Does Obama’s 2012 DNC speech make awkward reading for Cameron & Miliband?


Yes – but for different reasons.

It was quite a surreal experience watching the Obama speech a few hours after bumping into Ed Miliband and entourage on the platform of Stratford International after a day at the Paralympics. Poor Ed just didn’t ‘get’ Puffles & refused a picture with Whitehall & Westminster’s favourite dragon fairy. So Puffles’ friend Barry Gardiner is going to sort him out! (“Ed! You insulted The Dragon! Don’t EVER insult The Dragon!!!”) Twitter had fun with the #PufflesGate furore so it can’t be all bad. Actually, what do you do late at night on a crowded platform when a bloke & his dragon doorstep you? Exactly.

So…what about Obama then?

Vice-President Joe Biden for me made a reasonably strong speech given his reputation, setting out what felt like a very clear choice between two very different candidates. This also set the scene for Obama’s speech – which in terms of tone of voice and ease of delivery, few politicians in the UK can get anywhere near. Actually, few politicians globally.

The backdrop of the Olympics and Paralympics

“Inspire a generation” – and many were. You listen to Obama’s speech on the back of a month of amazingness from our Olympians and Paralympians, then look towards party conference season…and you ask who’s going to inspire us? Given that on the news there will inevitably be clips of Obama making speech after speech in the backdrop of the Olympics and Paralympics buzz…who’d be a mainstream politician preparing to make a very public speech?

The millionnaires vs the rest of us

One that may do some damage to Cameron and Osborne is the repeated message of ‘tax cuts for millionnaires vs tax cuts for everyone else’. This will inevitably be the one political opponents will seize on in party conference season over the next few weeks.

I don’t believe that another round of tax breaks for millionaires will bring good jobs to our shores, or pay down our deficit. I don’t believe that firing teachers or kicking students off financial aid will grow the economy, or help us compete with the scientists and engineers coming out of China. After all that we’ve been through, I don’t believe that rolling back regulations on Wall Street will help the small businesswoman expand, or the laid-off construction worker keep his home.

The above quotation provides a huge amount of material alone to play with. Firing teachers? Public sector job cuts. Kicking students off of financial aid? The scrapping of EMA. Cutting regulations on their big business paymasters? After what the bankers did? The more Obama presses home that point, the more damaging it could become for the Coalition – especially if they continue to be seen as on the side of the wealthy.

Education, Education, Education.

Obama’s entire section on education – in particular further and higher education will make awkward reading for Cameron, Clegg and Miliband as each of their parties now has a track record of either cutting back on funding in these areas, raising the costs to students or both.

Now you have a choice – we can gut education, or we can decide that in the United States of America, no child should have her dreams deferred because of a crowded classroom or a crumbling school. No family should have to set aside a college acceptance letter because they don’t have the money. No company should have to look for workers in China because they couldn’t find any with the right skills here at home.

The USA is seen to be investing, the UK is seen to be cutting – or transferring the burden wholesale onto students. This time last year Ed Miliband panicked with his £6,000 fees commitment. This autumn will be the first cohort of English students paying the new higher fees of up to £9,000. How many families are going to feel not only that they can’t set aside the acceptance letter, but be put off from applying in the first place? A debt of £50,000 for someone in their 40s is a completely different consideration compared to the same debt for a 16 year old who hasn’t banked the working & lifetime experience or qualifications.

Don’t blame it on the sunshine…

There was also a particular kick to the tabloid hate-columnists and some of the irresponsible language used by some politicians too.

We don’t think government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems – any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles. Because we understand that this democracy is ours.

That passage alone speaks volumes. I also could not see any senior UK politician reeling off a paragraph such as that in a major speech – sad to say.

Big Society – what ever happened to that?

Apart from being able to articulate the concept far better than Cameron, Obama pretty much made the point that ‘Big Society’ applies to business too – only Obama called it good citizenship.

We also believe in something called citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations. We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better. We believe that when a family can no longer be tricked into signing a mortgage they can’t afford, that family is protected, but so is the value of other people’s homes, and so is the entire economy.

This is the one huge gap in all of the speeches and literature about ‘Big Society’ – that businesses should behave responsibly to their communities. Another way to see it – and the way I see it – is that it differentiates between being pro-business and pro-market. The rubbish over-priced catering in the Olympics Park was pro-business. It benefited those businesses that purchased the artificial exclusive rights to sell their wares in the sterile zone. A pro-market approach would not have had a sterile zone in the first place, but would have auctioned the catering pitches (with an upper limit on the number of pitches per brand – tackling the franchisee issue) so that caterers would have had to have competed on quality of product, quality of service and cost, rather than on who could pay the most for the exclusive rights.

Isn’t this Ed Miliband’s “Responsible Capitalism”?

It could have been if there was any policy detail in the concept when first announced. More than six months after the first speech was made, the IPPR think tank published an article calling for more detail. Policy detail for me matters much more in the UK than it does in the USA because it’s the only thing that really differentiates the dominant factions in the three main political parties. One Nation Conservatives, Orange Book Lib Dems and New Labour all occupy a very close space on the political compass matrix. i.e. they may as well all be in the top right blue quater. In the USA on the other hand, there is very much clear blue water. Just ask any politically-aware woman who has been keeping tabs on the US election.

Where the stated values between politicians and parties are so great – as they are on women’s rights, you don’t need to explore the fine detail if you’re against the principle. For example take a proposal for bringing in a new offence in a party manifesto before an election. Do you need to discuss the detail of what the suitable punishment should be if you are against the offence being made law in the first place? You may need to should you lose the election, but not prior to it. In the case of Miliband, Clegg and Cameron, there are a whole series of values, assumptions and constraints that they have taken as given – as on spending, you have to focus in on the detail to find any differences. This for most people is not particularly inspiring.

So the problem for Cameron (and by implication Clegg) is…?

In this speech – and in many of the ones between now and November, someone very articulate and a very powerful and well-known public speaker is going to be going after some of the very interests that some of the public assume are related to the Tories – banking and finance in particular. Obama also knows – and if you read between the lines in his speech this became clear – that being pro-women’s rights against his current candidate is potentially a huge vote winner. With his previous opponents – McCain and Palin, one was regarded as more moderate, and the other, despite her policies, is a woman. Given the Coalition’s record of women in Parliament and in Government, the make up of Cameron’s Cabinet will be subconsciously brought up again and again.

The problem for Ed?

He snubbed Whitehall’s favourite dragon fairy As a public speaker he’s going to be delivering similar messages to Obama, but will he have the impact? He’ll want to go after the banks, he’ll want to go after the Coalition’s record in the same way Obama is going after his opponents’ records of blocking every other possible solution. Given Obama’s resonating rhetoric, will it put further pressure on him to deal with some of the vested interests that actually he’s quite rightly identified as being part of the problem but on which solutions he’s been conspicuous by his silence?

The problem for all of them?

Convincing a hostile and cynical public. We don’t have ‘approval ratings’ for party leaders at the moment. We have ‘disapproval ratings’ because for all three, the percentages of people who disapprove of them are far greater than those who approve. I don’t see this as something to be proud of either. I’m not gloating. It’s heart-breaking. Despite my criticisms I actually want politicians to succeed in making society, the economy, the environment and the world a better place for all of us. It was one of the reasons why I went into the civil service in the first place. I can’t tell you the buzz and excitement I felt when I transferred from a regional office to a Whitehall policy team in London – finally getting the chance to make a positive impact on people. Yet when politicians (and civil servants) screw up big time, people get hurt – sometimes killed. As Obama said:

If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million [cheques] who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote;…politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.

It’s for these and many other reasons that I choose to speak out – via this blog, Twitter, elsewhere. I hope you will too. Because if enough of us do, maybe we can stop some of the bad things happening –  such as the brilliant Everyday Sexism project is documenting in its depressing but necessary detail.


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