Can Barack Obama revive the spirit of 2008?

The return of the grassroots community organiser.

He was once hailed as the world's greatest celebrity but now the glitter is tarnished and the hero worship is barely anywhere to be found. So this week Barack Obama is going back on the road -- with just five weeks to save his Democratic Party from ignominy in November's midterm elections.

His blitz through four states is no ordinary road trip: this time the President is making a huge effort to re-discover the enthusiasm and the engagement that proved the key to his success in 2008. So there's just one rally, on Tuesday, to students at the University of Wisconsin, and a series of more informal meetings with "ordinary folks" in their own backyards.

This much more populist message aims to hit back at the Republican "Pledge to America" manifesto: and, as White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer put it, to show "why he thinks the direction the Republicans are pushing to go would be irresponsible, would be a mistake".

Instead the President will focus on the middle classes and America's public deficit, insisting it would be totally wrong to cut taxes and return to the Bush-style policies of the past, and what he's calling "the era of recklessness".

But policies aside, this trip is really meant to mark a return to the old-style Obama -- the grassroots community organiser, the one who spectacularly managed to to connect with ordinary people and fire up a political excitement they never knew they had.

It's an effort too to revive that coalition of young people and minorities that didn't just sweep him to power in 2008 -- but also seemed to usher in a completely new kind of politics, a kind based on inclusion and engagement and fuelled by the desire of individuals to make a difference.

And it's an attempt to turn around the political fortunes of the last 18 months, which has seen Obama and the Democrats beset by falling polls and disillusioned voters who simply don't want to turn out. As the Washington Post put it, Obama's much vaunted grassroots network is now "a shadow of its former self".

Latest polls in a number of key battleground states don't look good for the Democrats: as independent voters lean towards the GOP, while young people and minority voters say they're inclined to stay at home. Although "Organising for America" still has paid staffers in 50 states, trying to get out the vote and keep supporters engaged, there's a palpable "enthusiasm gap".

And hence Tuesday's speech to students in Madison -- trying to recapture just a little bit of the old magic -- and trying to get young people excited about politics again. It's being simulcast to 200 other campuses, with other youth events staged elsewhere, so there's no excuse to miss it.

Communications guru David Plouffe -- the man who forged much of the success story of 2008 -- is said to be behind the University of Wisconsin event, followed by three other old style mass political rallies in the run up to election day.

And meeting voters in their backyards is supposed to convince the country their President is not aloof and out of touch with the real problems they're facing in these tough economic times.

But it's all getting rather late for Obama to turn things around. Meantime there are murmurings about the effectiveness of the White House strategy team, who could once do no wrong, and some beleagued Democrats have insisted they don't want the President stumping for them right now, because it might just make things worse. It seems the old adage has never been more true -- the soaring poetry of campaigns is one thing, the complex and nuanced prose of government, quite another.

 

Len McCluskey. Photo: Getty
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Unite leadership race: What Len McCluskey's victory means

His margin is smaller than expected, but you only need to win by one. 

Come at the king, best not miss. And they did miss, albeit by a smaller margin than many expected. Len McCluskey has defeated Gerard Coyne, his Corbynsceptic rival, by 59,067 votes to 53,544 to remain as Unite's general secretary. Ian Allinson, running to McCluskey’s left, did surprisingly well with 17,143 votes.

A couple of things to note. The turnout was low – just 12.2 per cent – brought down by, among other things, the need to cast a postal vote and the view of the McCluskey camp that the smaller the turnout, the more important the payroll vote would be. But more significant is that Unite has shed about half a million members, confirming that it is anachronistic to refer to it as “Britain’s largest trade union”. That is, for the moment, Unison, a public sector union. (Unison actually had a lightly larger general fund membership by the close of 2015 but this decisively confirms that trend.)

The shift attests to the bigger – and neglected – story about the labour movement: that it is getting smaller, older, and more concentrated in the public sector. That’s a far bigger problem for the Labour party and the labour movement than who leads Unite or the Labour party.

That aside, the small margin is a shock – as I wrote last month, Unite is quite well-run these days, so you’d make McCluskey the favourite even before factoring in the ability of the incumbent to make life easier for himself. Most in the trade union movement expected McCluskey to win and win well for precisely that reason. As one senior official from another union put it: “Jaguar workers are earning more because of Len. That’s what it’s about, really.”

So the small margin means that Coyne may be found a role at the TUC and gently eased out the door rather than removed hastily. (Though the TUc would be highly unlikely to accept that arrangement.)Ian Allison, however, will be less lucky. One McCluskey loyalist said that the leftist would be “hunted with dogs” – not only was Allison expected not to do well, allies of McCluskey believed that he had agreed to tone down his campaign. Instead Allison's success contributed to the close-run result. (Unite uses first past the post to decide its internal contests.)

What does it mean for the struggle for control within Labour? Well, as far as the finely-balanced national executive committee is concerned, Unite’s nominees are elected at annual conference so any changes would be a way off, in any case.

The result does however increase the chances that Jeremy Corbyn will be able to stay on after a defeat. Removing Corbyn would mean handing control back to Tom Watson, with whom McCluskey's relations are now at an all time low. “I think there’s a feeling of: you came for me, you bastard, now I’m coming for you,” a trade union official says. That means that the chances that Corbyn will be able to weather a defeat on 8 June – provided Labour retain close to what one figure dubbed the “magic number” of 200 seats – have now considerably increased.

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

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