Loving Obama

Observations on British primaries

It's Saturday afternoon, and Asmeret Semere, a 24-year-old administrator for a London-based loans company, is braving the rain to take the "Obama Boat" from Waterloo to Greenwich. Standing on Waterloo pier on the south bank of the Thames, she is wearing a huge badge with a picture of a grinning Barack Obama and has a carrier bag stuffed with home-made Obama placards and posters.

"This is my favourite," she says, pulling out a hand-painted sign that says "UK For Obama" in colourful lettering. She helped to organise the Obama boat ride through the online social network Meetup.com. "We're going to wave our placards on the boat to let London know how special Obama is," she says.

David and Kori, a young British couple, have brought their kids along to "yell our support for Obama". Marilyn McDonald, a Wisconsin-born woman who now lives in London, is heartened that Brits are campaigning to "raise awareness" about Obama. She argues that he is "intellectually international. He's drawing support from everywhere, including here on the Thames."

Meet the British Obamaphiles. More and more young Britons are signing up to the campaign to get Obama elected as the Democratic presidential candidate, and eventually as president of the United States. Working mainly through Facebook and Meetup.com, these Brits have joined forces with Americans based in the UK to spread the "Obama message" and to encourage Americans in Britain to cast absentee votes for him.

Some are super-dedicated. In February, Asmeret Semere took two weeks off from work ("my own holiday time", she says) and spent nearly £1,000 of her own money travelling to California to campaign for Obama.

Kate Samuels, 29, is a freelance business consultant. She is helping to organise the "UK Loves Obama!" rally, due to take place in London on 20 April. She flew to Chicago for a week in March to work on the official Obama campaign - and she plans to fly out again in October, at her own expense, if Obama wins the Democratic candidacy.

But Samuels denies that she's a wide-eyed member of a personality cult, or an "Obamabot", as the senator's supporters have been derided in the US. "The reason I support Obama is political, not emotional - he's the best man for the job of president."

British supporters of Obama are drawn to him because there is no political party or movement in Britain that inspires them. "I want to change the world," says Samuels, "but when I look at what has happened to the Labour Party - my party - I get so angry. Obama is doing what I would like Labour to do." When I ask Semere if she would spend £1,000 and travel 3,000 miles to campaign for, say, Nick Clegg, she raises an eyebrow and says: "What do you think?"

If there is a political brain drain taking place as bright, sparky, politically ambitious young Brits devote their time and energy to getting Obama elected, it reveals at least as much about the dearth of political inspiration in Britain as it does about the attraction of Obama.

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Food crisis