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

Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty Images
Show Hide image

What does our latest poll mean for the Labour leadership race?

Jeremy Corbyn is ahead among councillors - and looks ever more certain to become Labour's next leader. 

This morning the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University released its last set of polling data of Labour councillors in marginal constituencies’ prior to the election of the new leader.

It’s certainly a limited enough snapshot but in broad terms the data suggests four things. Firstly, that Jeremy Corbyn will win the leadership. Perhaps no great shock there at this point. But Corbyn’s slight lead in our poll of only two points or under above Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham masks the fact that he has picked up over 11 per cent of councillors since June - whilst all other candidates have lost support here. Given his reputation as a centraliser, it is remarkable that Corbyn is also neck and neck with Andy Burnham as the candidate councillors believe ‘would be best for local government.’ If he’s just about won over this tough crowd it may indeed be game over.

Secondly, the £3 registered supporter experiment is viewed as a damaging one by many within the party. With almost six in ten councillors thinking it should be ‘scrapped ahead of any future contest’ compared to just over one in four seeing it as a positive, there may well be clamour to reform this model going forward. Whether Corbyn will want to challenge the legitimacy of a reasonable proportion of his backers is one thing, but he would likely have some support in doing so if others were to press the issue.

Thirdly, on whatever mandate Corbyn is elected the good news for him is that key councillors clearly back Corbynomics. His plan to create a regulated and publicly-run service to deliver energy supplies is backed by 78 per cent of councillors who either “strongly agree” or “agree” with the policy, while 77 per cent support nationalising the railway network as soon as practicable. Introducing a 50p top rate of income tax is backed by 79 per cent of councillors, while 73 per cent agree with a “mansion tax” on homes worth over £2million. Most of those individually poll well amongst the electorate, though the 75 per cent of councillors who think scrapping tuition fees would aid the Labour vote in their constituency are out of kilter with the only one in six members of the general public who support that measure.

But lastly, perhaps most crucially, the rub is that less than two in ten councillors surveyed think Jeremy Corbyn will win the 2020 General Election. Even amongst councillors pledging to vote for Corbyn that figure tops out at six in ten.

Our data aside, Corbyn’s medium term challenge will clearly be enormous, as they would be for any new leader. For one, Labour’s current core vote just doesn’t turnout in enough numbers – not only in terms of voting for Labour, but at all. In 2010 and 2015 Labour’s most successful demographics were the semi-/low skilled working class (40 per cent to 31 per cent over the Tories in 2010, 41 per cent to 27 per cent in 2015) and ethnic minorities (60 per cent to 16 per cent in 2010, 65 per cent to 23 per cent in 2015). Turnout for both these groups is at least one in ten less than the national average, and barely bobs over one voter in two generally.  

Instead, in 2015 the most likely people to vote were men over the age of 55 (79 per cent), the middle class (75 per cent), or property owners (77 per cent). And so Jon Cruddas’ reviews’ conclusion that Labour has fallen behind on the average Prospector vote – those who ‘vote pragmatically for whichever party they think will improve their financial circumstances’ – has much resonance. The grey middle class might not be the sexiest of demographics, but they often decide elections. Miliband may have gained 12 per cent more 18-24 year olds (turnout 43 per cent) in 2015 than five years earlier, but the fact that he managed to do 8 per cent worse than Gordon Brown’s 2010 performance with the crucial over 65s (turnout 78 per cent) put the final chisel in the Edstone.

Perhaps if you give young voters a “radical alternative” they really will turn out – though worth recording that turnout amongst under 25s at the ‘real choice’ election of 1979 was the lowest either side of the majority Labour governments of 1966 and 1997 – but there are no guarantees. All this is a challenge for Labour per se however, not just Corbyn.

For the bookies’ favourite himself there are some specific complications. Big ticket policies like People’s Quantitative Easing have been queried by fellow leadership candidates (to declare an interest, while I am a Kendallite, I wrote a report arguing for a much truncated, one-off form of People’s QE in 2012), though it is just about backed by councillors in our survey. Corbyn’s foreign policy choices of threatening to leave NATO (rejected by two thirds of councillors) and scrapping Trident (rejected by a third) are also likely to be controversial. And the sum total of a left leaning agenda – as Ed Miliband discovered – is often less than its constituent parts. If Jeremy Corbyn is going to become the first opposition leader since 1906 to gain a full parliamentary majority whilst pledging to raise the top rate of income tax, he’s got a lot of work to do.

But our survey suggests that he’ll get the time to do it. If our data suggests Corbyn is at present unlikely to be Prime Minister, for all the talk of an early coup against him, he looks in a strong position to at least contest that election. And that remains an astonishing rise.

Richard Carr is a Lecturer in History at the Labour History Research Unit (LHRU), Anglia Ruskin University. The LHRU has today released new polling data on the Labour leadership. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the LHRU, the kind councillors of all parties who took time to answer the survey, or Anglia Ruskin University.

Our Partners