Tag Archives: barack obama

My thoughts on the Obama election win


NaBloPoMo November 2012I’m sure I have nothing to say here that will prove especially interesting or insightful, but I thought I should stick my two pennorth in nonetheless. I wasn’t entirely overwhelmed by Obamamania in 2008, but I’ll admit I was excited and stayed up to watch the results. This time, not so much.

I am pleased and relieved that he won, but it has felt somewhat that this has more to do with the fact that the other guy lost. While there have been a number of positive things to come out of Obama’s presidency, not least Obamacare, on foreign policy he has been a real disappointment.

The cynical view of US politics is that the two main parties are so closely aligned that it doesn’t matter who gets in. I don’t agree with that, but it is certainly true that for years the Democratic party pursued a triangulation strategy which made it hard to argue with. Obama’s success is not so much in his ability to push forward an authentic left wing and liberal agenda (despite his trenchant critics’ claims) but in opening up space on the left. He might not have moved quickly enough, in some areas he has merely inched forward, but there seems a greater prospect of a genuinely progressive US administration emerging eventually thanks to his ability to push the envelope.

The fact that he hasn’t managed to go as far as his base would like is due in no small part to the ability of his opponents. For a brief moment, the Tea Party – backed by its billionaire donors and media allies – looked like a real threat. It did succeed in driving the Obama administration almost to a standstill. And while Romney himself is a moderate, he was forced into taking a massive shift to the right in order to win the Republican nomination.

I have to admit that my big fear for this election was that, while I never rated Romney’s chances (who comes across as a Republican Gore or Kerry straight out of the Drew Western copybook on what you don’t want your candidate to look like), I worried that the wingnuts would be successful in getting the US political centre ground to make a massive shift to the right. Superficially, that fear now looks unfounded, with some of the most vile Republican candidates now defeated and a number of states even voting in support of gay marriage.

Despite the result on Tueaday however, it is still too soon to judge. Abortion and same sex marriage are matters for state legislatures (and ultimately the supreme court) not the federal congress. The US is a big country, and issues like abortion appear to have taken a step backwards in a number of states in recent years. As a nation, the US has never looked more divided and the traditional post election appeals for bipartisanship are liable to fall on even more deaf ears than they have in the past.

It is a country in a deep period of change both in terms of its status and its demographics. Hopefully the superficial failure of the right this week will dampen the enthusiasm in the UK and elsewhere for conservatives there to embrace a similar red fanged approach to “compassionate” conservativism, and hopefully their chances of running the country are looking more bleak than ever. But if you think they are going to give up without a fight, or fail to retain a foothold for a good while yet, you are sadly mistaken. I just hope that the Bill Clinton days of appeasement are now long gone, and that the Republican party has learned a salutary lesson.

Sorry Tim, but community politics is NOT about winning elections

I’ve just come out of the Lib Dem Conference debate on Community Politics. Like most of the speakers, I’m pleased it was debated and support the motion, but am wary of the idea that passing the motion in and of itself has actually achieved anything.

We’ve actually been somewhere similar in the recent past. When Ed Davey became the Chair of the Campaigns and Communications Committee (the committee which oversees the party’s electoral strategy), he made a big thing about the need to rediscover community politics to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the Community Politics strategy motion passed by the then Liberal Assembly and the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Theory and Practice of Community Politics. I was flattered to be asked to write an essay for ALDC’s anniversary “update” of the Theory and Practice, which I went on to republish on this blog. But then nothing happened and the agenda moved on once again.

Why did it all fall apart then? Well, it is possible that the CCC Chair was not the right person to do it, whereas an ambitious and democratically accountable president has both more of an opportunity and more on the line to push the agenda forward, so there is reason to be optimistic.

But I worry that the other reason it tends to fall apart is that there is an inherent contradiction. And that contradiction Tim Farron entirely sidestepped in his speech today.

Gordon Lishman and Bernard Greaves were emphatic: “Community Politics is not a technique for the winning of Loca1 government elections.” This is the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first section of the Theory and Practice. Tim stated that this was the only point on which he demurred from the essay, and yet my reading of it is that is the main point Lishman and Greaves wanted to make. The essay as a whole has the air of exasperation, of two people who had come to realised they had helped create a monster and were desperately – futilely – attempting to put it back in its box.

What was that monster? It was the idea that you could take the ideas behind community politics, distil them, and turn them into a toolkit for winning elections. This warning was roundly ignored because that is precisely what the Lib Dems did. Labour, the Conservatives and even the BNP then copied them, and now we find ourselves in a position where those techniques are delivering ever decreasing returns on investment. Yet, at the same time, without anything else to do, they’ve been duplicated ad nauseum. Even Chris Huhne’s “report back” being handed out at this conference has stuck slavishly to the Focus template (it actually calls itself a Focus), complete with “Working all-year-round for you” and cheesy clipart “what the papers say” style boxes.

What the party does in by-elections has everything to do with this formula and nothing to do with actual community politics, as I outlined in my 2006 essay.

If our response to Tim’s call to arms today is to merely have another round of spreading new best practice on how to produce effective campaign literature, then it will ultimately be futile. We are in an ever-accelerating arms-race and the institutionalised resistance that Labour and the Tories used to have to such techniques when I first got involved in the party no longer applies. Simply stated: anything we come up with that works will be pinched within a matter of months.

What needs to be rethought is how our local, state and federal parties (and yes, as Jonathan Davies pointed out in his speech, Associated Organisations) actually engage with the public. That means, I would suggest, rethinking membership, rethinking candidate selection and rethinking policy development. It means looking at what our local parties can do to skill people. I’m quite serious when I tell people we ought to be taking a page out of the Alpha Course, and developing a ten week training course to teach people the basics of campaigning in their communities. We ought to be looking at what London Citizens have been achieving, and we ought to be going back to the source and looking at the community organiser movement in the States from whence came, among others, one Barack Obama.

In short, there has been about 30 years of development of community politics ideas which the Lib Dems, through our complacency and arrogance, have chosen to ignore because we didn’t invent it and because they weren’t by any stretch of the imagination about winning elections. If we learn those lessons, and its clear that many within Labour – lead by David Miliband – want their party to (although it appears to have come up against a lot of internal resistance), then I think we have a hope for survival. If we merely kid ourselves that it is about little more than using a different colour on our risographs then we might as well call the whole thing off, even if that does help mitigate a total meltdown in the short term.

Aborting common sense

Three examples of the zaniness of anti-abortion campaigners:

First of all, there was the curious case of the abortion doughnuts. I have to admit that when I first heard about “abortion doughnuts” my first thought was that Krispy Kreme had started putting marshmallow foetuses in the jam. However, the reality turns out to be much more prosaic. What happened was that Krispy Kreme issued the following press statement in advance of Barack Obama’s inauguration (emphasis mine):

“Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc. (NYSE: KKD) is honoring American’s sense of pride and freedom of choice on Inauguration Day, by offering a free doughnut of choice to every customer on this historic day, Jan. 20. By doing so, participating Krispy Kreme stores nationwide are making an oath to tasty goodies — just another reminder of how oh-so-sweet ‘free’ can be.”

The reaction of the American Life League was, well, over the top to say the least:

“Celebrating his inauguration with ‘Freedom of Choice’ doughnuts – only two days before the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to decriminalize abortion – is not only extremely tacky, it’s disrespectful and insensitive and makes a mockery of a national tragedy.

“A misconstrued concept of ‘choice’ has killed over 50 million preborn children since Jan. 22, 1973. Does Krispy Kreme really want their free doughnuts to celebrate this ‘freedom.’

“As of Thursday morning, communications director Brian Little could not be reached for comment. We challenge Krispy Kreme doughnuts to reaffirm their commitment to true freedom – to the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and to separate themselves and their doughnuts from our great American shame.”

Hat tip: Zoe Margolis, Miami New Times.

However, anti-choice reactionary zeal isn’t limited to the USA sadly. You might think that the Editor of the Catholic Herald would welcome the move by an MP to attempt to outlaw discrimination against Catholics, as Evan Harris is attempting to do. You would be wrong. Indeed, Damian Thompson would like to tell Dr Harris exactly where he can shove his bill:

You know something? Catholics don’t want to be liberated from this constitutional discrimination by a politician who advocates an end to the requirement that any abortion requires the consent of two doctors, arguing that the “procedure” can carried out by a nurse or even in the home.

I know I speak for many Catholics when I say that this man disgusts me… Let’s leave the constitutional bar in place for just a bit longer, shall we? It’s mildly offensive, but Catholics have more important things to worry about. Such as saving late-term unborn babies from the grisly fate that Dr Harris is happy to see inflicted on them.

Hat tip: New Humanist.

And finally, there is this video, which Iain Dale believes “even the most ardent pro-choicers will find some difficulty in countering.”

You know what, Iain? I might take that challenge. It would be tempting to respond with “when’s the Hitler version coming out?” but that would be to miss the point. The weakness of this argument is that it is essentially rooted in the unknowable. What is being argued is that Obama is a good man; Obama would not exist if his foetus had been aborted; therefore abortion is bad. But that argument is entirely contingent on Obama being not merely good, but the best president possible in all possible worlds. I’m all for saying nice things about him, but that is going a little too far Dr Pangloss.

If we’re going to talk about potentiality, let’s at least have an honest discussion and recognise that potentiality lies in everything not just in the decision whether or not to abort a foetus. The decision of a sixteen year old to have an abortion could lead directly to her completing a medical degree and discovering the cure for cancer. The decision of a woman to have an abortion could lead directly to her eventually raising a child in a more protective and loving environment, who subsequently goes on to build a fusion reactor which ushers in a new era of prosperity. And who knows what might have happened if Obama’s mother had aborted the foetus from which he grew? Her decision might have lead to the first black woman president being inaugurated this week – a woman who within her first 100 days solved the Middle East Crisis, global warming and the economic downturn in quick succession.

Sound silly? Maybe, but under the right set of circumstances all of these hypotheses are possible. And the fact is there are literally millions of people out there whose lives would have not happened or would be substantially worse if their mothers hadn’t had an abortion. Are we to automatically assume that these people’s lives are worth less than the foetuses they have benefited from the destruction of?

That isn’t to make the claim that because of this, abortion is good – that would be an equally fallacious argument. It is however to say that the value of a specific abortion or lack thereof is essentially unknowable both at the time when the decision is made and subsequently. We simply do not know what we do not know. Spending time worrying about what might have been is a shortcut to madness.

Due to the fact that we live in a vastly complex (read: beautiful, wonderful) universe, every time one possibility is closed off an infinite number of other possibilities arise. It doesn’t just apply to the few things that the Pope does or does not approve of. Indeed, CatholicVote give the lie to this by applauding Obama’s achievements despite being raised by a single mother – something that prurient Conservatives and Catholics spend the rest of the time assuring us will inevitably lead to children becoming drug crazed, gun toting thugs. Funny that.

I’m glad Barack Obama is alive but it is a simple fact to observe that if he had never lived, for whatever reason, I wouldn’t have known him to care.

You are all individuals! (Obamamania)

I didn’t watch Obama’s inauguration this evening. Instead, I sat on the bus reading the coverage on Twitter. For some reason, reading all these excited 140-character messages about Obama bigging up the atheists and getting down with the gays (or possibly not) – interspersed with irrelevancies – reminded me quite a lot of this:

Madeline Bunting has a point SHOCKER!

Madeline Bunting is atheist baiting again. In her Guardian column this week she makes one spectacularly silly point, one mildly silly point and one good point which is a genuine issue for secularists. But it is a problem for the religious as well.

Firstly, the really silly point – worth quoting in full:

At first I thought it just plain daft; why waste £150,000 putting a slogan on hundreds of London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It managed to combine so many dotty assumptions – belief in God as a source of worry or as a denial of enjoyment – that I couldn’t see who it was supposed to convince. Besides, how can “probably” change someone’s mind?

Then I thought about how it might look through the eyes of some of the people who travel on the buses I use from Hackney. The ones who look exhausted returning from a night shift of cleaning. Often they have a well-thumbed Bible or prayer book to read on their journey. And along comes a bus emblazoned with that advert. A slogan redolent of the kind of triumphal atheism only possible when you have had the educational opportunities, privileges and material security of the British middle class. The faith of this person is what sustains their sense of hope and, even more importantly, their sense of dignity when they are confronted every day by the adverts of affluence that mock them as “losers”, as failed consumers. Ouch, I winced that we can be so blindly self-indulgent to this elitist patronising.

Even reading it again makes me laugh out loud. Apparently it is “patronising” to urge working people on the Number 73 to “stop worrying and enjoy your life” but not for a middle class woman from a privileged background to presume to speak for them, oh no. Worse, we are to believe that this is an affront on their very sense of hope and dignity. So much for faith then, if it can be that easily challenged. And does she really mean to say that only the educated can be atheists? Isn’t that rather close to saying that religion rooted in ignorance?

She then goes on to pontificate how Barack Obama is religious and that his social conscience stems from his faith. On one level, I don’t quibble with that at all. As I’ve said before, I’ve always considered myself more of an ally of religious people of good conscience than secular people of bad conscience. Nor am I blind to the fact that many of the ethical teachings that Obama bases his principles on are the same ethical teachings I value. The Bible is indeed a good book (my only real difference of opinion is that it is no more than a book).

But Bunting over-eggs the pudding. If we are to credit Obama’s religion with his conscience, and not Obama the intellectual, then we should also blame Obama’s religion for his current seeming vaccilation over Guantanamo and Palestine. If Bunting’s logic is to be followed through, she can’t then go on to conveniently (to use her own phrase) “pick and mix.”

I would never dream of making a simplistic argument along the lines that Obama’s moral weakness over Palestine is rooted in his faith; Obama is responsible for Obama’s actions and choices – nothing else. It would appear, in this respect at least, that I pay religion rather more respect than Bunting.

Cheap cracks aside, this article isn’t entirely worthless. The core of Bunting’s argument is indeed a problem for atheists and secularists, and deserves consideration:

…Obama has not wavered in his passionate faith in the progressive potential of religious belief since he first encountered it in south Chicago in community organising. He was in his 20s, and for three years he was trained in a politics based on a set of principles developed by a Jewish criminologist and an ex-Jesuit with borrowings from German Protestant theologians.

Obama described these three years of community organising as the “best education I ever had”. Michelle says of her husband that “he is not first and foremost a politician. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.”

You don’t need to go to Chicago to find out what this is about. Try much closer to home, Whitechapel. Here London Citizens uses exactly the same training and principles as Obama did when he worked as a community organiser. The ideas originated in 30s depression Chicago, when Saul Alinsky hit on a way to organise the most impoverished and marginalised communities to win power to improve their lives. He spent the next 40 years building up his Industrial Areas Foundation and championing his methods in books such as Rules for Radicals – he was the subject of Hillary Clinton’s college thesis. His thinking influenced the civil rights movement and almost every subsequent progressive movement from feminism to gay rights.

His concept of organising can be boiled down quite simply: its aim is to move the world from how it is to how it should be. Its methods are entirely pragmatic: look for where people gather (churches, unions?), identify where those institutions have mutual self-interest and build on it for local achievable campaigns. Develop relationships – nothing can substitute for the face-to-face encounter. Listen. The paid community organiser (like Obama) is a talent scout for natural leaders and teaches the political tools.

Now, there are caveats I should add to all this. First of all, while I have deep respect for London Citizens, it is fair to say that despite having been around for a while, it has not exported particularly successfully outside of London. The only place where this model has been exported is Birmingham. I met up with a small group of Birmingham Citizens years ago when I worked in the West Midlands and by all accounts they appear to have a much smaller organisation than any of the London groups (not even having their own website for example). Why is this, when London is no more religious than any other part of the UK (again, I suspect this boils down to individuals being rather more significant than religions)?

Neither is the concept of civic activism uniquely rooted in religion. As a Lib Dem I would want to big up our own record in community politics, but the truth is that all political parties organise within communities in a secular way. Bunting and co might be tempted to argue that political parties only empower the middle classes. All I can say to that is that the places where I have personally seen community politics work best is in some of the most deprived parts of London, Manchester and Leeds. Reading up as I have recently on the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain, I was particularly struck by how that party’s emphasis (leaving aside the splitters) was on civic-minded republicanism and empowering the working classes at the expense of electoral success. Ultimately more Marxist than Leninist, their view was that the revolution was going to happen anyway and their job was to prepare for it.

But Bunting has a point: it is no good for atheists to harp on about the dreadfulness of religion if they aren’t contributing something positive themselves. We’ve had our little victory with the Atheist Bus, we’ve had our Christmas knees’ up. But it isn’t enough to be better than the worst of religion; isn’t it time to aim higher?

Nor is this about charity, as Bunting makes clear. We’re not talking about some pissing contest about who donates the most (we’ve got Richard Curtis – nyer, nyer, nyer-nyer, nyer). The challenge for the new new atheists is whether it can be a positive force for good in society – not just by campaigning for healthy minds, but full bellies and social justice too. Bunting’s allusion to the religious cleaner on the Hackney bus is patronising in the extreme, but do we really currently have anything to say to a poor working person in that position? Would making an atheist out of her really be a worthwhile victory?

Before we concede too much to Bunting here though, it should be pointed out that the links between civic activism and religion are problematic for religion as well. I’ve come across a lot of avowedly religious people in my time and I have to admit that a lot of them don’t appear, well, that religious. Rather, the religion – more precisely the religious community – is the conduit they use to do good in the world. It’s great that they have found such a conduit, but how many people does religion make into liars by effectively insisting that the good deeds cannot be done without the religious observance? And how many good people end up disempowered because they feel that getting involved in their local church group would make them into hypocrites?

Unless you genuinely believe that having a good conscience is impossible without religion – and I wouldn’t accuse even Madeline Bunting of that – then that is a real problem. Less so in the inner city; much more so in the village where it boils down to a choice between the church hall and sweet f*** all.

The solution for both the secular and the religious – surely – are civic minded institutions that don’t depend on faith as a precursor (either explicitly or implicitly) for involvement. One of those institutions, currently in decline, is party politics but that alone is not likely to be enough. Creating exclusively atheist institutions is likely to be pretty self-defeating as well. What we need are inclusively secular ones.

The good news is that we have plenty of those. Amnesty is one such organisation. Action Aid and Age Concern is another (and that’s just the As). Wouldn’t Madeline Bunting concede that this is ultimately a better way to organise? And shouldn’t atheists, secularists and humanists concede that playing a positive role in society is something that should be encouraged?

Futurbama

Related to my previous post, I was a little disappointed by this article, which promised so much yet failed to deliver.

The last time the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, Gillian Anderson wore pants. There were two Star Trek series at once, which promoted women and minorities and looked at the dark side of the Federation. Cyberpunk reigned supreme. The future was a shiny place — but with dread lurking just beneath its polish. Now that the Democrats have finally scored another grand slam, are we going to see the return of sunny-but-questioning science fiction?

The main thing it lacks is a contrast between sci-fi under Bush with sci-fi under Clinton.

First of all, let’s be clear that Star Trek: The Next Generation was a product of the Reagan/Bush Snr years: there were only one-and-a-half seasons under Clinton; its optimism was entirely driven by the ending of the Cold War. DS9 and Voyager are authentically Clintonian and they took the franchise down a much darker path than their predeccessor. TNG’s two greatest contribution to Star Trek were the rich development of Klingon culture and, of course, the Borg. The former was a rather more optimistic look at Middle Eastern culture than would ever have emerged post-9/11 while the Borg is of course influenced by communism (although these days, anxieties about assimilation of the individual would no doubt be presumed to be anxieties about Islam).

DS9 and Voyager by contrast gave us ideas about living in a divided society. Both Bajoran and Human societies have their culture wars. The Bajorans are also “good” arabs (Bajor = Kuwait/Saudi Arabia) while the Cardassians are the mean old Syrian/Iranians. Meanwhile, with the humans, Trek was able to explore what was increasingly becoming a divided USA, the Maquis being all but cheerleaders for Ruby Ridge and Waco. You could easily imagine B’Elanna Torres blowing up the Oklahoma Federal Building.

How does all this contrast with Star Trek in the Bush Jnr era? I’m not the first to observe that Enterprise was the Bush Doctrine in Space. Captain Archer even resembles Dubya. In the first series they seemed to stumble from one major diplomatic incident to the next. The Xindi were as transparent an analogue of Al Qaeda as you are ever likely to get. As for the fourth season… well, I couldn’t tell you because I had given up by that point.

The main difference between Clintonian sci-fi and Bushian sci-fi is that the latter is far more miserablist. Dare I say that doesn’t necessarily make it bad? In Buffy we had a superhero learning that life was hard, while in Angel we had a vampire discovering that superheroics is equally complicated. Both have in spades something which all too often Star Trek lacked: drama. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica may be darker than the original, but it is far superior.

And while in the post-9/11 world we may have lacked the spectacle of Independence Day, we still have hope. Children of Men is about as dark a film as you can get outside of Schindler’s List, but its ending is far more emotionally uplifting than any 90s cheesefest managed to deliver. As I wrote in my Watchmen post below, entropy is a key theme in 90s sci-fi, but there is always some measure of hope, and that leads to a pretty mighty payoff when it is made to work well. Think the ending of Sunshine or the flashes of hopefulness during the darker points in Spider-Man (1 & 2 – the less said about 3 the better, sadly).

How will this change under Obama? Well, the io9 article cited above already points to the new Star Trek film and its return to a 60s ethic. But the transition film, thinking about it, may yet end up being The Dark Knight. Characteristically Bushian in its darkness, the film is riddled appeals to hope and optimism. In a year characterised by elections, one of its key motifs (borrowed from The Long Halloween) is the election slogan “I believe in Harvey Dent” – Obama might have used that one. There surely can be no doubt that this theme about how the hopes and dreams of the people can be embodied in a single good man (even if it is a blond, white man rather than a dark-haired, mixed race man) was tapping into the same undercurrent that Obama’s campaign was also taking advantage of. It ends with not only The Joker defeated, but The Batman recognising the best thing he can do is disappear. The time of madness is at an end.

So, we can probably expect a period of greater optimism in our science fiction. Let’s hope they don’t get too carried away however and shut down their critical faculties. Bush may not have done much for world stability, but he’s been a gift for sci-fi.

Ros Scott: it wos the internet wot won it

I was rather irritated this morning to read this article on the Guardian website which, apart from ignoring whole aspects of the internet campaigning (about which I may blog later, but may not), included this sentence:

A more colourful Lib Dem, Lembit Opik, has been using Facebook in his bid for the party leadership.

Even leaving aside the fact that Lembit was standing for president, not leader, to even think of writing that sentence exposes you as a hack journalist who doesn’t really know what he is talking about. Because in this election, as with the Obama triumph, Facebook was a mere sideshow. The interesting stuff was what was happening elsewhere.

Lembit was not the Lib Dems’ answer to Barack Obama; in terms of campaigning style, Ros was. To go from nowhere to 72% of the vote is a victory earned only by reaching out to the grassroots and achieving what Obama achieved: killer word of mouth. In the final stages, Lembit liked to present himself as the anti-establishment candidate but as a Vice President, former front bencher and former Welsh leader, he was anything but: he was our Hillary. Ros only became the establishment’s chosen one because she had demonstrated skills during the campaign that the party’s establishment valued.

But it isn’t really fair to call Ros our Obama. No disrespect to her, but that comparison does not flatter her. But she may yet turn out to be our Howard Dean. Dean, if you recall, was briefly the grassroots-de-jeur during the 2004 primaries. He didn’t win, but he did go one to become the Chair of the Democratic National Congress, roughly equivalent to our own President. His understanding of Politics 2.0 was crucial to Obama’s success (not to mention 2006’s midterms); we can only hope that Ros will prove to be as much of a visionary in her new post.

This is the first Lib Dem election where the internet has played a crucial role in deciding the result, although it came pretty close in last year’s leadership contest. The world of political campaigning has changed; we need to respond to it.

Al-Qaeda’s response to Obama’s victory

Al-Qaeda have issued a relatively mild statement, but their supporters think he will be little different to his predeccessors:

Very few online al-Qaeda sympathisers have expressed any optimism that US policies will change under the future President Obama.

“We are not interested in who’s won because they all follow the same strategy which is a war against Islam and Muslims,” says one.

“Muslims in Waziristan, Pakistan and Afghanistan must brace themselves,” says another. “Obama’s dogs will be preparing to fight you even harder soon.”

Maybe so, but at least they’ll be hypo-allergenic.

Was it cos Alex Salmond is black? (UPDATE)

(James Glossop/The Times)
(James Glossop/The Times)

There is something about Alex Salmond I could never tire of slapping, if only he were within arm’s reach. During 2007, this blog would frequently scandalise nationalists by mocking Salmond’s habit of waving claymores over his head to commemorate this or that historical defeat of Scotland in battle. But this photo (right) just takes the biscuit.

It isn’t simply that, under the circumstances, “no they couldn’t,” it is the sheer gall of a narrow nationalist attempting to borrow the fairy dust off a post-racial candidate whose key call to arms was about unity, not division. How on Earth does:

we are not a collection of Red States and Blue States, we are the United States of America
(Iowa speech)

… square with a plan to divide the UK into a patchwork of mini-states? The only candidate in the US election who has expressed support for independence was Sarah Palin. We should, I suppose, be grateful that at least Alex saw the wisdom of not grabbing hold of those particular coat-tails.

UPDATE: Ah, so the SNP are claiming Obama nicked “yes, we can” from them. Which is a bit like the Lib Dems going around claiming that anyone who uses the phrase “Make the Difference” read our 1997 manifesto.

Is UK politics institutionally racist?

Trevor Phillips thinks it is:

The public in this country would, he believes, embrace a black leader but the system would prevent it happening. “Here, the problem is not the electorate, the problem is the machine.” It was no coincidence that there were only 15 ethnic-minority MPs, he said. “The parties and the unions and the think-tanks are all very happy to sign up to the general idea of advancing the cause of minorities but in practice they would like somebody else to do the business. It’s institutional racism.”

I actually disagree with Trevor Phillips in as much as I don’t accept that the UK political system is any more institutionally racist than the US system. The House of Representatives does relatively better than the House of Commons, but the Senate does far worse than either the Commons or the Lords: Obama was the only black senator and he’s now out of the door. Meanwhile, in terms of gender balance, we do significantly better. But Adam Afriye does have a good point when he says:

“In the US a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain it’s generally a gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades, before leading a political party.”

If we had a presidential system, it is certainly true that we would create within our own system a similar opportunity for an anti-establishment candidate such as Obama to come out of nowhere. But would we want a presidential system? I can see strong arguments either way, although my mind opposition to directly elected mayors has hardened over the past two years after seeing London’s gradual shift towards post-Livingstone politics. The same system that would prevent the meteoric rise of a “British Obama” also prevents the meteoric rise of a “British Palin.”

But we should also be mindful of the fact that neither Obama or Palin did, in fact, come from nowhere. Obama had been a state senator for eight years before entering the US Senate in 2005. Palin also made it in local and state politics first. The difference between these levels of government and their UK equivalents is that they wield far more influence and power. In the UK, even the Scottish Parliament has very few tax-raising powers; in that respect it is no different from a local authority which can only control how it allocates the cash not make strategic decisions about the level of that cash and how it should be raised. As Mayor of Wasilla (pop. 10,000), Palin had powers that Alex Salmond would hanker for. If we don’t have proving grounds such as these, how can we expect our stars to rise (indeed, I made this point about the London Assembly last year)? Currently the only real avenue is the House of Commons, and that is where there is also the most party control.

The UK Parliament and the system we use to elect its members institutionally favours candidates who are capable of running their own campaigns and working extremely long hours for years before polling day. Inevitably, this tends to favour rich people, successful entrepreneurs and lawyers, who tend to be (but are not exclusively) white, middle class and male. The Labour Party has an additional category of standard candidate background – the trade unionist – but these days these too tend to be white, middle class and male. For every Dawn Butler there are dozens of Tom Watsons and Sion Simons. Labour these days may be unlikely to foster an Obama, but it is unlikely to foster a Keir Hardie either.

Getting elected to the UK Parliament is, currently, an extreme sport. You have to be ever-so-slightly insane to want to put yourself through it. The serious question is whether this is actually healthy? Scrutiny certainly is, but in most parts of the country where we have safe seats, we have patronage in place of that. Fundamentally, we have a system that puts parties, not the public, in control.

Some have argued that the solution to all this is to have primaries, but for reasons I have already rehearsed, I don’t think that will work (nor do I think it works well in the US outside of presidential candidate selections). No, if we are serious about putting the people in control, we need a system like STV which combines a fairer electoral system with a more open system for selecting party candidates. If the Equality and Human Rights Commission are serious about exposing institutional racism (and sexism and all other forms of discrimination for that matter), then they should come out in support of electoral reform.