The 2012 US election is Bush-Kerry in reverse

Like the Democrats in 2004, the Republicans have over-estimated their instinctive appeal to voters.

So here's the situation. The sitting US president is an incredibly divisive figure. The challenger is pushing a single big policy issue, in which he believes he's at an unassailable advantage. And the opposition are so fired up with loathing for the president that they've convinced themselves they can nominate a gaffe-prone plank of wood from Massachusetts and still walk home to a win.

If all this is starting to feel eerily familiar to you, it might be because we've been here before. Back then, the parties were the other way around, of course, and the killer-issue-that-wasn't was defence policy, not the economy. But all the same, some aspects of this election cycle are starting to feel a lot like 2004 all over again.

Back then, when our biggest economic problem was how to pay for the Iraq War, the Democrats hated Bush. Hated him. And that hatred was shared by vast swathes of the world, so much so that most of British left spent the autumn of 2004 repeatedly clicking refresh on various US polling websites. "Kerry's gaining!" we'd tell each other, ignoring the fact he’d been trailing since the conventions, convincing ourselves that, okay, he’s behind now, but he has to win because, well, look at the other guy. Obviously they couldn't re-elect George W. Bush. Obviously.

What we hadn't counted on was that much of the Democratic Party was feeling much the same way. They were so convinced of their own righteousness that they'd chosen a candidate who was just, well, there. John Kerry wasn't bad exactly; there just seemed to be little reason to vote for him beyond "not being George W. Bush".

This, it transpired, wasn't enough. Even Kerry's killer argument – that he'd served in Vietnam, while Bush was passed out under a tractor or something, and was thus far better suited to being president at a time of national emergency – ended up being used against him. Republican sympathisers who claimed to have served with him attacked his war record every three seconds for about six months, and 'swiftboating' ended up joining Watergate and McCarthyism in the US political lexicon.

Compare that to the present. The Republicans are so consumed with loathing of Obama that they've lost sight of the fact it's not shared by everybody else. All the moderates think they're frothing at the mouth. The Dems have turned Romney's business credentials against him, by making it an argument about private equity ethics, rather than the state of the economy. And, like Kerry, he's utterly unable to connect with the voters. Plus there's the plank of wood from Massachusetts thing.

Elections don't follow neat patterns, of course, and there's still nearly two months to go. Anything could happen, and when we’re watching President Romney sworn in next January this might start feeling a lot more like 1980, or some other election, or like nothing that’s ever happened before.

But to me, right now, it feels very 2004. The opposition have over-estimated their instinctive appeal to the voters – and underestimated the size of the job ahead.

In 2004, a divisive president triumphed over a wooden opposition candidate. Will history repeat itself? Photograph: Getty Images.

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.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.