Now it gets really dirty

In the wake of Super Tuesday, Andrew Stephen predicts the gloves will now come off in the race for t

So we lost the 2008 US presidential election. The world, I mean. Whether it is to be President McCain or Obama or Clinton - or any of the couple of other Republicans just about still standing after Super Tuesday - US foreign policy, at the very least, will remain much the same.

True, Obama and Clinton are both committed to trying to end the war in Iraq, while McCain says that it could easily go on for, well, at least another 100 years.

But otherwise things will tick on much as before; no less an authority than the Washington Post, for example, scrupulously went through the respective foreign policies of Barack Obama and McCain’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney, and concluded there was very little difference between the two.

Had America’s voters wanted a significant change in US foreign policy, in fact, they would have voted for Republican Congressman Ron Paul - the likeable Libertarian who, at 72, is too old to care what people think and freely lambasts the US for ruining both the world and the country itself by its “imperialism” and insistence on having an “empire”. Needless to say, Paul scraped together just about four per cent of the vote in the Republican caucuses and primaries last Tuesday.

Should Iraq not flare up again between now and November - and, either way, that could help McCain and the man who may have earned the Republican vice-presidential candidature last Tuesday, Mike Huckabee - the last remaining battle is between a 60-year-old woman and a 46-year-old bi-racial man, fighting to be the Democratic nominee who will oppose a 72-year-old Republican for the White House.

I wrote last week how Karl Rove and his fellow warlocks and witches had brewed their pot in 2000 and ‘04 and come up with the “v-word” (values) as the Republicans’ highly successful mantra. This year, Obama’s very own Rove - David Axelrod, senior partner of AKP Message & Media, the Chicago company which is masterminding Obama’s campaign - has come up with a brand-new, albeit just as meaningless, word.

This time, it is the “c-word” - change - that has now become Obama’s mantra. Indeed, exit polls last Tuesday showed that Democratic voters now consider “change” to be the most important issue in the election this year. “Change is coming to America,” roared Obama in his victory speech in Chicago last Tuesday night. “This fall...we have to choose between change and more of the same. We have to choose between looking backwards and looking forwards.” Hillary Clinton, he went on, will not be able to say he voted for the war in Iraq in 2003. Er, no, she won’t: but then Obama wasn’t in the Senate to vote either way, was he?

I suspect the gloves will really now come off between Obama and Clinton until the Democratic nomination is settled - which, just conceivably, might not be until the Denver convention in August. Super Tuesday was so massive that it drained both candidates of funds, but last month alone Obama raised $37m; Goldman Sachs, which made $6bn profit from devalued mortgage security in the first nine months of last year, is Obama’s biggest corporate contributor. Exit polls, too, confirmed that Obama is the candidate of the yuppies: practically every voter earning less than $50,000 voted for Clinton rather than Obama, and those in the $150-200,000 range plumped for Obama.

The ageist and sexist cards, too, are working well so far for Obama. Exit polls showed that 51 per cent of voters between 18 and 44 voted for Obama, compared with 46.5 per cent for Clinton; by contrast, a majority of the rest of the electorate went for Clinton. Just 37 per cent of Democrats over 60 voted for Obama, in fact, compared with 53 per cent for Clinton.

Possibly more crucial, though, is that the Latino vote - currently the fastest growing bloc of the electorate, with 17 per cent in McCain’s state of Arizona and 23 per cent in California - went overwhelmingly for Clinton, by 74-25 in New York. All of which suggests that the Democrats are heading for a bruising and, quite possibly, vicious battle. Hillary Clinton has already challenged Obama to four more debates, which he will now find practically impossible to reject; the wind is currently behind Obama, but that could easily change in this era of YouTube when one wrong word can instantly smash a political career to smithereens.

McCain, for one, has a notorious hot temper that could boil over any time between now and election day on 4 November. He will have other troubles, too. “Maverick” is such a cliché to describe McCain that I’m almost embarrassed to do so, but it captures him perfectly because it explains his cross-party appeal as well as opposition within the Republicans.

He can sound frighteningly like Dr Strangelove yet, having himself been tortured by the Vietcong as a POW in Vietnam, is 100 per cent opposed to American torture of prisoners and wants to close Guantanamo - though we can surely rely on the military and CIA to dream up new, hitherto unthought-of forms of torture - but he also wants to step up the military onslaught on Iraq and “win” the quintessentially unwinnable war.

A President McCain would also keep George W Bush’s ludicrous tax cuts for the very rich, but is one of the few Republicans ready to act on climate change. Heaven knows how he would justify his fiscal promises should he be president in the looming domestic recession.

So far it has been self-promoting right-wing clowns like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who have openly opposed McCain - last Monday, Rushbaugh devoted an entire programme to anti-McCainism - but that disaffection is now likely to spread, albeit more surreptitiously, throughout the party’s Establishment. Coulter even says that if McCain is the candidate and Hillary her opponent, she would rather vote for Clinton.

That would be one more woman’s vote for Hillary, who - extrapolating from last Tuesday’s results - has the Democratic working-class, Latino and women’s votes sewn up. Obama will now be playing the youth and c-word cards for all they’re worth, though.

It took me aback on voting day when I realised that an 18-year-old I know who was voting for the first time was just one when Bill and Hillary Clinton entered the White House in 1992; if Hillary wins two terms in the White House, 40 per cent of Americans will have known only presidents called Bush or Clinton. Nature also helps Obama, too: he looks much younger but will will be 47 on election day, four years older than JFK was when he became president.

Just as McCain has benefited from a wildly supportive media - the Project for Excellence in Journalism says that he won twice as much favourable publicity as either Huckabee or Romney - so, too, Obama has received overwhelmingly positive coverage from a press that has yet to lay a finger on him - probably, I suspect, because most reporters fear they will be labelled racist if they query his qualifications or suitability for the White House. Instead, the media has torn into Bill Clinton; it’s gone down in political lore, possibly forever, that Bill Clinton began a poisonous injection of racism into the Democratic contest on behalf of his wife.

Yet ironically, if there is one good thing you can say about Clinton, it is that he is not a racist; he was actually brought up in rank poverty surrounded by African-Americans, while Obama spent his formative years surfing in Hawaii. Yet Obama is constantly described as an “African-American,” a term used in the US to describe a black person whose ancestors were imported to be slaves from Africa. By that definition, Obama is not an African-American - but it has all been part of Obama’s cleverly crafted strategy to present himself as both black and white whenever it suits him most.

This became obvious in his first post-election victory speech at Iowa on 3 January, which he described as “this defining moment in history” and said, “you know, they said this day would never come”. That a man in suit-and-tie would win a caucus in Iowa? Or because he was bi-racial? He has since used those same words in letters appealing for funds, one of which fluttered through my letterbox the other day - but not one reporter, to the best of my knowledge, has dared asked him why his victory was so historic.

Then he preached at Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta about how “my daddy left me when I was two years old...and I was raised by a single-parent mother ... and I needed hope” - true if you discount his Indonesian step-father and then his well-off white grandparents in Hawaii, who effectively became his parents when he was 10.

Last month I described Obama’s cleverly choreographed media events in Kenya, when an old lady widely described as his grandmother was produced. A few days ago, it was time for more photo-opportunities in El Dorado, in the heart of the frozen plains of Kansas, where his white maternal grandfather was born.

“Thank you for welcoming me back to the place my family called home,” he roared, failing to mention that he had never once been to that place before. Tavis Smiley, the legendary black broadcaster, says that blacks are sceptical of Obama because he does “not have a long-standing relationship with the black community.”

Professor Cornel West of Princeton, likewise, criticises Obama for beginning his campaign in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois, rather than a symbolic place of racial healing like Martin Luther King’s church. The evil legacy of slavery is seared so deeply into the American consciousness, though, that last Tuesday the African-American vote nonetheless went almost entirely to Obama.

So what next? Despite Obama’s record fund-raising last month, the Clinton campaign still has more cash in hand ($50.5m) than Obama’s ($36.1m). Conventional wisdom is that Obama’s impetus will now give him the edge in forthcoming caucuses and primaries, but a painstaking analysis by the Washington Post concluded that Clinton will benefit most. There was something for both sides in last Tuesday’s votes, after all: Obama won the most states, but Hillary won hundreds of thousands more votes.

Super Tuesday II comes on 4 March, when the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio go to the polls. Then comes Pennsylvania on 22 April, and such is electoral fever that it’s already too late to book a room in Harrisburg for that date. Should no clear winner have emerged by then, the Clintonistas will start furiously arguing that votes by Democrats in Florida and Michigan should count, which party rules currently forbid - or that the states should go back to the polls, which this time would be within the rules. The fun, my friends - as John McCain would say - has hardly started.

Election 2008

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Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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