Making the most of the Obama backlash

The Republican Party is celebrating success after two of its members won House seats in New York and

The Republicans are having a moment. And that's despite the fracas over Monday's presidential debate - when the would be candidates seemed intent on ripping shreds out of front runner Rick Perry.

Today the GOP must surely be popping open the champagne, after trouncing Democrats in not one, but two special elections for the US House of Representatives.

The Republicans had expected a win in the largely rural district in Nevada -- but not the size of the win, which was a landslide. And it's a state that's seen as key to Barack Obama's re-election hopes. And the Democrats suffered a rare defeat in one of their heartlands, New York -- as retired television executive Bob Turner triumphed in the seat formerly held by Anthony Weiner, forced out over a Twitter sex scandal.

Before the vote, House Speaker John Boehner had declared "This is not a district that Republicans have any right to believe that we can win" - in fact, it's the first Democratic loss in Queens or Brooklyn in a generation. Their 70 year-old candidate, whose career highlight was creating the Jerry Springer show, ran for the same seat two years ago, in his first electoral foray, and came a distant second to Weiner. This time, though, it was different: a triumphant Turner telling supporters "We're ready to say, Mr President, we are on the wrong track".

Although the more measured commentators are cautioning against a rush to judgement, these twin defeats are inevitably being interpreted as a backlash against President Obama, among voters fearful about the state of the economy, and sceptical about his leadership.

In New York, the figures could hardly be starker: the President's approval rating was a meagre 30 per cent -- and although the Democrats began with a financial advantage, pro-Republican groups poured cash and energy into their campaign, focusing on the decision to legalise gay marriage, a policy deeply unpopular with the seat's large population of Orthodox Jews.

But is it really possible to use special election results as a prediction of what might happen to Democrats across the country next year? Possibly not. Essentially they're snapshots of the popular mood, rather than reliable indications of a trend, and as Nate Silver, from the five-thirty-eight blog, warns -- "special elections are always difficult - they are low turnout, high intensity races."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Steve Israel was keen to play down the New York result, insisting they were "not reflective of what will happen in November 2012 when Democratic challengers run against Republican incumbents who voted to end Medicare and cut Social Security while protecting tax loopholes for big corporations and the ultra wealthy."

But according to Politico, the mood in a conference call among top campaign aides last night, was 'awful', quoting a source who said that "people feel betrayed, disappointed, furious, disgusted, hopeless". No punches pulled there, then.

On the record, House democratic whip Steny Hoyer was slightly more measured: "Do I think it's an overall statement on the president alone? No. Do I think it will be interpreted as being a statement on Obama? That's probably correct." And in more bad news for the party - labour unions were pretty much disengaged from the race, even in this heavily blue-collar district. Mirror that on a national scale, and the party really would be in trouble.

There's a glimpse of blue sky though, for worried Democrats: Obama's new jobs act - and the prospect of a reinvigorated President with a coherent message to sell. New York Rep Eliot Engel welcomed the reappearance of "the feisty Barack Obama, the one that we knew and loved and voted for in 2008".

The party will be hoping voters will start thinking likewise, and that the snapshot revealed in last night's special elections can be eclipsed by the political campaign ahead.

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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.