As the Presidential campaign rumbles on in the United States, the post-mortems from the primary season are already taking place. What can be learned from an enthralling contest between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton? What lessons does the remarkable comeback from John McCain hold? These are far from academic. We may not have a vote in this election, but we can certainly learn from it. And after a series of setbacks this year--in London, Crewe and Nantwich, Henley and most recently in Glasgow East--the question is how to reinvigorate progressive Britain after three terms in office.
The temptation is for the sceptics to argue that there are no lessons. It is, of course, a legitimate question to ask what Crewe and Camden have in common with one another, let alone with Kentucky and Kansas. Can we really compare a local election and a by-election, let alone a Presidential campaign that has lasted a year already? Others might say that the characters involved are too unique for any real lessons to be learned. Understandably they might ask: how many people are there like either McCain or Obama? McCain is an American war hero. Obama's oratory sets him apart from any other American politician of his generation. Neither of these things can easily be repeated: the lesson that we need more inspiring politicians doesn't seem to take us very far. But rather than focus on the peculiarities of the two men, there remains an opportunity to learn from their campaigns.
Equally unhelpful is the tendency to draw the wrong conclusions. Again understandably, much has been made of the symbolism of the Democratic contest: the young black man versus the woman who had waited and worked for this for years; race equality versus gender equality. For many, the primary season become nothing more--or less--than a choice between two different ways of making history, rather than a battle of ideas. There are, of course, elements of truth in all of this. The success of an African American is unique--and I hope will inspire a new generation of young people to reconsider politics in both the US and here in Britain. And for all the bruising debates on the campaign trail, Obama and Clinton agree on more than they disagree in policy terms.
Yet despite some of the scepticism--and the tendency to focus on the symbols and personalities--there are deeper lessons to be learnt. After all, few people would have predicted that McCain, let alone Obama would win the nominations of their parties. When Obama began his campaign, he lacked many of his opponents' key assets. Clinton could claim an advantage through her name recognition, her networks in the Democratic Party and the media, her access to big financial donors, her experience--and of course the track record that she and Bill had developed over twenty-five years in frontline politics. Yet Obama still won.
For his part, John McCain won after bringing his own campaign back from the brink. A year before his eventual victory, McCain was running out of momentum and money. He didn't have Mitt Romney's fundraising, Mike Huckabee's populism, or Rudy Giuliani's status as the front runner. And yet, against the odds, he is the Republican nominee. This means something--not just for American politics but for Britain too. Because when you look back over the past half a century, you can see the way in which American and British politics spur one another on. The way in which common cultural and economic trends suddenly make one way of doing politics seem very old-fashioned very quickly.
In the 1960s the civil rights movement influenced the passing of the Race Relations Acts, and in the Northern Ireland the civil rights movement for the Catholic minority was consciously modelled on the US experience. In the 80s, Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher found common cause, not just in foreign policy, but in the free-market economics that they both believed in. And their political projects drew ideas and confidence from one another. In the 1990s, the truth was that New Labour was never entirely new. It was preceded by the New Democrat framework in America that was put together by people like Al From at the Democratic Leadership Council. It was at the heart of Bill Clinton's campaign for office in 1991 and 92. So many of the policies from that period--welfare to work, tax credits and Sure Start to name just three--have their origins in the States. Many of our best policies in fact. And even as recently as this year, Boris Johnson has sought to learn the lessons from successive mayors in New York, drawing on the zero tolerance policing introduced by Rudy Giuliani and then Mayor Bloomberg.
Washington and Westminster may be over three thousand miles apart, but the truth is they often have more in common than we think. And rather than shy away from comparisons, I think it is right that we, as people interested in the future of politics, see what there is to be learnt and applied here, albeit in a different context. My view is that we are seeing a new way of doing politics in America that has the seeds of some real changes in Britain too. I draw three big lessons.
Who does politics
The first is an issue about who does politics. Putting their unique personal stories aside, the feature that both McCain and Obama share is that they both came from outside the political establishment. Both men represent a reaction to the political language and methods that have come to dominate politics since the 1990s.
John McCain has styled himself against the beltway elite. His political career has been founded on maintaining an outsider's perspective on Washington and the way it relates to people--whether that is campaign reform or his famous town-hall meetings. Similarly, Barack Obama makes a virtue of his recent arrival on the national stage--something people...