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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses