Reaction to Obama victory shows growing Tory confidence

Downing Street thinks this is may be their lowest point. And it isn't too low.

In case anyone missed the news that David Cameron was pleased to see his buddy Barack Obama re-elected, Downing Street released a photo of the Prime Minister chatting with the newly re-mandated Commander-in-Chief:

(It'’s a phone call, so you can only see Cameron and have to imagine Obama smiling affectionately at the thought of the future summits he'll spend in the company of his most essential strategic partner.)

The significance of the US election to the Cameron project has been heavily analysed and spun. (There are interesting pieces on the subject here, here and here. I also touch on it in this week'’s column here.)

In brief, the good news angle for the Tories is that an account of Obama’'s victory –- incumbent overseeing tricky economic repair job wins second term to complete task -– rehearses the campaign Cameron wants to run in 2015. The bad news angle is that Romney was ahead in opinion polls on measures of economic confidence but way behind in responses to the kind of “"understands people like me”" proposition that Cameron also struggles with.

Plus, the Republican image as overly concerned with the interests of rich white rich men is a hindrance that has certain resonance for the Tories. (Although that can be sold as good for Cameron, since it empowers him to slap his own right wing down a bit.)

In reality, the US election simply isn'’t that important to British politics. We obsess about it because American democracy is fascinating, it’'s a powerful country that matters to the rest of the world and the players have the courtesy to speak our language so it is accessible as spectator sport. 

One of the interesting things to observe in the UK aftermath of the poll is not the result itself but the licence it appears to have given top Tories to be visibly optimistic. The positive interpretation of Obama’'s win outlined above requires all sorts of caveats, not least the fact that Cameron might yet have to fight an election with an economy that has made people feel poorer, in which case a “let-me-finish-the-job” proposition rings pretty hollow. Yet the Conservative high command clearly feels it has turned some kind of corner.

That is certainly the impression I get from loyal MPs and ministers who, while wary of celebrating the emergence of green shoots, are ready to sound cautiously upbeat about both the economy and their prospects for victory in 2015. One factor informing that view is the feeling that Ed Miliband hasn’t capitalised on his relatively successful annual conference. They see no sign of momentum or surge of project-building energy –- no radiation of collective charisma –- from the Miliband camp.

Tories fully expect to lose next Thursday’'s Corby by-election, but even that doesn't seem to be getting them down. That is because they see most of their current woes as symptoms of a generic mid-term malaise and not necessarily irreversible structural weakness. 

Andrew Cooper, the Downing Street pollster, has a presentation that he gives to cheer MPs and party staffers up on this subject. It involves looking at long term trends in incumbent/opposition relations over time, with special attention paid to periods when the Tories are in power.

What tends to happen is that the party in office loses popularity, takes a real opinion poll pasting in the middle of the parliament, then recovers in the run-up to an election until it is within reach of victory. According to this analysis, the Tories are better off now than they were in the mid-80s. To make this model work you have to discount the period 1997-2005, when the Conservatives were behind in the polls almost constantly. That is explained away by claiming that Blair was a unique candidate, barely Labour at all in many traditional respects and the Tories were in a particularly dark place.

In other words, it was an anomalous time, whereas now normal cyclical service is resumed. The Conservatives are in power facing an untrusted and not entirely plausible Labour opposition. They are a bit behind –but who would expect anything else, especially given the economic circumstances. Arguably, they are nowhere near as far behind as they ought to be and there is plenty of time and capacity to bounce back. So, the pep talk goes, this is the bottom for the Tories and it isn’t all that low down.

Privately some senior Labour folk agree. One party strategist commented to me recently that “the Tories won'’t be losing much sleep over their poll ratings at the moment.”

Of course, this could all be wildly hubristic on Downing Street'’s side. There are plenty of public sector cuts yet to kick in which could suck demand out of the economy and produce gruesome social effects that reinforce the “nasty party” image. International economic turbulence is never far away. European divisions remain ruinous to the party’'s image as an effective force in government. The Tories’ well documented problems winning votes in the North and Scotland and among non-white communities haven’t gone away.

But Downing Street’'s hope is surely that a bit of confidence in the prospects for 2015 will promote discipline in the ranks and a virtuous cycle of unity and an aura of governing competence. (There is a solid core of MPs who remain implacably, viscerally hostile to Cameron but the appetite for harmony in the rest of the party is quite strong and impatience with the wreckers is growing.)

A steady spell of non-chaotic, half-way dynamic administration, coupled with positive GDP and unemployment indicators could see the situation quickly looking rosier for the Tories. More important, it would look bleaker for Labour, provoking another round of doubts in Miliband’'s capacity to animate an election-winning project and an explosion of disunity in the opposition ranks.

I don'’t say this is what will happen, just that it is a scenario the Tories think plausible and that allows them to feel upbeat enough to look at events across the Atlantic and put a quite fancifully positive spin on them. They may not know how to win, but they don’'t yet feel as if they are losing.

Barack Obama and David Cameron at Camp David earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times