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Richard Reeves: Obama’s victory holds no lessons for UK

November 9, 2012

What can British politicians learn from Obama’s victory? The short answer is: nothing. A slightly longer answer: almost nothing.

I realize that every columnist and pundit has lined up to give their take on what the US election ‘means’ for Blighty. But that’s because the pundits and editors were themselves obsessed by the US campaign, and felt the need to justify their obsession by writing the ‘what it means for Cameron/Miliband/incumbents/progressives’ pieces.

(You can be sure the wall-to-wall coverage in the UK of Obama’s victory will not be matched by anything remotely similar for any other country in the world – even the nearest European neighbours, who matter so very much more.)

Of course Ameriphilia is not a new phenomenon. The unrequited love of British politicos and journalists for their US counterparts has been around for decades.

I am sorry to say that the obsession is unidirectional. Britain is like a spotty adolescent, stalking a gorgeous girl only hazily aware of his existence. When Obama met Nick Clegg in September 2010, the President mentioned that he’d already met ‘the other guy’ – aka the Prime Minister and First Lord of Treasury, the Rt Hon David Cameron. Hurts, doesn’t it?

Much has been made of the Cameroons infatuation with Obama. But the truth is that the infatuation, not just with Obama but with US politics in general, is across the board. West Wing box-sets, volumes of Robert Kennedy speeches, campaign badges from 1996 – the paraphernalia of any self-respecting politico. Many of Britain’s most senior politicians have worked or been educated in the US. Gordon Brown was obsessed with US politics and history, and in particular anything to do with the Kennedys. He used to spend his summers on Cape Cod figuring out how to copy the Earned Income Tax Credit and reading – God help us – Gertrude Himmelfarb’s work on the Enlightenment. And I say all this as an Ameriphile myself. So much so that I’ve moved there. Married an American. I even went to the trouble of being born on the Fourth of July.

I am sure there are high-brow explanations for Ameriphilia: the shared challenges of managing Anglo-Saxon labour markets; an interwoven political heritage of Locke and Paine; historic military and diplomatic ties, and so on. My own explanation is simpler. US politics offers the chance to experience better-funded, slicker, funnier, more glamorous politics all without the bother of learning another language. We get Paxman; they get Letterman.

So, here are my three lessons on why there are no significant lessons from the US election for Britain:

1) Obama’s victory was down in large part to demographics. Latinos and urbanites are growing in number, and voted for Obama. Neither demographic trend is visible in the UK.

2) Obama’s victory was down in smaller part to rogue elements in the Republican ‘culture wars’. The medieval comments on rape from two GOP senatorial candidates sank their campaigns, but also rubbed off on Romney who had the whiff of the Fifties about him in any case. In the UK, culture issues around abortion, gay rights and gender equality have effectively been depoliticized by universal adoption.

3) The US election cost $6 billion. Most of this went on TV ads. The 2010 British general election cost £113 million, around $180 million. And TV ads are not allowed, except the rationed Party Political Broadcasts. Sure, the US has five times as many people. But they spent thirty-three times as much. US political campaigns are huge commercial enterprises; by comparison, British politics is a village cake sale. This is not a criticism: the US system is bonkers, quasi-oligarchic and massively wasteful. It is merely to point out that the money gap means that British and US politics are essentially different trades.

But I did say ‘almost nothing’. So here goes…The US election demonstrates that incumbents can win – even in difficult economic times – if enough swing voters can be convinced that the outlook is at least modestly improving. That’s it. Sorry.

Richard Reeves is an associate director of CentreForum and former director of strategy to the deputy prime minister.

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