Brent on Obama

newstatesman.com' s weekly tour of the political blogosphere with your guide Paul Evans

Dawn breaking

Like many people, I drank a six-pack of Coors to celebrate the inauguration of President Obama this week. His elevation to leader of the free nations may have be causing ripples around the world – but he could hardly have anticipated the impact it would have on the streets of Brent.

Boundary changes have left sitting MPs Dawn Butler and diminutive Lib Dem Sarah Teather engaged in an increasingly desperate battle to win the new seat of Brent Central at the next general election.

But has gone OTT with her online announcement of an exclusive endorsement from Barack Obama, containing lines as astonishingly awful as:

“I say to the people of Brent you should have the audacity of hope and when someone asks you can she do it, you respond yes we can.”

Iain Dale was quickly on the case, asking: “Surely Barack Obama wouldn't have written such a trite and self serving paragraph himself? Would he?” adding caustically: “Pass the sick bag, Alice”.

The authenticity of the saccharine note, printed on House of Commons paper, soon came under scrutiny, courtesy of the Unity on Liberal Conspiracy who reckoned a “bonehead stunt” had been perpetuated using Photoshop. Under pressure from the Standard blogger Paul Waugh, Butler stuck to her guns – claiming that Obama had pre-agreed the wording prior to meeting her at Downing Street, and then signed the endorsement.

Belfast-based xetera thought that this strange episode was symptomatic of the “Obama juice” phenomenon, where politicians desperately claw for a link to the President in “...the hope that, like some sort of secret potion, a tenuous connection to the man will provide a little personal boost”.

Whatever the truth, the endorsement is inaccurate. The claim that Butler is one of just two black women in parliament ignores the fact that there are two Houses of Parliament, and that one of them was led for several years by Valerie Amos.

What have we learned this week?

It isn't just Brent that is touched by Obama's magic – the Emerald Isle has been similarly transformed, as we learn via the ever-magnificent Slugger O'Toole.

Around the World

Jahanshah Rashidian on Rotten Gods gives some interesting history on the leftist factions in post-revolution Iran who perhaps unwittingly sold out the working classes to maintain strategic alliances with right-wing Islamic groups. He recounts:

“Their new independent trade unions were banned and replaced by Islamic societies formed by the Ministry of Labour. Their profit share and bonuses which were established under the Shah were nullified. The right of strike was rejected. Wages stayed low, many factories were shut down; and their workers were fired without any unemployment benefit.”

Today, Iran's left faces a steep challenge to assert itself as a secular and pro-union force. The Haft Tapeh sugar cane workers strike of last summer was met with characteristic brutality by state (five strike leaders were recently charged with propagandising against the government) but undeterred, efforts continue to secure better pay and conditions. Iran's loss is Britain's gain, as exile Maryam Namazi continues to prove, as one of the country's most passionate and articulate advocates of free expression and secularism.

Videos of the Week

In honour of the return of Ken Clarke to the fray, let us enjoy the sounds of the Kenny Clarke quartet.

Quote of the Week

“Brent Central was always going to be a dirty fight - Dawn has now provided the ammunition to make it even dirtier.”

Mike Smithson on Political Betting

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.