Saturday, November 08, 2008

A tale of two elections

It's all change in America, no change at Glenrothes - but which result tells us more about the current state of UK politics? Here's today's Journal column.

It was a tale of two elections, one that has seemingly given new hope to the whole world, another rather closer to home that has given new hope for Gordon Brown and his once-beleaguered premiership.

One outcome - the victory of Barack Obama in the US presidential election - was widely expected. The other - Labour's victory in Thursday night's Glenrothes by-election - was rather less so.

The first brought the sense of a fresh beginning for America and possibly the world, encapsulated in the words of Mr Obama's acceptance speech "change has come."

The second, by contrast, conveyed a message of “no change just yet,” at least from the voters of Glenrothes but also possibly from a wider British public that currently seems more content with Mr Brown.

Taking Mr Obama first, it has been notable how much of the coverage of his victory has focused on his colour when it was scarcely an issue in the campaign itself.

I don't deny it's a remarkable achievement for an African-American to become president of a country that 40 years ago denied blacks the right to travel on the same buses as whites, but Mr Obama won because of his charisma, not his colour.

Above all, he won because he successfully presented himself as the change candidate at a time when America appears to be crying out for change.

His republican rival John McCain also lost it by failing to do enough to distinguish himself from the increasingly unpopular George Bush, and also by appearing to be somewhat complacent about the state of the US economy.

Much discussion has already surrounded the impact of Sarah Palin, Mr McCain's surprise choice of vice-presidential nominee, on the eventual result.

On the one hand, she undoubtedly energised the Republican Party’s campaign and enabled Mr McCain to re-connect with a part of its core vote that has always distrusted him.

On the other, she was plainly out of her depth when dealing with foreign policy issues and, for all her freshness as a Washington "outsider," came over as something of a political ingenue.

All things considered, perhaps a 72-year-old man who has had cancer four times should have paid slightly more heed to the need for experience in choosing the person who would have been "a heartbeat away from the presidency."

As for what it means for UK politics, it was predictable that the two main parties would offer wildly differing interpretations of the significance of Mr Obama's triumph.

For Tory leader David Cameron, the important point was the message of change. For Mr Brown, it was the victory of progressive politics over the neo-Conservative right.

Both are plausible enough interpretations, but for me, the sight of British Tories attempting to clamber aboard the Obama bandwagon has been one of the more amusing aspects of the campaign.

No matter that Mr Obama is the most left-wing president since Franklin D. Roosevelt - there's absolutely nothing the ideology-free-zone that is today's Tory Party won't do to get with the zeitgeist.

For all the understandable excitement about Mr Obama, though, it is what happened in Glenrothes which says more about the current state of British politics.

That this is an extraordinary triumph for Mr Brown cannot be in doubt, even allowing for the fact that local issues dominated the by-election campaign.

Consider where the Prime Minister was before the conference season two months ago. He had lost three by-elections on the trot, all of them badly, and there was a growing perception in the party that he was a "loser."

Foreign Secretary and South Shields MP David Miliband was openly agitating for his job, while deputy leader Harriet Harman told friends "this is my time."

There was a widespread expectation of an autumn coup against Mr Brown's leadership, and dark talk that up to 15 ministers would refuse to serve come the reshuffle - a rumour which, had it come to fruition, would surely have spelled the end of him.

Even at the end of what was judged a successful conference, the shadow of another disastrous defeat in Glenrothes still hung over him like a sword of Damocles, as I noted at the time.

Instead, Mr Brown now finds himself back in the game and with an outside chance - I would put it no more strongly than that - of winning that elusive fourth Labour term.

Okay, so it's largely down to his handling of the economic crisis - but that fighting conference speech and the coup-de-theatre of Peter Mandelson's reshuffle comeback have certainly played their part.

Up until now, the Brown renaissance, or the "Second Brown Bounce" as some have called it, has been largely driven by a media narrative - a general consensus among the commentariat that the Prime Minister's position has improved.

But there is no substitute for actual real-life votes, and Thursday's result has provided concrete evidence that the "media narrative" is actually not that far off the mark.

In other words, the Labour fightback is no mere media invention designed to make politics more interesting again for readers, viewers and listeners. It really is now under way.

It doesn't prove that Mr Brown is a "winner." But it does show that he is not quite the inveterate loser that some thought he was.

So is it now "game on" for the next general election? Could we soon be back to a position where a hung Parliament, rather than an outright Tory victory, once more looks the most likely outcome?

Well, hang on. One swallow doesn't make a summer, and it's important for Mr Brown and Labour not to get carried away with Thursday night's success.

The truth is that Mr Cameron remains as much an overwhelming favourite to win the next general election as Mr Obama was to win the presidency.

But unlike Senator McCain, Gordon Brown still has time on his side.

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Anonymous said...

Brown's opponents in the Labour Party look very small today. It's hard to imagine any of them having the guts to stick their heads above the parapet while he's showing real leadership over the economy.

But Paul, does the Glenrothes result really tell us that Brown is making a comeback outside the Westminster village? It shows that Labour can still win in Scotland, which is important, but doesn't give us much of a hint about how it is doing in the key English seats which will decide the next election.

Anonymous said...

Its a good job Brown does have time on his side.
I saw Saturday evening on the Telegraph website that the Tories lead Labour by 13 points.
Im afraid hes got an awful lot of work to do.

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