Hope and Inspiration

How Barack Obama inspired Jonn Elledge, a former Hillary supporter.

I need to confess something. Five months ago, I couldn't stand Barack Obama.

During the primaries I was rooting for Hillary. Partly this was because of her character and intelligence, but mostly it was simply because I have rose-tinted memories of the last president who wasn't chronically incompetent. From that point of view, Obama was an irritant: an upstart who clearly didn't have enough experience for the job, and whose name was too funny and whose skin too dark to win an election.

Once he got the nomination, I fell in line, if only because of a heartfelt desire to see the Republicans suffer for eight years of incompetence, ignorance and greed. (You know Sarah Palin thinks Africa is a country, by the way? True story.) And as I learnt more about his biography, his policies, his intellect, I began to come round to the idea that Barack Obama might just do a good job of this.

But any lingering doubt I had about whether he was the right choice would have been erased by a conversation I had two weeks ago in Pennsylvania.

When we pulled into a gas station in Erie, Luther, its elderly black owner, was hunched over three huge boxes stuffing envelopes. His eyes unaccountably brightened when I told him I was a British journalist.

'You wouldn't be the journalist who wrote that piece saying that Americans should vote for Obama to show how much progress they've made, would you?' he asked. I wouldn't. Boris Johnson would. Luther had photocopied the mayor's Obama endorsement two hundred times and was sending it to everyone he could think of. Because he wanted to believe the claim that - with hard work and intelligence and perseverance - his grandchildren had as much of a chance of being president as the white kids next door.

Because for the first time, being black didn't exclude him from the American dream.

President Obama will inevitably prove a disappointment. No one could live up to the huge expectations placed on him, and in six months time the thousands of t-shirts bearing his face will be completely unwearable. (What, after all, could be less cool than to go round with a sitting world leader on your chest while he ducks questions about the budget deficit?)

But his campaign promised change, and it promised hope. And if he achieves nothing else, he's already delivered those.

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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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