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Shadow cabinet fact-finding missions across the pond

Recess has allowed a few key figures the chance to attend the US conventions.

By Rafael Behr

One of the very few consolations of political opposition is the time it affords to think. The pace of government often precludes development of new ideas and dispassionate pondering of the situation. The point at which ministers tend to get a new perspective on things usually coincides with the moment they are sacked. Hence the quaint convention of the “summer reading list” – the titles that it is recommended MPs read by the pool in their precious few weeks of leisure: a new biography of an eminent Victorian; a book by an American neuroscientist promising a revolution in economics and society encapsulated in a single abstract noun (e.g. Banality: Why Saying Nothing is the New Everything); the much-praised diaries of a witty but ultimately unsuccessful politician, recently retired or deceased.

But the real hardcore do not satisfy themselves with reading books about politics and economics on their summer holidays. Oh no. The truly dedicated take the opportunity, when things get quiet at Westminster, to immerse themselves in other countries’ politics. Lord Steward Wood, one of Ed Miliband’s closest advisors and a highly influential figure in the shadow cabinet, is currently at the Republican Party National Convention in Tampa, Florida. He is also going to the Democratic Party gathering next week in Charlotte, North Carolina. Also at that jamboree will be Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary.

America has always had a unique hold on the imaginations of British politicians and the current generation at the top of the Labour party have all passed through US colleges. Ed Miliband took a sabbatical from his time in Gordon Brown’s treasury to teach at Harvard. Ed Balls was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard after graduating from Oxford. Douglas Alexander studied for a year at the University of Pennsylvania – and worked on Michael Dukakis’s failed bid for the White House.

It isn’t yet clear what Labour’s top brass hope to learn from sitting in the stands in the opening rounds of this year’s presidential election. There isn’t any doubt about which side Miliband will be rooting for. (The same cannot be said for David Cameron – as I noted here.)

The tone and structure of American political debate seems ever more removed from the kind of discourse that works in Westminster. The macroeconomic dividing lines about debt, deficit and stimulus are not dissimilar; the deep lagoons of culture war venom are wholly alien. But then the main reason top British opposition politicians go to visit US political conventions is pretty simple: because it is great theatre, because it is fascinating and because – unburdened by government jobs – they can.

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