Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The President's coattails

The election of Barack Obama was a transformative event of profound significance for the world. Another revelation has been the actions that the new President has taken since 20 January. Simply put, President Obama has been radical and he has been bold. With the swipe of the Presidential pen, he consigned Guantanamo and torture to the dustcan of history. He has pushed through an unprecedented economic rescue package. He has capped the pay of senior executives at rescued financial institutions. He has "pressed the reset button" on relations with Russia. He has talked openly about reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. He has extended the hand of friendship to the Muslim world. He has done more good in six weeks than George W Bush managed in eight years.

This is all well and good for the US and for the wider world. It is interesting, however, to consider how the actions of this visionary, radical but pragmatic President will impact on the Labour Party here in the UK. It strikes me that each and every dynamic act shows that our Labour Government can act with greater boldness and radicalism. The President is an inspiration to left of centre politicians and should be a jolt to the system of many Governments, such as our own, which have too long sought out the safety not of the middle ground per se, but of governing in a an overly technocratic way.

What President Obama is showing is that morally courageous political leaders can win popular support. Obama has entered office to shake up the establishment which has so clearly failed ordinary people. There is a danger that our Government, no matter how honourable its intentions, and notwithstanding its many achievements for the disadvantaged, has become part of the establishment. This is perhaps an occupational hazard. The Government too often is at its boldest when pushing through establishment measures like replacing Trident, or a new runway for Heathrow, rather than pushing through some radical policies designed to tackle the important issues facing Britain. In an age when the establishment has obviously failed in its collective responsibility to monitor and control the excesses of the financial markets, this is a tendency we must guard against.

In contrast, and perhaps imbued with the good fortune of not having been in power while the seeds of the present malaise were being sewn during the boom years, the President is showing that it is not only possible, but sometimes necessary to criticise the establishment. He is breaking barriers down if they impede the path towards taking the steps necessary to make the changes we are all crying out for. He is being proactive and strategic.

Despite some notable successes in being one of the first countries to recapitalise banks, our Government still gives the impression of being reactive. There is a danger that only when an issue becomes of such public concern that outrage flares up (as with foreign workers two weeks ago, or immigration more generally) does the Government act. A case in point is that they must have known there would be outrage about the paying of bonuses to near-nationalised banks, and yet only now, in the face of widespread public opposition to they act - or should I say, commission another report.

The President shows that it is possible to talk about nuclear disarmament without sounding weak. He is breaking New Labour taboos with almost every breath. What next?....criticism of the excesses of the financial elite...already done (in the inuagural address). What about the environment? The Americans are actually going to do something to generate jobs in the green sector. Despite recent positive steps, Britain still lags behind countries such as Germany when it comes to generating green jobs or investing in green technology.

President Obama's audacious gambits on the domestic and international fronts must be an inspiration to left of centre political parties the world over - including our own Labour Party. We are still not presenting a coherent vision for the future. Nor are we showing, as does the President, an understanding that ordinary people want a Government resolutely on their side at this time of crisis. There can be no equivocation. All the years spent appeasing the interests of the City have led us to where we are now. Whether or not the fault lies ultimately with the American banking system, or with bankers the world over, the boom has turned to bust. The onus is on Government to build a firmer foundation for the recovery and they will hopefully follow in the President's coattails. Mirroring the pragmatic idealism of this US President is surely the kind of behaviour which most British voters would support.

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