In this week’s New Statesman: Obama’s Second Chance

Will Obama deliver this time around? Or will he just keep hanging on? PLUS: Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ savior, Douglas Alexander on Obama’s ground game, and Kate Mossman on Thriller at 30.

“Although there was no repeat of the euphoria that greeted his victory four years ago, the world still has good reason to be grateful for the re-election of Barack Obama” say this week’s leader. But with a divided congress and a looming “fiscal cliff” ($607bn worth of tax rises and spending cuts due to come into effect on 1 January, 2013), will the President be able to achieve all he promises in this second term?

“On the economy, as in other areas, Mr Obama must hope that the Republicans, no longer preoccupied with defeating him, will instead seek to work with him. Should they prove willing to do so, there is potential for the president to make progress in those areas where he disappointed during his first term.”

Douglas Alexander: Obama’s ground game, avoiding the fiscal cliff and thoughts of President Gore

In The Notebook, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander writes from America in the waning days of the race towards the US election. He reflects on the message and methods behind the president’s 2012 campaign. He also considers possible directions for Barack Obama’s foreign policy, the “fiscal cliff”, and Labour’s relations with the Democrats:

Sure, the economy has been tough, but despite that the Democrats were widely judged to have had a better convention than the Republicans and left Charlotte, North Carolina, with a clear poll bounce. Yet this contest went right down to the wire. How did that happen?

Apart from a weak first presidential debate, most Democrats are blaming the lack of a clear campaign message. This weakness seems strange, not least because Obama demonstrated four years ago what a powerful communicator he could be, something we glimpsed again in his victory speech on the morning of Wednesday 7 November . . .

Anyone who thinks Obama’s re-election has no real influence on British politics should ask themselves this: how different would Tony Blair’s premiership have been if Al Gore and not George W Bush had won the White House as well as the vote in 2000? There is relief – and pride – about the result in Labour ranks, especially about the countless Labour activists who went as volunteers to learn and contribute. Mitcham and Morden CLP alone took 31 volunteers to help in Ohio.

Back in 2002, Bill Clinton told the Labour conference, “It is fun to be in a place where our crowd is still in office.” “Our crowd” gets back together next week when Clinton visits London. I’m hoping he might even hint at the name of the 2016 Democratic nominee.

 

Boris Johnson: Do “whatever it takes” to get Lynton Crosby on the Tory campaign

In this week’s NS Profile, Andrew Gimson takes a look at Lynton Crosby, the “rough-tongued” Australian campaign manager who pulled Boris Johnson from the brink, and who the Mayor says must be put at the helm of the Tory 2015 campaign at any cost. It’s one of the few things on which the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London seem to agree. “A close observer”, Andrew Gimson writes, “compared No 10 to a country house where everyone is very friendly and polite but no one knows who is in charge . . . Almost everyone is fed up with this situation. The Tories want to be told what they need to do to win the next general election, and they think Crosby can tell them.”

So what is it about this still largely unknown strategist that so appeals? Gimson explains:

He is a witty, foul-mouthed, workaholic election addict, with deep insights into political strategy and a ruthless eye for the other side’s vulnerabilities: he likes nothing better than to peel voters away from opponents by forcing them to defend positions that will be unpopular with their own supporters. His appearance may be that of a nondescript man in his mid-fifties, but his talents have made him one of the most successful behind-the-scenes political operators of recent times.

Johnson credits Crosby and his bullish strategy with winning him his first London mayoral race. He tells Gimson that, despite doubts by some in the party, the Tories should get Crosby on board for 2015:

He was “an absolutely brilliant campaign manager”, Johnson said. “I’ve never known anyone so good at motivating a campaign.” He had “a thing called the pink cardigan”, and “all these hordes of young people working for him”. At the end of each day, he would throw the pink cardigan to someone who had “monstered the Labour Party or done something particularly distinguished”.

Johnson recalled how, one evening, “I tottered to the end of a gruelling encounter with some Tory London councillors. I tried feebly to motivate them on various themes, and I was leaving them at about 9.30 at night, feeling rather wan about things, and I got a text from Lynton which said: ‘Crap speech, mate.’ ”

. . . Johnson told me the Tories should do “whatever it takes” to hire Crosby to run the 2015 campaign: “Push the boat out, break the piggy bank, kill the fatted calf.”

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Michael Newton: The assassin’s creed

Historians and newsmen often grant a macabre fame to political assassins and depict them as figures who have changed the course of world events. From Vera Zasulich in Russia in the 19th century to the murderers of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and John F Kennedy, Michael Newton’s sweeping NS Essay examines the psychology of the “archetypal assassin” and considers the role of ego in their deeds:

None of the young conspirators imagined that the assassination [of Franz Ferdinand] would provoke immediate war between Serbia and Austria; as for their deed sparking a worldwide conflict, it was beyond their powers to conceive such an outcome . . . They had aimed at
a symbol, the embodiment of all their frustrations. They were too young and too naive to grasp fully the potential consequences of their actions; they were in love with the heroic deed, and their bloodily rose-tinted imaginations could not picture anything beyond that fair vision: at the trial, [Nedeljko] Cabrinovic remarked, “We thought that only noble characters are capable of committing assassinations.” Their most pressing motive in murdering the archduke and his wife was the desire to share in that nobility . . .

The assassins of the past 200 years were besotted with action, the power of deeds. It was part of the thrill of such action that no one could foresee to what it would lead . . . The assassin worked in a spirit of vanity or anomie: either conceited by an impression of their own potency or buoyed by the awareness of their own insignificance. The assassin embraced their victim’s death and their own, and both inspirited them with the weightless emancipation from the burden of having to live at all.

 

Terry Eagleton: Is God an Englishman?

In this week’s lead books feature, Terry Eagleton reviews Our Church, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s personal history of the Church of England. “Scruton is homesick for the medieval England of Piers Plowman,” he writes. “He seems not to know that it was . . . a place of filth, fanaticism and excruciating torture.” Eagleton argues that Scruton has succumbed to Romantic prejudice and that “one suspects that this maverick intellectual is as fervent as he is about belonging because he will never really be able to”.

Eagleton adds:

The Anglican church, according to Scruton, is “a part of England, and an immortal projection of England beyond space and time”. God himself is an Englishman, a Daily Telegraph-reading deity, “uncomfortable in the presence of enthusiasm, reluctant to make a fuss, but trapped into making public speeches”. It’s surprising he didn’t send his son to Eton, rather than dump him among a lot of Palestinian fishermen.

For Scruton, Christianity is a mixture of purity, patriotism, Romantic nostalgia and a patrician flight from the everyday . . . His dewy-eyed history of England is more scrubbed and sanitised than a modern surgeon’s knuckles . . . For many years, Scruton was far smarter than his own extravagant Romantic prejudices. Now he has succumbed to
them wholesale.

 

Kate Mossman: The boy in the bubble

Our Critic at Large this week is Kate Mossman who looks at Thriller, the album that changed the world of pop as we knew it. It’s been 30 years since Michael Jackson released the album and began his assault on the white pop establishment. “The album exits in a bubble,” Mossman writes, so dazzling that Jackson’s later deterioration “next never enters your head”. She writes:

No one knew quite what to say when Jacko died in 2009 at the age of 50. Some saidthey “saw that coming”, which is also what they said about Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse. It seemed disingenuous – if anything, all three had been conveniently, temporarily forgotten like the madwoman in the attic. Perhaps the world is now ready to accept, all over again, that Jackson was the greatest pop star who ever lived. He broke the race barrier, redefined the pop video and forged a sound so pervasive that it can be heard in the songs of Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and a whole host of twentysomethings who were not even born during his glory years . . . The record that achieved all these things was Thriller . . .

One of the reasons Thriller still sounds so brilliant today is that what came next never enters your head. The record exists in a bubble – it remains a Technicolor, transformative experience that seems to come from a more distant age in entertainment, when the product mattered more than all the lives that went into it. You can watch any of those great Hollywood movies without thinking about Joan Crawford’s coat hangers, or Charlie Chaplin’s taste for teens, or the real-life madness of Vivien Leigh.

 

Also in the Critics

In Books: William Cook on an edition of Mary Whitehouse’s letters of complaint to broadcasters in the 1960s and 1970s; Emma Hogan reviews John Batchelor’s biography of Alfred Tennyson; Anita Sethi on Ali Smith’s essay collection-cum-novel Artful; the philosopher Simon Blackburn reviews Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel and finds the author giving succour to creationists and fans of intelligent design; the BBC’s environmental analyst Roger Harrabin on The Carbon Crunch by Dieter Helm; and Toby Litt raves about Julian Cope’s Copendium.

Elsewhere: Alexandra Coghlan on the pianist Ben Grosvenor at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London; the NS theatre critic Andrew Billen on Damned by Despair, This House and The River; Rachel Cooke on the BBC’s Dickens update for television Nick Nickleby; Antonia Quirke on the sacking of Danny Baker from BBC London 94.9; Ryan Gilbey on Ben Affleck’s thriller Argo; Thomas Calvocoressi visits a new gallery in the Parisian banlieue; and Will Self investigates “giraffes” for Real Meals.

 

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Both Labour and the Tories have decided the 2017 election was a victory

As Westminster heads for the beach, at least one party is on course to look very foolish.

For the second time in seven years, Westminster heads for the beach after an election that no one won.

Jeremy Corbyn went into the election looking for “brilliant defeat” and he got it – a triumphant advance for him and his party, and with it, the Labour leadership for however long he wants it. Now most of his party seems to have remembered the brilliance, and forgotten the defeat.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a thriving cottage industry among the right-wing commentariat that is very keen to remind us all that Labour lost the election. This is certainly true, but it's also true that the party turned around a catastrophic picture as far as both the polls and local elections were concerned, and emerged with an electoral map that, unlike the grim vista Corbyn inherited from Ed Miliband, suggests that defeat for the Conservatives might be accomplished in ten months not ten years. So, yes, not a defeat of the Tories. But still a result with something to cheer for Labour.

The version of history being spun by the leader's office: that the 40 per cent of the vote Corbyn got in 2017 is part of the general unravelling of the English-speaking establishment that we saw with the votes for Donald Trump and Brexit, and that the tide of history is moving their way, isn't implausible. Certainly, I'm yet to meet anyone at Westminster willing to bet large sums of money that Corbyn won't end up in Downing Street these days.

Team Corbyn at least have something resembling a narrative. On the Conservative side, what looks to be happening now is that a large chunk of the right has told itself what went wrong is that they didn't talk about austerity enough, and that a bunch of 30- and 40-somethings decided to vote Labour because of something Corbyn said about tuition fee debt in the NME.

It's true that the new operation at Downing Street has proved that it can successfully drive the story in the right-wing press. Labour's flat-footed response to the non-story did expose vulnerabilities in the opposition's set-up. But while showing they can launch a rocket of any kind is a big step up for the post-Cameron Conservatives, it should worry that party that they don't seem to have noticed that this one didn't have a ballistic payload attached. Labour may be better prepared next time.

The contrast with 2010 is marked. As one minister pointed out to me recently, after that contest, centre-right think tanks bustled with activity and ideas. Conservative Party conference was full of suggestions about what they'd do if they won a majority. An extensive post-mortem into “what went wrong” – after an election in which the Tories gained 97 seats in one night, a post-war record for that party – occurred, both publicly and privately.

It might be that I'm not as fashionable as I was two years ago, but I was invited on to more panels discussing how the Tories could do better after the 2015 election, a contest they won, than I have in 2017, after an election they lost. Policy Exchange, that old generator of Cameron-era ideas, seems to be focused on foreign policy nowadays. As for the rest of the right-wing think tanks, they are almost entirely devoted to position papers telling us all that Brexit is going brilliantly.

It's not entirely fair to say that after 2010, the Conservatives recognised they'd lost and tried to fix it, while Labour decided the 2010 election had been a type of victory and tried to re-run it in 2015, but there is more than a grain of truth in that statement. At the moment, it looks as if both parties have decided that the 2017 election was a victory and that “once more, with feeling” is all they need to get over the line next time. At least one side is on course to look very foolish. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.