Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Obama v Blair

I defy you to find a Brit who didn't automatically superimpose memories of 1997 on the events in Washington yesterday. The superficial parallels are so obvious: a widely despised and unpopular government comes to an end, a clutch of new and apparently untainted faces come to the fore promising the end to ideologically driven policy and to focus on 'what works'. What's perhaps surprising, given these echoes, is that so few British commentators have succumbed to the temptation to cap the analogy with the obvious after-story of our massive national disillusionment with Blair...

It's true that Obama seems a more substantial individual than Blair - he appears to be an orator, not a sound-bite merchant with a gift for PR. But this alone can't explain why such an obvious analogy hasn't been pursued to its logical end.

I think that there is a political difference in their situations. New Labour's support in 1997 was very broad indeed - but it wasn't very deep at all. It had determinedly turned its face away from its core sociological constituencies and had attracted the voting preference - but not necessarily the ideological commitment - of Middle England. (I've blogged about this here). When Blair frittered away that wide support in vicious wars and technocratic 'reform' he had nothing to fall back on. New Labour seemed doomed before the economic meltdown, and may yet be so despite its best efforts at presenting 'hang onto nurse for fear of something worse' as a strategy to the electorate.

But Obama doesn't just represent new, fresh non-ideological policies to the American people the way Blair did here in 1997: the hundreds of thousands who packed Washington yesterday came to see the fulfilment of a long, long struggle for civil rights and racial emancipation. His support is deep as well as wide because it has historic and sociological roots.

Which, with all due respect to my Compass friends, is why New Labour hopes of hitching a ride on the Obama band wagon are going to be sadly misplaced. & also why I find myself in unexpected agreement with the sensible wing of the Socialist Party on how the left should relate to the new American administration.

1 comment:

  1. Charlie - it's an interesting point. Obama has almost a paradigm shift to ride in a way that Blair didn't.

    TB won partly be being seen as a gradual change from the Tories rather than anything dramatic.

    The extraparliamentary right-wing has been significantly weakened immediately prior to Obama's accession, and he also has the unusual advantage of a comparable shift in the Senate away from Republican dominance at the same time.

    From a lefty point of view, this is all good news I think. Almost makes one want to put aside worries about the hugely heightened expectations, dunnit?