to develop green programmes. I urged David Cameron on this blog to utilise the platform presented by the oil leak for green growth and it seems Obama is finally seizing the opportunity to push through his Climate Change objectives under a different guise. And that’s the vital point about this speech; the way in which Obama sold the solutions to Climate Change and the environmental challenge.

Nowhere do the words “climate” or “global warming” appear in the text of the address. At no point does he bellow any frightening warnings about the excess of the American way of life, but the implications are there. He uses the guilt, anger and worry people feel about the oil leak to smuggle in leftist policies like the removal of subsidies for oil companies, who are “doing just fine on their own”, and tax breaks for millionaires. He cites the deficit, the Republican’s Holy Grail (much like the Conservatives here) as his main reason for such money saving measures, not punishing success, an obstacle so often to the removal of unfair, outdated tax relief for the wealthiest in the States. He reinforces his deficit argument still further by promising a prolonged spending freeze which he backs up with figures that claim to eat away at the debt at unprecedented levels. Could some Republicans be warming to the President’s policies?

You’d think not if he was emphasising investment for green energy and massive cuts to emissions. But Obama’s presentation of the measures was key. He talked about “winning the future” and set up the race for clean energy between America and China, drawing comparisons with the Communist struggle and the space race. He set about inspiring his countrymen, and patriotic Republican opponents, by fusing the need for a green revolution with a sense of historic nationalism and pride in America’s achievements.

“The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. …

We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Already, we are seeing the promise of renewable energy. Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard.

Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert’s words, “We reinvented ourselves.”

That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.”

When Obama was elected, even I in rural England, felt a part of real history for the first time in many years. It’s easy in our modern world to feel like it’s all been done and there are no discoveries left, no bold new challenges to conquer or visions to forge and realize. But with Obama’s reference to the “Apollo projects of our time” he excites people and presents Climate Change and its problems as an opportunity to reinvent in fairer, bigger and better ways. He pledged to aim for 80% of American energy to be green by 2035 and for 80% of Americans to have access to the enormous potential of high-speed rail within 25 years.  When these figures are all about doom and gloom Climate Change, which some people still doubt, they leave voters cold. But simplify the message to security, better environment and more jobs and a stronger economy, and they’re interested. 

I’ve thought for a long time that Climate Change is the challenge of our generation, one we cannot afford to ignore, but that it is also an opportunity for a reinvention of society with the potential to banish unfairness and find sustainable solutions to poverty. Green politicians are constantly going at the issue in the wrong way, an alienating way. Ed Miliband and his new Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls need a plan for growth. This plan needs to not only be credible and obviously a better route to deficit reduction than Coalition cuts, but inspirational and worthy of votes. Miliband needs his own “Big Society” idea and sell green growth, like Obama in his State of Union address, and he has it; a popular economic policy with a vision that can define his new party. Britons too have a strong sense of history, when it’s properly stimulated, and Miliband could make the case for Britain becoming a world leader on green growth. In fact follow Obama’s example and major policy areas suddenly entwine and give much needed direction; the economy and the deficit, security and Britain’s foreign policy role, our partnership with America and Climate Change.

Of course Obama might not succeed and it certainly seems unlikely he’ll achieve everything he aimed for in his speech. But he has set out a direction for the end of his term. One that could potentially change his country and the world for the better. Ed Miliband can’t afford to dither much longer about the direction of his party. The longer he waits the harder it will be to achieve genuine policy goals he has long committed to, like a banking bonus tax, a solution to tuition fees and investment instead of cuts. Sell it all under the right sort of green banner and he has a refreshing, substantive alternative to Cameron’s bruising cuts and hollow “Big Society”.

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A note on Obama’s rise and fall


The demise of President Barack Obama’s support in the USA, confirmed by this week’s Mid-Term election results, is a depressing triumph of pessimism over optimism. I found myself swept up in the wave of hope and positive expectation two years ago, as did millions of others across the globe. For me it was simply irresistible in a modern age in which nothing feels genuinely new and groundbreaking to be witness to true history unfolding. The first black President and one with a truly progressive agenda, felt like a huge step forward into a new era. Who knew what could be accomplished with an ordinary, sensible citizen at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation? Real change felt possible. Many will say that the capitulation of the fervour and enthusiasm that propelled Obama into office was inevitable though. They will point to the relative ease of Opposition compared to governance, the scale of the tasks Obama set himself and the harsh realities of politics. To a large extent they will be right: Obama simply could not fulfil such high expectations and his downfall acts as a warning to any politician elected on a platform of change for change’s sake, including Cameron’s coalition. But the President’s own actions and inaction has contributed to the dissipation of his popularity and can go some way still to restoring it in time for a second term.

All the talk now is of the necessity of Obama finding common ground with his newly powerful Republican foes. The advice is to consolidate the achievements of the first two years and work tirelessly on modest improvements the Republicans will support for the last two. Be a President who gets things done. However from across the pond the key disappointment of Obama’s time in office so far has been his withdrawal into work. Clearly he was conscious of the threat of his opponents labelling him as an empty orator, forever preaching but never getting his hands dirty. The danger of devoting himself completely to mammoth projects such as health care reform and securing an economic recovery though is that his enemies will have free rein on stage to belittle his accomplishments, as well as stalling them behind the scenes. And the fact is despite the huge change Obama’s health care reforms represent in the USA; they were never going to be politically profitable. Supporters of extended health care will look at the universal systems such as the NHS in this country and wish Obama had gone further, whilst conservatives view what he has already done as an act of socialism, needlessly and immorally pouring away gallons of public money at the expense of the treasured American private sector. Similarly too with his actions to prevent financial meltdown, it is difficult to prove how much worse things would have been without a giant fiscal stimulus and bailout and whether or not ordinary American workers actually benefited. There’s no doubt that America initially returned to unprecedented growth, but as this has petered out those still unemployed demand to know what is being done and the energised Republicans rant as all those on the right do globally about a ballooning budget deficit and the need for a smaller state.

Bizarrely, whilst it seemed the election of a black President had ended an era of extremism and intolerance it has actually served as a catalyst for the more outspoken Democratic opponents, mainly of course supporters of the Tea Party. It’s understandable why the President might feel paralysed and uncertain how best to fight back. In the eyes of many of the fanatics whatever he does will be wrong, and he has little evidence to hold up in defence of his first years in office. Even his supporters insist he has failed to communicate the enormity of what he has achieved already, but the problem is greater than just communication. Yes Obama must defend the good he has done but he must also spell out again the vision that energised his Presidential campaign. From here in the UK Obama’s transformation from inspirational orator with stirring rhetoric into a closeted figure focused on domestic matters, has been a massive disappointment. He had the opportunity to lead internationally on issues such as climate change, aid and terrorism, but has now spent the bulk of his political capital by becoming bogged down over health care. To restore his popularity in his own country Obama must surely begin to appear like a leader again and aim high. He must make it clear he intends to lead his nation for the long haul and that there are many challenges left to face. It may well be politically advisable to cooperate with the Republicans on some issues as he initially promised, but if this were at the expense of the idealism that catapulted him to power it would be a grave mistake. His opponents lack real backing and have merely benefited from the dissatisfaction of voters with Obama’s progress. Let’s hope that he can get back on the road and make up for a largely wasted start to the journey.

Cameron’s crafted call to arms lacked clarity and substance


David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham yesterday was an accomplished rallying cry and an impassioned response to his critics. Of all the party leader’s speeches during this conference season there is no doubt that Cameron’s was the most polished and technically the best. He stood out as a Prime Minister and appeared like a leader, completing a transformation from head of the Opposition to the most experienced politician in Britain. He sought to counter Ed Miliband’s claim that Labour were the optimists now with his own stirring note of idealism. However in doing so he once again missed an opportunity to spell out his message clearly to the country, opting instead for reams of empty rhetoric that made excellent sound bites but often contradicted each other.

Most strikingly Cameron again tried to explain what he meant by the “Big Society” and again failed catastrophically to render it a reality accessible to voters. In his haste to counter the new Labour leader’s charge of pessimism, Cameron swung dangerously into the realms of wild over optimism. In the speech he simultaneously claimed that his coalition government was both realistic about what it could achieve in power and optimistic about what government could achieve in partnership with the people. In principle this all sounds lovely of course. Of course government should concede it cannot solve everything by decree and ask cooperation from its people, whilst also setting high standards of achievement. In reality though Cameron has no credible claim to the titles of both realist and optimist. He must choose one or the other to define his leadership. He let the tone of his speech tip into an unrealistic optimism, probably due to that desire to stop the Labour revolution in its tracks. He blasted the “cynics” who would pour scorn on his “Big Society” rhetoric and indeed it was a clever ploy from the Prime Minister to call on the people to come to the aid of the nation, with grand, fluffy, empty rhetoric, and offer nothing concrete. Those who criticise Cameron’s speech for its lack of substance will be easily labelled as non-believers, as statists who do not trust the brilliance of the British people. Cameron therefore tried to lay a trap for opponents of the “Big Society”. But there is a reason I continue to put the “Big Society” in inverted commas, and it’s the same reason voters and indeed Conservatives distrust the policy; good idea in principle, but it’ll never work in practice.

Again Cameron failed to articulate what the “Big Society” would actually mean in terms of government policy, besides him praising voluntary organisations in speeches and urging everyone to go out and get involved. Rhetoric and the lifting of restrictions alone will not drastically change people’s behaviour and therefore the country. The kind of society Cameron claims to want, one that rewards contribution and discourages excessive consumption, simply cannot happen without at least some prompting by central government. It is also confusing that Cameron should place such an emphasis on contribution and consumption, areas that would be better suited to alterations in tax policy, when his government has vowed to tackle the deficit predominantly through spending cuts. On the other hand Cameron did make it clear he wanted a state that was better run, more powerful and within the means of government. Again this is sensible in principle, but shockingly for a government claiming to be the “greenest ever”, Cameron simply refused to utter the word “sustainability”.

To have made sustainability a key theme of the speech would have given it greater direction and purpose and clarity. It should also be made a more important plank of his government’s policy agenda. At the moment it is an area that lies wide open for Ed Miliband’s “new generation” to seize upon and exploit. Cameron’s deficit slashing philosophy, he was at pains to point out, was not simply ideological but a necessity. However the public is already convinced that the cuts, whichever party implements them, will be in some way driven by that party’s ideology. An ideology containing the idea of sustainability would be far easier to justify than the abstract notion of the “Big Society”.

Cameron also hinted at a promise that after the pain there will be rewards. He should have placed much greater emphasis on his long term goals and how action now would lead to sustainable rewards in future, but he was perhaps deterred by the short term nature of the coalition. He was also perhaps put off of any mention of “sustainability” because a truly sustainable recovery, that really could end “boom and bust” as Gordon Brown once rashly promised, would require substantial investment now to ensure growth, energy supplies and long lasting jobs. Cameron is simply not prepared to take the gambles required of the “greenest government ever”. His brush with the backlash of child benefits cuts this week has reinforced to him that it is difficult to justify changes of policy, particularly from those promised in manifestos, to the media and electorate. He will therefore not be seen to spend now, even if that spending is necessary because of what he has previously said. So despite the obvious passion and idealism of his speech, his actions as Prime Minister suggest that Cameron is happy for the “Big Society” to remain a vague enigma, which will inspire some, baffle many and prove largely immune to damaging criticism, as critics will remain unsure as to what it is they object to. And if the Prime Minister was truly serious about lifting the burden of debt from our children then he would also use the shield of coalition to act in the “national interest” now to avert a legacy of unalterable climate change for them to inherit.

Ed must not falter as Cameron eyes comfy legacy


I have just finished watching Ed Miliband’s first speech as the new leader of the Labour party. It began with a volley of jokes, of human humour, that must have had many Labour supporters sighing with relief that they at least now had a leader who could smile and appear accessible to the public, following the stoic, grim Scott that preceded him. Indeed the strongest feature of the speech was a man with beliefs and ordinary concerns defining himself, announcing himself to the people of Britain. Here was a reasonable, genuine man the public could relate to but did he have the stature of a leader?

Yesterday elder brother David delivered a rallying cry to his party that had the media scrambling to suggest Labour had picked the wrong Miliband and that David Cameron had been right to fear the Shadow Foreign Secretary the most. Losing by the narrowest of margins, the bouncy figure once derided as Mr Bean and Banana Man looked like a leader, like a man who could be Prime Minister. In contrast Ed can sometimes look like a rabbit caught in the headlights, particularly in the acceptance speech immediately following his victory and again at times today. He can also look a soft geeky presence rather than a strong inspiring one, ready for the challenge of leadership and Opposition.

But David lost for a reason. The elder Miliband was content to ride a wave of guaranteed support to the leadership, with minimal effort. He may have honed his demeanour and conducted himself like a leader, but he did not reach out enough in the necessary ways. He was essentially lazy. He had incredibly strong support and need only had made some minor concessions to the trade unions and supporters of his brother to secure victory. He lost because he refused to break with the past of New Labour in the way that many grass roots voters wanted. He was admirably defiant about New Labour’s positive legacy but made few moves to indicate where the project went wrong and more importantly in which direction he would take it. David did not grab and harness the mood of change.

Ed, like David Cameron and Barack Obama and even Tony Blair, who emerged from almost nowhere to lead their country, did recognise the value of a clean slate, of a breath of fresh air. He recognised that the party knew it had stagnated and the electorate were no longer interested unless it refreshed its ideas, reconnected with its ideals in a new optimistic way. Ed ended his speech by declaring his Labour to be the party of optimism in contrast to Cameron’s cuts. He began his speech talking about a new generation. During his speech we learnt little more about Ed’s policy vision for the party, as he perhaps wisely kept most hands close to his chest, vague and adaptable to the demands of Opposition. However during his campaign Ed’s denouncement of Iraq, and his support for a living wage, AV and a graduate tax, were all bigger indicators of Ed’s Labour party than David was willing to offer. His brother simply didn’t offer the progressive policies that even many in the Labour old guard wanted to see championed now by a new wave of youthful renewal, equal to the challenge of Clegg and Cameron’s Con-Dem coalition.

Following Ed’s triumph though the media have blasted him and he has been labelled a puppet of the unions, “Red Ed”, out of touch with the core middle England vote. He moved quickly to counter these claims with interviews in the Sunday Telegraph and on the Andrew Marr show, saying he would fight for Britain’s “squeezed middle”. Reading the coverage of his victory I noticed that David Cameron had called Ed to congratulate him from Chequers, and warned him that his job would be a tough one. I can’t help but think Cameron would not have been so eager to call, or so superior and wise in his manner, had the more experienced and in his view more threatening elder brother won the contest. Cameron no doubt sees Ed as an easy target and may already be eyeing a second term, free of Lib Dem constraint. “Red ED” will be inexperienced and easy to sideline as an illegitimate Union toy, keen on tax rises and simply not credible on the economy. He also authored Labour’s last, losing election manifesto, and is not as new and fresh as he would make out. Cameron should easily get the better of him at PMQs for a while and any Labour poll leads will prove superficial when 2015 comes around and the coalition has secured economic recovery.

Ed must obviously be cautious that he is not unfairly painted by the Tories and that his policies do not alienate the very voters Labour must win back in the south, the voters who chose Blair in 1997. This accounts for his soothing rhetoric with regards to the middle classes. But Ed must hold his nerve and be bold too and learn the lessons of his leadership victory. He won because he presented a more dynamic vision on policy than his brother. He won with a clear progressive message. He also won because although he may not look like a leader at times he does look genuine, not a fake performer but an actual idealist, committed to what he says, reasonable and pragmatic in his approach and willing to talk about love and compassion in ways other politicians of different generations cannot. He must not tarnish the positive, honest image he is building for himself with the British people by muddling his message. He must not take fright at the newspaper headlines and give out mixed views but continue to pursue the radical, progressive and optimistic agenda that carried him through his campaign. He should not be afraid to take a distinctive stance on the deficit with a different emphasis on tax and other kinds of cuts than those proposed by the coalition, as long as it is credible. He should prove he is a man of his word and not simply a career politician by putting a green economy, green taxes and carbon emissions reductions at the heart of his party’s policy, following his role as Climate Change Secretary. He has the potential to both inspire a new youthful generation on issues of the day such as new politics and global warming and reconnect with the values of older generations on issues like family, Afghanistan and tax. The formation of his Shadow Cabinet in the coming weeks will be the first true test of Ed’s leadership qualities and also be crucial to defining his vision for the party. Whatever his brother decides to do Ed must remain proactive in challenging the establishment as he said in his speech and not budge on his message of a progressive alternative for Britain, regardless of media pressure. Voters will repay passionate consistent calls for change in the long run.