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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.