I loved Obama's speech unreservedly. So there

Obama gave a well-written, brilliantly delivered, and - for the US - subversive inauguration speech. Why was the reaction of many UK progressive commentators so hysterically cynical?

I sometimes get the sense there is a widely-held belief that dissent is inherently more intelligent than approval. Twitter is a good demonstration of this. Say anything – make the most uncontroversial, most incontrovertible statement you can think of – and seconds later somebody will pop up with sophistry about why it is as terribly wrong as wrongetty wrongness can be. It is the currency of the world.

This is the only way I can explain the hysterically cynical reaction of UK progressive commentators to Obama’s inauguration speech, on Monday. While I joined hundreds of millions around the world watching one of the most important speeches of one of the most powerful people, my timeline was littered with “boos”.

The general tone was yeah, yeah, yeah words are cheap (not their words, mind you, only Obama’s words), this is only rhetoric – his actions are right-wing, tweeting articles about his terrible record in the Middle East, environmental issues, the use of drones. All valid criticisms. All setting the reality of his last presidency against the rhetoric of his speech. All raised at the wrong time. All ignoring what was happening right at that moment.

We would all be falling over ourselves to congratulate a Hollywood actor or Church of England archbishop for delivering the very same speech. Even though neither has real power to do anything about it. Even though their speech is likely to be heard by a tiny proportion of the people who heard Obama’s words yesterday. So, which is it? Do words make a difference or not?

Because the reality of that moment was that his brief was a rhetorical one. What is required of a President in his inauguration speech is – have you guessed it yet? – a speech. And it was a bloody well written, brilliantly delivered, historic speech. That is what passed these commentators by, while their own jeering was ringing in their ears. I applaud you for taking him to task over his policy failures. I do the same. But is it too much to ask we start on Tuesday and treat this seminal occasion with the joy it deserves?

If I had told you ten years ago that a black man would be standing on Capitol Hill delivering an address which spoke kindly and fairly about women, ethnic minorities, gay people, action on climate change and free healthcare, you would have laughed at me with the same cynical sneer that curls on your lip as you read this.

Rooted at the core of this discontent are fundamental misunderstandings about US politics. A failure to understand the task faced by a President with no majority in the legislature. You define Obama as right-wing, but fail to see that this is only according to arbitrary fictional standards. Within the reality of what is politically possible in the US, he is practically a subversive. If all he manages to leave behind is healthcare for hundreds of thousands who had no access to it before, marriage equality and a chink in the impenetrable armour which resists gun regulation, he will have been on balance a very good President indeed.

What would you rather? That he came out and made a speech about the dangers of immigration, shirkers versus strivers and drawn curtains? Only last week you were explaining how damaging this sort of language can be, when used by our PM. And yet, when one of the most important people in the world uses his most visible rhetorical platform to speak in the language of hope and fairness, you slate him nevertheless, because you predict he’ll do nothing.

But he already did something. His words set absolutely the right tone to his second term. His words will make it a tiny fraction more difficult to bully the gay or brown kid in schools everywhere. His words will make it a tiny fraction more difficult for our PM to continue using the language of fear. His words warmed the heart of this olive-skinned, immigrant poof.

Two weeks ago many of the same people were up in arms about three words used by a columnist in the New Statesman. We recognise the capacity of words to oppress and hurt. Why not their capacity to lift and heal? Which is it? Do words make a difference or not?

Actions speak louder than words, or so it goes. That doesn’t mean words don’t matter. Well-chosen, passionately spoken words have the power to change people’s hearts and minds. I may not always be on board with Obama the President. But Obama the Orator is a different matter. It saddens me that so many cannot tell the difference.

President Obama on the platform in front of the Capitol Building for his second inauguration. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.