Indiana's quandary

McCain's made it difficult for Republicans in farming states like Indiana who resent his voting reco

"It don't bother me that he's black. But I do worry that he's a muslim."

It's a guy sat at the counter of a bar in Columbus, Indiana who tells me this, as his neighbour solemnly nods along. (The barman, to his credit, rolls his eyes and says, "Oh come on," before going off to serve someone else.)

Nonetheless, my guy is planning to vote for Barack Obama, simply because it's time for a change. "Washington needs an enema," he says firmly. "If he tries any of that Muslim stuff we can always throw him out."

No one really expected Indiana to be in play. It's voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964. But with farmers struggling, manufacturing's down the pan and nearly one million new voters on the rolls since 2004, polls are showing the state is tied. Indiana is likely to be one of the first results called on election day: if McCain doesn't have a clear lead here, it's hard to see how he can pull off a win.

Obama's success can be explained partly by the fact that he is, effectively, a local boy: the northern part of the state, around Gary, is one big suburb of Chicago. And partly also it's because, scenting victory for the first time in 40 years, local Dems are unusually energised.

But the biggest thing in Obama's favour is that, as much as anywhere in the nation, the conversation in Indiana is all about the economy. Much of the state is dominated by farming. And the farming industry has been hit by a catastrophic combination of soaring costs, fluctuating corn prices and flooding. Many farms have thus been left with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and no idea of how to pay it back.

The state's other major industry, manufacturing, has long been in decline right across the Mid West, a trend that's cost Indiana over 100,000 jobs since the decade began. But this is causing problems even in rural parts of the state: many farming families have one member in regular employment, to ensure the entire family has health insurance. As manufacturing has declined, health coverage has collapsed.

Obama's focus on the economy and healthcare is thus resonating surprisingly well in natural Republican territory.

Nonetheless, he wouldn't be so competitive here if McCain hadn't obligingly spent his career alienating the entire farming lobby. He's opposed both last May's pork-laden farm bill and subsidies for ethanol based fuel. (This, incidentally, also partly explains his weakness in other farming states like Iowa and Wisconsin.) The Republican also looks under-resourced out here: he has a single co-ordinator to cover the entire Great Lakes region.

That said, Obama's tax plans are also putting the wind up people in a state full of large land holdings. "McCain's posed quite a quandary for Republican farmers," says Kent Yeager, public policy director at the Indiana Farm Bureau. "The polls show it close here - but I can see it not being close at all either way."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.