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.
Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons
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Donald Trump brings home his dark vision of America at the Republican convention

The Presidential nominee pledged: "Safety must be restored."

Donald Trump brought home the Republican convention Thursday night with a dark vision of contemporary America – a darkness he claimed only his leadership could lift. It was a lengthy, tightly-scripted speech framed around polarities – insiders and outsiders, criminals and victims, the United States and the rest of the world – and infused with righteous anger. And yet against the darkness, he offered not lightness but “greatness” – a bombastic, personalistic vision of how through sheer force of will he could right the American ship before it plunged irretrievably into the depths. “I alone can solve,” he famously tweeted earlier in the campaign. This was the 80-minute version.

Any presidential challenger, of course, has to lay out a set of problems they believe need fixing and a case for why their leadership might make a difference. It was the breathtaking scale and intensity of Trump’s diagnosis, and the lack of optimistic alternative to counterbalance it, that was notable compared to other acceptance speeches. He portrayed the United States as a country riddled with crime and corruption, a “rigged system” in which politicians like Hillary Clinton can evade justice, while police officers trying to protect its citizens become targets; a fearful country, its economy sluggish, its infrastructure crumbling, its security an illusion, and its international stature in freefall

For a candidate who has mocked the soaring rhetoric of President Obama (the “hopey-changey stuff,” as Sarah Palin once called it), it was perhaps not surprising that Trump’s speech would be short on uplift. It was at least more disciplined than his other campaign speeches, if in keeping with their tone and content – the much-maligned teleprompter rolling a script to which he largely stuck. (“He sounds presidential,” a lady behind me remarked, though his press conference Friday morning marked a reversion to free-wheeling form).

It was short on substance too, though acceptance speeches aren’t designed to be policy laundry lists like a State of the Union. Still, there were few specifics, beyond a pledge to revise tax laws which inhibit religious groups from political advocacy, and a newfound concern with student loans. It was daughter Ivanka’s speech that had the greater substantive heft, promising her father would push for new labour laws to help working mothers, and for affordable childcare in the US. Neither are traditional Republican positions, but the crowd seemed on board for anything Trump might offer.

He even had them cheering for LGBTQ rights, after recalling the tragedy in Florida last month, and the need to protect gay Americans from a “hateful foreign ideology” in radical Islam. “It is so nice as a Republican to hear you cheering for what I just said,” he commended the delegates in an unscripted moment. But whether they had really embraced this unexpected message – or if it was the anti-terror chaser that really got them on their feet – remains to be seen. In either case, it was a rare grace note in an otherwise bruising speech.

Presenting himself repeatedly as the candidate of “law and order,” Trump evoked Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. At a time when American cities were erupting in race riots and protests over the Vietnam War, Nixon had pitched himself as the face of stability and security. Likewise Trump has reacted to the simmering racial tensions and terrorist attacks this summer with a hard-line stance on “lawlessness.” “Safety must be restored,” Trump said, in one of the eerier lines he delivered. Yet in his convention speech, Nixon had balanced his tough talk with a positive message – speaking of love, courage, and lighting a “lamp of hope” in partnership with the American people. 

Trump channeled another president in his speech, too, when he promised to give voice to “the forgotten men and women of our country” – drawing on the language of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had promised to aid “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” during the 1932 campaign. But Roosevelt’s solution to the forgotten man’s distress was economic internationalism – tearing down tariff walls and trading freely with the world – which the Republican Party then opposed. Trump’s solution is the protectionist policies Roosevelt had railed against.

Trump’s economic and security philosophy is encapsulated in another, more notorious phrase associated with that era: “America First.” A rallying cry for isolationists seeking to avoid US entanglement in World War II, it acquired an anti-Semitic taint. But Trump has employed it nonetheless, capturing as it does his core argument that America must do more to protect its own citizens against threats from within and without – from illegal immigrants, from radicalized Islamic terrorists, from the downsides of free international trade. Little wonder that former George W.

Bush staffer Nicolle Wallace announced that the Republican party she knew “died in this room tonight.” In embracing elements of isolationism, protectionism, and nativism, however, it is perhaps truer to say that Trump’s Republican party reverted to an earlier form.

Often disconcerting, at times mesmerizing, the question remains how effective this speech will be. The delegates responded enthusiastically to Trump’s fierce rhetoric, but many prominent Republicans had stayed away from the convention altogether. Combined with Senator Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement, Trump goes into the general election campaign without a fully united party behind him. For both partisans and the public, Trump’s speech offered a cast of villains to rally against, but no positive, unifying vision to rally behind – beyond the much-touted yet elusive “greatness,” of course. In a typical election year, that would seem a critical flaw in a campaign – but Trump loves to confound the naysayers. As his convention speech showed, he thinks the formula that got him this far - showcasing his fame and fanning Americans’ fears – can land him in the White House.