Tag Archives: Politics

The future is open. A farewell to the United Kingdom.

It was a strange defence of the Union. Over-scripted and wooden, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, chastised Scotland’s nationalists for “playing politics with the future of our country.” Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, had just announced plans for a fresh independence referendum. London was apparently caught off-guard. But if the best that May can muster is that “politics is not a game”, then Scotland will soon be the world’s newest sovereign state.

Across the North Channel, talks are underway to form a new government in Northern Ireland. They are unlikely to be fruitful. The previous executive collapsed amid a major financial scandal, at one time lauded for being the result of ‘normal’ politics. Even before actual voting in the March 2nd election, politics had returned to tribal normality. Yet, in a shock result, Unionism lost its majority status in Northern Ireland for the first time.

Scotland and Northern Ireland share a deep cultural heritage. Ulster-Scots identity has forged much of what is recognisably ‘Northern Irish’. These bonds were cemented by Union. But the most prescient bond at present, that they are the two nations of the United Kingdom which voted to remain in the European Union, may mean the end of the Union.

Brexit has upended political calculations. Unionists and Brexiteers bat away any talk of danger for the Union. But they ignore three issues driving change.

First is the arrogance of a nativist nationalism which is condescending in its smugness. Second, negative divides abound: whether between people with different viewpoints or between regions, difference is framed in how bad the ‘other’ is. Third, and perhaps the most potent long-term force, is that young people want to live in an open, plural, outward looking society. The UK is no longer that.

In British terms, Melanie Philips gave the most recent example of national arrogance. She is but one in a long line of national chauvinists from Farage to Fox to Foster. Populist nationalists are now household names across Europe. Their success is built upon stressing a national strength which revels in turning away Syrian child refugees and ignores the irony of free trade as the answer to closing borders. It is an inhuman approach that puts greater value on native lives than human lives.

This world view, complimented by the left’s obsession with identity politics, is driving people further apart. People increasingly see the nationality or the ideology, not the person. Civil debate barely exists. As the Economist points out, Owen Jones’s decision to leave social media because of the abuse received is a depressing symptom of our inability to agree to disagree.

Furthermore, regionalism has driven a wedge into a British identity. Scotland is different from Lincolnshire, which is different from London. Past unity is no indicator of future prosperity. Without a positive vision for what the UK is, division will become ever more normal.

Which brings us to the ultimate divide of our times: that of open versus closed societies. Perhaps the greatest driver for the changes which are happening in Scotland and Northern Ireland is that, in the main, people under 40 want to live in places where people don’t care about skin colour or with whom you sleep.

Two decades ago it was easy to identify the UK as an open and progressive place. In a Northern Irish context, the Union worked. Irish society was defined by a national claustrophobia. That has changed fundamentally. Two years ago Irish people voted overwhelmingly to support same sex marriage. Thousands of people under the age of 40 returned home just to vote in an uncoordinated and hugely emotional expression of making sure that Ireland was on the right side of history. The cathartic impact of this cannot be properly expressed. And what was simply a moment in time has, with hindsight, become one of the defining moments of Ireland as a socially progressive, creative, and open society.

Scotland’s desire to remain part of the EU speaks to the embrace of being part of a bigger whole. The results of the Dutch elections, with a massive rise in support for liberal parties amongst educated millennial voters, is further evidence that the issue goes beyond the UK’s borders. But, it also highlights the divides between people who want to embrace the world and those who want to shut borders.

Chris Deering, writing before Sturgeon’s announcement, concluded in the Financial Times that “The UK may not see out the decade”. Writing about Northern Ireland’s election results, Fintan O’Toole declared in the Guardian that “a wide crack has opened in the foundations of the UK.” To survive, the Union needs a radical but realistically positive vision. People in Scotland and Northern Ireland need to have an emotional attachment to it. Otherwise, the crack won’t be papered over.

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Values and destiny: why Scotland should say no to independence

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Two years ago, when the campaigns for Scotland’s independence referendum began, conventional wisdom held that support for independence would plateau at 40%. Someone miscalculated. Over the past ten days, polls have consistently shown that the end of the United Kingdom is now within the realms of the possible, not just the imagination. By Friday morning, Scotland might just have voted to become an independent country.

Three issues have converged to get us to this place. First, the Better Together campaign has failed to articulate a positive vision of the UK or of Scotland’s place in it. ‘No’ is an intrinsically negative position, but the Better Together campaign has taken that to an extreme. Surely no country decides its future based on what currency it will use. And yet, the No campaign has been obsessed with currency arrangements in an independent Scotland. Technicalities are important but vision beats detail.

Second, Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign have been disingenuous. They ignore reality. They seem confused about what independence really is. They promise a rosy future of a wealthy, confident, just, and fair Scotland. Oil money will keep the country afloat. Scottish culture will make the country punch above its weight. And Scottish society will be based on social justice once those nasty Tories and/or English are out of the equation. But the Nationalists’ economics are “flawed”: oil will run out, the banks will clear out, and demographics are not in favour of long-term social spending such as that promised by the SNP.

Never mind that the process of separating over 300 years of Union will be messy and complicated. Much of the Nationalist campaign’s predictions of a glossy future are premised on having the wind behind their backs in negotiations for a post-referendum settlement. Yet, as Martin Wolf writes, “A Yes vote will launch Scotland…into years of uncertainty.” The longed for Nordic-like future is undoubtedly possible for an independent Scotland, but it is folly to suggest that independence is a panacea.

Third, but most critically, few people see Scottish nationalism as a negative. But nationalism is inherently divisive. It is about separating people, about erecting borders, about saying that people would rather look inwards than be part of a cosmopolitan, open, and multi-national society. It matters not how innocuous and fluffy Scottish nationalism might appear: the argument of Scottish nationalists is that Scotland is only for the Scottish.

Nationalism says that organising and governing a particular area is best done by people who share a similar ethnicity, similar attitudes and a similar culture. Nativism and otherness are essential. Nationalism in Scotland is just as ugly as nationalism in the Balkans. Mark Blyth writes that “Nationalism, like most forms of identity politics, thrives only in the face of a foreign other.” Yes campaigners have used the politics of identity to blame the Tories, Westminster, and the English in general for what ails Scotland. It is ugly and narrow-minded.

The most successful societies and states in history have been those that champion cosmopolitanism and openness. Scotland is on the verge of saying that insularity, smallness, and national identity is of more importance in a globalised world than being part of a multinational society. Yet, as Philip Stephens’ writes, “prosperity and security in an age of great power competition belongs to those comfortable with multiple identities – the ones who bind themselves together in shared endeavour.”

Cultural confidence is to be celebrated. That Scots have a distinct identity from other parts of the United Kingdom is a good and positive thing. Where it becomes a negative is when that cultural and national identity becomes the definition of statehood. Common identities transcend borders; an accident of birth should be less important than the identity that we choose and build for ourselves.

Alex Salmond is a bully, but he has won the emotional argument regarding Scottish independence by building a vision of a hopeful and different future. Yes, an independent Scotland could undoubtedly be successful in the long-term. It would, provided the right decisions were taken, be able to build an economy, provide for its citizens, educate its young people, and care for its sick. But it is deluded to think that this can be done better in a state defined by its Scottishness.

The world is not binary. Why seek to divide yet further? A vote for Scottish independence merely solidifies the desire of some to divide based on culture and identity. It is saddening to think that, after the horrors that nationalism has wrought, people can still build a positive vision for the future around so insular an idea. Scots face a decision on what kind of values and principles they place more faith in: those of openness and diversity or those of narrow cultural identity.

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Free speech should never be an option

Dissidents in the Soviet bloc fought for many freedoms between 1945 and the end of the 1980s. None was more important than the freedom to say or write what they wanted. They understood that free speech is the conduit to other freedoms. Without it oppression becomes the norm, and fear takes hold. Dissent, criticism and open debate are necessary in strong and mature societies. Yet, it appears as though people are increasingly unwilling to engage in debate. Instead, the default option is to shut down dissenting or contrary voices.

The conflict in Gaza elicits strong passions. These passions are shaped by whether Israel or Hamas is viewed as the aggressor. There will likely never be agreement on the roots of the conflict or the ‘truth’ of particular actions. But there is a difference between debating the roots of a conflict and the merits of policy. The former is for historians whilst the latter can be deadly.

Israelis are overwhelmingly in favour of government policy: nine in ten support the strategy and tactics of the Israeli Defence Forces. But there are critics. People such as Gideon Levy, and the organisation B’tselem. Many have been vilified and attacked for questioning the war in Gaza. Peace rallies have been openly attacked and abused for undermining national unity. Outside Israel, those critical of how it has waged war on Hamas are often accused of anti-Semitism. There has been a deplorable and unforgivable rise in attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, especially in Europe. Anti-Semitism, however, should not be conflated with criticism of Israeli policy; to do so risks shutting down debate.

Some voices are particularly ugly. George Galloway, an MP, is one such ugly voice. He recently declared his Bradford constituency “an Israel-free zone.” With opinions on most topics, and a knack for stoking controversy, Galloway is much in demand as a pundit and speaker. He is due to speak soon in Belfast. A city councillor from the Democratic Unionist Party tried to prevent Galloway from speaking in Council owned property. He failed. The publicity around the incident has ensured a sold-out ‘show’.

That competing voices are undervalued, whether in Israel, Northern Ireland, Egypt or the US, is dangerous. Three reasons are feeding this danger.

First, the public is less engaged in the big issues of the world. An obsession with the banal crowds out the meaningful. Policy debates, such as they are, are not about substance but about process. And even when a celebrity’s latest irrelevancy is not the main headline, any engagement is myopic: people listen to, watch, or read media that express a view of the world with which they already agree. Those who express a different viewpoint are dismissed.

Second, it is a cliché to say that social media is to blame, but it undoubtedly feeds the symptoms by being reductive. 140 characters does not allow for a nuanced discussion. Its reactive nature feeds emotions.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, emotion trumps logic. Public debate and discussion regularly degenerate into who is right and wrong rather than an objective working out of solutions.

Fundamentally, the vilification of critics of Israel’s policy or the DUP’s stance in calling for George Galloway to be prevented from speaking demonstrates a lack of confidence. Rather than challenging the content there is a desire to shut down the voices.

But free speech is of absolute importance. Rather than seeking to shut down or intimidate dissent, a mature and confident society should encourage it. That includes voices we think are vile and abhorrent, like Galloway, or those we think are questioning national unity. There are those who will say that it is not possible to have a mature debate with Galloway. That may be so. His views are repugnant and verge on being racist. He is a demagogue, unwilling to engage in reasonable debate. But it is still incumbent on society to let him have his say. Otherwise, one day, someone might tell you or me what we can or cannot say.

Therein lies a dilemma. How do we challenge people who abuse the responsibilities that come with the right of free speech? The answer is not to silence voices. That is the tactic of dictators. Instead, those voices need challenged on the content and substance of what they say. To do so requires an engaged citizenry, sharp minds, and a confidence in one’s views that is rooted in logic, not tribalism or emotion. Rather than use emotion as an argument, it should be deployed as a tactic.

Above all, heed the advice of my A-level politics teacher to read things that you disagree with on a regular basis. It mitigates against lazy thinking. Critically, it highlights the most difficult issue for those who hold strong beliefs whilst illustrating the surest sign of a mature society: that values or principles do not have to change but differing opinions must be debated and discussed with openness and tolerance. 

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Bye-bye NI21: a party’s death might help to bring about real reform in Northern Ireland

When the world’s political scientists are casting about for a case study in the failure of a political party, they need look no further than Northern Ireland’s NI21. This case has it all: alleged sexual impropriety, high-level resignations, petty squabbles, and unprofessional behaviour. Few writers could dream up this tale.

The party was founded in June 2013 by two disgruntled former Ulster Unionists, Basil McCrea and John McCallister. NI21 appeared to capture the zeitgeist. It emerged amidst recognition that Northern Ireland’s political system is stagnant and unresponsive. It was launched amid a blaze of publicity, and it galvanised many in the middle-ground who felt that their voice was unheard. McCrea became leader, McCallister his deputy.

Whilst favouring the link with the United Kingdom, NI21 focuses on a common Northern Irish identity and on socially progressive issues. Its premise is ‘fresh politics’ rather than fixating on the constitutional question. This ensured broad support amongst a generation who see Northern Ireland’s conflict as history.

The details of the party’s implosion appear to centre on a battle of wills between McCrea and McCallister. McCrea is accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards a young female party worker (which he denies). But this only emerged after McCallister gave an explosive interview to a local newspaper. He called the party “crazy” and “dysfunctional.” All of this happened less than 48 hours before European and local elections. In the aftermath, the party’s European candidate has resigned as Party Chairman and announced her departure from politics.

NI21’s future is unclear. What is even more unclear is what now happens to the reform agenda in Northern Ireland. NI21’s membership and support base hails largely from previously apathetic centrists. Many had never previously been involved in politics of any sort. There is a real danger that many of these people will walk away from politics like the Party’s ex-Chairman. Disillusionment is already high in Northern Ireland.

The region’s civic sensibilities are not particularly mature. People are expectant and cynical. Tribal identity is codified in law; this was part of the reason for the implosion of NI21 after it decided to ‘redesignate’ as Other instead of Unionist in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Three issues need addressed to ensure that a reform agenda is delivered. First, the political impetus needs to be truly ‘fresh’. McCrea repeatedly referred to NI21 as a “movement.” In this he was wrong. NI21 was not a citizens’ revolt but an opportunistic hijacking of an embryonic mood by two unhappy party hacks. Rather than leading change, people abdicated their responsibilities. They put their faith in what was little more than a vehicle for McCrea’s ego. For a movement to effect lasting change in Northern Ireland it will require a bottom-up approach, led by people who currently have little or nothing to do with politics. All the better if they have had nothing to do with party politics.

Secondly, reformers need to focus on policy. From the outset NI21 felt to be more style than substance: the glitzy launch, the lack of policies, the vacuous talk of a ‘movement’. The opportunism was ignored by many of the party’s supporters as their hunger for something new outweighed any critical evaluation of party policies. And yet, Northern Ireland is in dire need of a shake-up. Growth in 2014 is expected to be 1.1%, compared with 1.8% across the UK. The public sector makes up 65% of the economy. Politically, the four largest parties, which took over ¾ of the vote in Thursday’s local elections, are divided on religious and tribal differences rather than on meaningful policy differences. All four, along with the cross-community Alliance Party, form a compulsory coalition. Between them they control 103 of the 108 seats in the NI Assembly.

Third, reformers need to be ambitious. Development proposals in Belfast regularly become the subject of political horse-trading between the tribal blocs. This is particularly the case in deprived areas where identity politics is strongest. The Alliance Party’s current raison d’être is a ‘shared future’ for all. This is meaningless against a sputtering economy in which 27% of working age adults are economically inactive. Quite what it means besides providing shared spaces for Catholics and Protestants to come together is unknown. It is certainly not a rallying call for people who believe that the region’s past should not define its future.

The election of Johnny McCarthy as NI21’s sole representative, despite the events of the past few days, suggests that there is an appetite for change. The behaviour of the party’s leaders means that the true scale of the appetite remains unknown. Worse, the momentum for reform may have slowed. But if those who want to see change can rally together, the likely disappearance of McCrea, McCallister and NI21 might actually provide a more promising time ahead.

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The shame of flags and the haunting of the future

Shame is personal. We are usually, as individuals, embarrassed by our shame. It is a way for us to define what we find morally acceptable or unacceptable. Indeed, so personal an emotion is shame, that we rarely publicly admit to feeling ashamed.

Societal shame is an even stranger phenomenon. A new film, “Aftermath”, by Wladyslaw Pasikowski, seeks to tell a version of the tale of how, during the Second World War, a group of Polish villagers in Jedwabne rounded up 300 of the village’s Jewish residents and burnt them alive in a barn. It is, for many Poles, an emerging trend of examining their collective past. Some people naturally find it uncomfortable. One present-day Jedwabne resident is quoted in a Financial Times article as saying “The whole thing is really unfair. A lot of other towns also killed their Jews… Now the whole world thinks that the people of Jedwabne are devils.”

Few people think that everyone in Jedwabne is, or was, a devil. The actions of evil and nefarious people often cast a shadow on an entire community.

Few people, despite the history of violence that has been all too publicly identified with Northern Ireland, believe that everyone who lives there is a devil. But they must question the sanity of its residents.

The background to yet more violence is now well known. In short, under the guise of parity of esteem, Nationalist parties sought to remove the Union Flag from Belfast City Council properties. Unionists reacted angrily, and the centrist Alliance Party countered with a motion to fly the flag on the 17 nationally designated days, thereby matching the position at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Approval of the new policy was met with violence. MPs received death threats, the homes and offices of elected representatives were attacked and ransacked, and dozens of police officers were injured in clashes with Loyalist protesters. One attack, when a petrol bomb was thrown into a police car, from which its occupants managed to escape, is being treated as attempted murder. An ongoing campaign of rolling protests continues to disrupt traffic across Northern Ireland. One would imagine that the societal shame in Northern Ireland should be significant. It is not.

Instead, the protests continue. One protestor’s shriek has been parodied to the point where she is now known simply as the ‘Belfast Bigot.’ The equivications of politicians, some of whom have attended protests, means that the protestors have continued to set the agenda. Families attending a Christmas pantomime have been intimidated.

To feel shame requires acknowledging responsibility. It is difficult to find anyone who will accept responsibility for recent events. Instead, the region’s largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party, called for more flying of the flag at Stormont. It took a week of violence to prompt Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, to call for the protests to stop.

Unionist parties refuse to acknowledge their role in heightening tensions. They argue that a leaflet published by them, in Alliance’s trade mark yellow colouring, which stated that the party wanted to “tear down the Union Flag”, also called for any protests to be peaceful.

Meanwhile, Nationalists and Republicans are coy in their triumphalism. Having reproached Unionists for generations on their attitudes towards Catholics and Nationalists, the tables have turned. Sinn Fein, the largest Nationalist party in Northern Ireland, has been supported on the flags issue in Belfast by the smaller and more moderate SDLP, and, more pointedly, in the naming of a childrens’ play area elsewhere after an IRA hunger striker. Unionists claim that the developments are part of a campaign to “chip away” at their Britishness. Replacing one triumphalism with another does not make it a positive.

There has been talk of compromise. In Northern Ireland this means repeating the same position louder than the other lot repeat theirs, waiting for them to give in because they’re wrong. Rather, compromise means accepting and understanding other view points, reflecting on your own position, and agreeing to meet on the path between the two. It should, ideally, mean no side being happy.

Northern Ireland’s residents are fond of the absolute. Its politicians encourage an understanding of politics as a zero sum game. Political leadership consists of leading only one’s own tribe, with no recognition of a changing world. Arguments are reduced to Unionist or Nationalist points of view. ‘Normal’ politics is not possible. Those politicians who do recognise a changing world and a need for compromise get disciplined by their party leadership.

The past dominates Northern Ireland’s future. Tribal politics is institutionalised. With a tiny population, an over-reliance on the public sector, and a lack of talent based immigration, there is nothing to break the dynamic. Recent economic difficulties, and the fact that many people feel no tangible benefit from the ‘peace dividend’, have helped fuel the current situation. And for all that, the political system is stuck in a Unionist vs Nationalist time warp.

Plenty of people want to “move on”. Many of them are genuine. Many more say they want to move on, “but…”

Moving on means not living in the past. It means accepting elements of a democracy you wouldn’t choose for a utopian world. It means allowing every part of our culture to express itself legitimately and appropriately. It means accepting that the truth is whatever individuals believe it to be, not what an inquiry says it to be. It means everyone, irrespective of political persuasion, uniting to condemn violence. Northern Ireland should collectively hang its head in shame for permitting the last two weeks of violence.

A bomb scare at one of Belfast’s major shopping centres, ten days before Christmas, turned the past into the present. But there was no shame at how an argument over a flag had brought the past back. It begs the question of why any young, educated person would choose to stay in Northern Ireland? For the reality is that our past haunts our future.

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Leveson, the Lib Dems, and press freedoms

By lunch-time tomorrow, Lord Leveson’s report on press standards will be public. Downing Street continues to insist that the Prime Minister has not taken a firm decision on how to proceed with the report’s recommendations. The straws in the wind suggest otherwise. Most senior Conservatives, Michael Gove and William Hague among them, have been vocal in rejecting statutory regulation. Some Tories do support a firmer legal framework that would introduce statutory regulation for the press. But the bulk of support within the party is for an approach that stops short of legislation whilst moving the industry away from self-regulation.

Labour leader, Ed Milliband is calling for Leveson’s findings to be implemented without knowing exactly what the report will recommend. Tensions do exist within the Labour Party on the matter, with former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, gathering support for a letter opposing increased regulation. Despite this, the party appears to generally favour bringing the industry to task.

Of particular concern to government sources is the very real prospect of Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, supporting a different approach from that of his coalition partners. Lib Dem sources are clear that the party favours stronger legal regulation for the press. There is little doubt that, should the Tories and Lib Dems fail to agree a common approach, a serious clash between the government parties is looming.

That the Liberal Democrats are so freely supporting a tougher regulatory framework is something of a surprise. Few could ignore the egregious abuses carried out by some journalists and newspapers. The public and political revulsion at press malfeasance is why the Leveson inquiry was established. But the party that espouses liberal belief should surely be arguing for maintaining freedom of the press to as great an extent as possible. Instead, having abandoned bandwagons for principles earlier in this Parliament, the Lib Dems now appear to be be abandoning principles to hop on the latest bandwagon.

It is difficult to conceive of another European liberal party calling for constraints on a free press. Germany’s Free Democrats, Denmark’s Venstre, or Sweden’s Centre Party all look like an uncomfortable fit for a party calling for more state control of the press. Yet that is exactly what the Liberal Democrats are likely to be advocating by tomorrow afternoon.

Some senior party members, as highlighted in today’s Financial Times, recognise that the future will be more nuanced than that which Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband appear to desire. John Hemming, a Lib Dem MP is quoted in the FT as saying ““Nick Clegg has made a mistake in nailing his colours to the Leveson mast without knowing which way the ship is sailing.”

The winds do appear to be blowing in a prevailing direction. Most people expect Lord Justice Leveson to recommend some form of statutory regulation. A ‘pre-proposal’ from Lord Black, a former Director of the Press Complaints Commission, recognises that the current system requires change but rejects new legislation. No one disagrees that change is needed. The shape of that change is what will define press freedom in the UK for generations.

Suggestions that statutory regulation would empower the Mugabes and Assads of this world to enact tighter state control of the press under cover of ‘Britain is doing it’ are overblown. Tyrants need no empowerment, nor no fig leaves of cover to take whatever actions they want. Instead, there is a strange dynamic at work when a party that traces its roots to one of the West’s classical liberal forces supports the erosion of a fundamental tenet of liberal belief. Freedom of the press is no guarantee of a democratic society. But a democratic society that undermines press freedom in any way undermines the values on which it is based.

Some will argue that newspapers and journalists bear responsiblity for any future statutory regulation. This argument is false. Newspapers and journalists have seriously, perhaps irrevocably, damaged their standing in British society. Leveson uncovered not only press-hacking but corruption and other criminal acts. It is crucial that we remember all of the actions uncovered were criminal. Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson must yet defend themselves in a court of law.

That the industry’s attitude allowed media ethics – and common decency – to be so contemptuously ignored by some, will need to be addressed. Regulation will not do that. All industries suffer from the actions of selfish or compromised people. Regulation of the banking sector has not prevented selfish or unpleasant attitudes from taking hold. Yet the press needs to be able to investigate and act in a way that will question, and upset, politicians. And the press plays a more critical role in democracy and civic life than banks.

Instead of beating the popular drums for short-term revenge, the Liberal Democrats should be advocating the virtues of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. To do anything else tramples on its liberal heritage. We can recognise that the press has to change. We can even blame journalists and newspaper editors for bringing us to this point. If we end up with statutory regulation, it will be because politicians have introduced it. And because the party that should be defending an open and free society, will, most likely, be at the forefront of undermining it.

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Transformation required, not just acceptance…

There are the obvious recriminations swirling about after the US Midterm elections, which saw the Republicans win back the House of Representatives and come very close to winning the Senate. As of writing, Republicans had won 239 House seats, and are leading in 5 more, which will give them a gain of 65 seats on where they were yesterday. Democrats had won 183 and are leading in another 8. In the Senate, Democrats have won 51 to the Republicans’ 46, with Washington and Colorado too tight to call and Alaska looking like it is staying in the nominal Republican camp by virtue of Lisa Murkowski’s probable victory.

The numbers are one thing. The reality of what happens next is an entirely different thing. Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin write a simple but stunning truth in their Politico piece that “Obama now faces a stark, and immediate, choice between a novel effort to rebuild the 2008 coalition and an acceptance of the divisive political scene that he sought to move beyond.” Back in 2008, President Obama was elected on the promise of change and “Yes, We Can!” Of course the expectations were too high and of course he was never going to be able to meet them. That the Democrats were going to do badly in these elections may have been a foregone conclusion after their successes in 2006 and 2008. Yet, for this, they have compounded built-in losses by failing to capitalise on the coalition that they had built in 2008.

Ezra Klein wrote yesterday that in political terms, the 111th Congress was one of the most active in US history (which is, of course, part of the problem that the Tea Party has with it). “[I]f you see the point of politics as actually getting things done, the last two years, for Democrats, have been a stunning, historic success. Whatever else you can say about the 111th Congress, it got things done.” He went on to list health care reform, financial regulation, the stimulus package, and other less well-known pieces of legislation. US voters have been crying out for health care reform for decades; the economy crashed in 2008 partly because of the lack of financial regulation; and the stimulus did play a role in shoring up particular sectors of the economy. Yet, for all this success, the coalition that Obama and the Democrats built to such success in 2008 crumbled around their ears.

Perhaps scarily of all are these two maps – one of the counties that Democrats won in Senate races in 2010 and the other of the counties that Obama won in 2008. Fully accepting of the fact that it is not a direct comparison and that there are different dynamics in Senate vs Presidential races, they are at least instructive of what Democrats have failed to do.

 

US Senate 2010 County Leaders - New York Times

US Presidential 2008 County Leaders - New York Times

My reading of those maps – as unscientific as it is – indicates that Democratic support has plunged in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. There are also strong signs from House races that Virginia has tilted back strongly to being a red state, as well as problems for the Democrats in Colorado, New Mexico and Michigan. Every one of those states (with the possible exception of Wisconsin) is a classic swing state…

So, does Obama take the path of least resistance to compromise and seek to work with the Republican House, or does he dig deep and push through resistance to battle for Democratic ambitions? In reality, the best bet is something that he promised in 2008 but didn’t tell us how he was going to do it. It is actually one of the main reasons he won so convincingly back in ’08 and it was actually the basis of his ability to build that infamous coalition of young and old, poor and rich, black and white, Democrat, Republican and Independent. It’s the hope thing – but delivery of hope not just talk of hope.

The promise of hope being able to deliver change was what captured the imagination of so many American voters in 2008, especially young people and others who had felt disenfranchised by the existing political reality. Obama and the Democrats promised that those people would be engaged and would become a part of the approach to governing. The expectations of this group soared to unreasonable proportions, but returning to this approach it is Obama’s best bet of getting anything done. The world is in a period of huge economic transformation as we move from the industrial era to the information era and people are frightened because their reality has been upended. A visionary political leader with Obama’s talents needs to capitalise on this transformation to rewire the political, social and economic system – it is not something that can be done easily, nor without resistance. It is what Obama’s talk of hope and “Yes, We Can!” hinted at two years ago. It is also what the Democrats efforts in Congress over the last two years have been about. But they have failed to communicate to the very people who are going to be building the 21st economy that the effort will require a huge attitude change and it will require them to be engaged in the political process, not outside of it.

Transforming the reality of a situation is not easy work, and there will be constant hurdles, obstacles and set backs. To give up that effort after losing the House of Representatives would be an abandonment of Obama’s beginnings as a community organiser. It’s not about accepting the divisive political scene that went before, but about recalibrating your efforts to deal with the changes as they come along. It’s about being entrepreneurial in your approaches and about demonstrating to people that set backs will come and go, but how you deal with the set backs is what really defines whether or not your efforts will be transformative in the long run.

 

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