Obama's disunited states

It would be a mistake to regard the result as a sweeping endorsement of the Obama presidency.

So what was all that fuss about? Voters and pundits wanting a good night's sleep should have double-checked the final opinion polls and the exits and gone to bed safe in the knowledge that Barack Obama would be re-elected by a surprisingly convincing margin.

That was one of the stories of a great night for the pollsters as well as for Democrats and liberal America. By extension, the President's decisive defeat of Mitt Romney was a stunning reverse to Republicans who had insisted that the polls underplayed their score. The GOP had confidently expected to at least take Florida and Virginia and to run Obama to the wire in Ohio. It didn't happen. The President swept the board of the key swing states. In the event, of the states that made up his total of 365 electoral college votes in 2008, Obama ceded only two - Indiana and North Carolina to Romney - romping home with narrow but clear victories in, amongst others, Virginia, Colorado and the ultimate bellwether states, Ohio. While Florida will be recounted after a mere 46,000 votes separated the two main candidates, Obama still holds the load and will probably claim the state.

It is also a personal triumph for Obama and for liberal America. The Obama-care health reforms are a political revolution that few thought a Democratic President could get through Congress against well-funded opposition determined. The rights of women, gay Americans and minorities have also been protected. The two Republican Senatorial candidates who became embroiled in scandal after making incendiary remarks opposing the termination of pregnancies resulting from rape were heavily defeated.

At the weekend, Victoria Yeroian, President of the Young Democrats at Virginia Commonwealth university, passionately described the importance of the Affordable Care Act and legislation on gender pay discrimination. By contrast, one Republican canvasser in St Petersburg told me on Monday that "Obama care forcing everybody to be equal is just wrong", arguing instead that she had been forced to sell her house to pay for her husband's healthcare and that others should do the same. It is huge breakthrough that healthcare in America will no longer be based on the ability to pay and in time opponents, as well as supporters of Obama-care, will recognise its value and justness

But it would be a mistake to regard this as a sweeping endorsement of the Obama presidency. It is not just that the two candidates were separated by a fraction over one per cent in the popular vote but the fact that the results reflect an America that is deeply divided politically, socially and economically. Obama's winning coalition was based on reaching out to latino voters. The President picked up 70 per cent of Latino voters, over 90 per cent of African-Americans, as well as a majority of women and university educated voters. However, most white Americans voted for Romney with a large majority of male voters backing the Republican.

In fact, after an election process in which the two camps have spent a combined $6bn including $700m on television adverts in the swing states alone, the reality is that little has changed. Indiana and North Carolina were the only two states to change hands compared to 2008. Meanwhile, the Democrats increased their majority in the Senate by picking up two seats but failed to make any inroads into the Republicans' 25 seat majority in the House of Representatives.

With the Republican hard-right indicating that they will continue to oppose anything and everything that the President touches the political deadlock that has paralysed Capitol Hill for over two years will not be broken if Obama does not reach out to the remaining moderate Republicans. If he can do this, the Democrats will reap the rewards. For all the animosity between Democrats and Republicans, most voters want a bipartisan approach that can break the legislative log-jam in Washington.

Without a radical change of mindset and culture, it is difficult to see how a Republican candidate will be able to secure the presidency. The Hispanic community, in particular, is increasing rapidly, now accounting for over 10 per cent of the population. On the basis of the current demographic trends, America will cease to be a majority white country between 2040 and 2050.

The division between white and black and brown America also created an unedifying spectacle in a number of counties in the likes of Florida, Ohio and Virginia, with a string of accusations and lawsuits against state Republicans over allegations that voters in predominantly African-American and hispanic communities were being blocked or delayed at polling stations. At precinct 135 on the outskirts of St Petersburg, Sharon Hodgson, Vice-Chair of Pinellas Democrats, was in no doubt that the tactics were a cynical attempt by state Republicans to stop black and hispanic people from voting. The undoubted attempts by Republicans to suppress voting were and are a shameful stain on American democracy.

After the polls closed, I spent about an hour at the post-election party of the St Petersburg Republican party. The several hundred campaigners and local candidates were polite, committed, and almost exclusively white and middle aged. Aside from two waiters there was only one black man in the room, while a handful of unhappy looking children behaving themselves in their Sunday best brought down the average age into the 50s. In a country of minorities, the GOP can simply no longer afford to be a white-person's party. The Republicans remind me of the Tory blue rinse brigade - their base support is simply too old and too white to win.

But, for the moment, who cares about the GOP's doomsday scenario and the tightness of the popular vote? Wednesday is a great day to be a liberal in America.

Ben Fox is a political reporter for EU Observer

Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Mali and Shasa arrive to board Marine One in Chicago. Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.