The Axelrod Effect?
What is David Axelrod doing for Ed Miliband and the Labour Party? There have been some sceptics questioning whether he’s doing anything at all. He may be doing a lot more than people are crediting him for and he is more than happy for it to be seen that way. This writer has a theory and would not be surprised to see this confirmed after the 2015 General Election.
The 2012 US Presidential Election was a comfortable win for the incumbent. Yet, it was never a foregone conclusion. The riskiest strategy the Democrats used was what won it for them in the end. Obama is no Left-Wing Populist, as per Elizabeth Warren and much of his party base. But he green lighted the plan to run a campaign of ‘Us versus Richie Rich (Romney)’. This was risky because the Republicans tried to portray this as the politics of envy and class war. Ultimately, the GOP candidate shot himself in the foot with his ‘47%’ debacle. The Democratic strategy successfully painted their opponent into a corner. The 2012 Election became, in parts, a nuanced Left v Right battle; the dividing line drawn by Obama, with Axelrod’s help, allowed for a clear differentiation between the incumbent President and his hapless challenger. Romney was outplayed from the start.
Now, let’s look at what’s been going on in the past fortnight. Ed Miliband has been campaigning hard on the issue of Tax Avoidance and Evasion. The Tories are seeking to have Labour tarred with the same brush; this may not be effective. Look at the company Cameron keeps and you have a gift for Labour that keeps on giving. Tax Dodging Tory Supporters are coming out of the woodwork. It is the old, perhaps inauthentic, but public battle of who is on the side of the people; who is really on the side of ‘hard-working families’? (In the US, the battleground is for the amorphous ‘Middle Class’).If Labour can make the Old Etonians look out of touch and habitués of a Golden Circle, then it’s very much advantage Miliband.
So where does David Axelrod come in? It looks like he is either behind or supportive of the 2012 Playbook Strategy for the 2015 British General Election. The political systems in the two nations are sometimes as different as chalk and cheese. Fairness and notions of what seems right are universal concepts though. Sometimes the most obvious line of attack is the one to be played. Axelrod is an astute political observer; he knows Miliband’s real and perceived weaknesses. But he also knows a strong message when he sees one; the campaign maven from Chicago may give Ed that extra push to get him into 10 Downing Street. ‘Axe’ knows the British print media is disproportionately hostile to his latest client and will seek to reach over the newspapers on key defining issues. When the post-Election books are published, we’ll know the real contribution that David Axelrod made to Miliband’s ascension to power.
The election of Syriza has put it up to the austerity-fundamentalists. In the words of the new Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, Greece should be able to negotiate a commercial bankruptcy just as any other commercial bankruptcy can be done. The country has been ravaged by years of counter-productive, swingeing austerity. Proponents of the slash and burn approach point to growth in the economy. This is of the old Vietnam War School of Economics; we have to destroy the village to preserve it. Of course there’s going to be growth once economic productivity has stopped falling; the only way is up.
There’s a strange, quasi-religious fervour to many of the austerity hawks; a moral judgement is being made on a whole country and peoples. Syriza face some really tough choices; it may come down to the country leaving the Euro. This could bring the whole house of cards down; Washington Consensus advocates will then really be hoisted on their own petards. As for the political leaders that have told Greece to go to Hell, they might do well to remember that the European Union consists as a social as well as an economic entity. The next few weeks will see if the austerity pushers are prepared to compromise and what could happen if they don’t.
The US President goofing around with a Selfie-Stick and mugging in front of a bathroom mirror provided some much-needed humour on the Internet last week. Obama was promoting Health Care Insurance registration and the people at Buzzfeed helped produce a funny video for just that. What was the (predictable) Republican reaction? The President is being Unpresidential! How dare he take time out of his busy schedule to promote his own policies! Who does he think he is, the President? Humour is the best way of undermining an opponent and if his critics just don’t get it, they don’t get it. In his own words, ‘Thanks Obama!’.
Freedom of speech outweighs the freedom to take offence: religious maniacs, terrorists and Jihadis have some gall to take protection in the West and then seek to destroy it from within. Their offence-seeking is pathetic if it weren’t so dangerous. What the Hebdo cartoonists did was offensive; if it offends you that your Omnipotent God is belittled by a drawing, and you think it’s acceptable to threaten to kill or then eventually murder your enemy, then you have no God, or at least you have a savage and vindictive one. Many international media organisations won’t reprint the most controversial cartoons out of fear of threats to their staff. On a basic level, who would you rather hang-out with: a bunch of piss-takers or a group of utterly ruthless zealots? Do we stand with the Mischief Makers or with the Jihadists? When it comes to binaries, there really is only one choice.
Islamic Fundamentalism is real. It is a minority point of view but growing due to compound malign influences; Saudi/Wahabbist-sponsored Madrassas pre-date both gulf wars and litany of hatred of Western values is pumped out from these ‘educational’ establishments. The recent BBC ‘Panorama’ episode shows that there is an alarming growth in extremism among young Muslim males in Britain. While the comparatively recent wars in Iraq and Israel’s shameful and degrading ‘war’ on the Palestinians are grounds for saying that events have radicalised a younger generation, Islamic Fundamentalist hatred of freedom of thought and expression was grounded in the Rushdie affair before the first gulf war. It is a longstanding hatred.
Which brings us on to the ‘Whatabouttery’ of the Cultural Marxists and Hard Left. Within a few short hours of pseudo-symapathy for the dead, the Hard Left started switching the blame away from a coterie of murderous thugs to, variously, the French themselves, Western Leaders in general, Racism (the concept) and the US in particular. These relativists looked increasingly more ridiculous with each new pivot; it seems they would rather the chaos of cultural and political collapse than the solidarity of Democrats uniting in opposing religious intolerance and barbarism.We can all go back to Cain and Abel to uncover the roots of violence but we need to accept responsibility for our actions, now. A Popular Front is always stronger in combating racism and intolerance than the sectarian strife supported by some on the Left.
Which brings us to France itself. The French state has a proud tradition of human rights at home, and a disastrous and – that word again – shameful – colonial past, But there is a democratic consensus that can and has come out strongly against intolerance, racial hatred and ‘balkanisation’ of race and religion. They can do this by upholding the values of the Republic; this includes respect for diversity, from all sides. There needs to be a further shunning of the National Front by all the mainstream parties; fascism and Islamic Fundamentalism need each other to thrive, both are repugnant to democrats.
The recent attacks show how precarious a democratic state can be. Two or three days of madness can have citizens asking fundamental questions about what holds them together.Voting is one such mechanism that keeps us joined at the sinews; we can all complain about a vote not making a difference or that they’re all the same or that the power structure can’t be properly changed from within. But if you don’t vote, they get in. In France, there are serious issues that can only be addressed through democratic consent and assent. French citizens need to, and will, stand by the Republic now more than ever.
We still have more that unites us than divides us; basic needs, altruistic aspirations and a higher evolved belief to do onto others as we would do onto ourselves.The ‘golden rule’ unites all religions and none. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights evolved out of the terrible destruction of two world wars. There is a strength in democratic solidarity; let’s not let the dividers win. Charlie Hebdo stood up to bullies and paid the ultimate price. Let’s stand up for their memory and their legacy. Vive La Revolution, Vive La France!
Britain at the Crossroads
And they’re off – again! This is surely the longest British General Election campaign in history; it seems to have been going on forever. Nobody knows the eventual outcome, of course, but the odds-setters are bringing the hung-parliament scenario back into play. Labour are still in the driving seat, despite attempts to turn Ed Miliband into a Neil Kinnock Mark-Two; perhaps the electorate have had enough of the Posh Boys for the last five years. Miliband may be an inside-baseballer but his roots are radical; Cameron may appear to be at ease with Middle-England but his instinct is for a Small State. For the Tories, charity and community can pick up the slack where the state used to. Austerity, for the deficit hawks, is a means to an end – the end being a Great Britain reduced to the lowest level of spending since the 1930s. George Osborne may huff and puff all he likes, but no amount of spinning can change the reality that Austerity Britain is a Two Nation solution. The North-South divide hasn’t been this stark since the nadir of Thatcherism in the early 1980s. Students of the Past will see the glaring similarities between the Great Depression and the Great Recession. This is a turning point election; whither Britain, Right or Left? The election is still Labour’s to lose and the least likely result is a Conservative majority. Prime Minister Miliband looks like the more probable outcome of Election 2105.
Close, and a Cigar
Although this writer predicted an Obama rapprochement with Cuba in the first administration, he, along with most other commentators, was surprised with tthe audacity and timing of the move. This is President Obama Unbound, unwilling to put up with anymore nonsense from the Republicans and to make a move none of his Democratic predecessors would ever dare make. The Castros have outlived and out served a panoply of American Presidents since the trade embargo commenced. The Miami Cubans have repeatedly had a block on this particular area of American Foreign Policy – there has been a veto on commonsense since the Cuban Revolution. So who has won? What price the restoration of neighbourly diplomatic relations? Cuba can rightly turn around as a small island and say that it has survived fifty years of economic blockade from the World’s remaining hyper-power. But the Cuban people have been on the back foot since 1989; the collapse of Soviet Communism would always mean a struggle for a relatively small island not rich in natural resources. For the States, it is the final moment of truth for same Hyper Power to admit that the blockade hasn’t worked and was economically, culturally and morally wrong. But actions speak louder than words; neither side will abase themselves, both can look forward to a peaceful coexistence promoted by the Obama Administration, Pope Francis and Raul Castro. In a year of a lot of bad news, this is something positive. In a contest where neither Cuba nor the US could be the ‘winner’, diplomacy has been the worthy victor.
Hope First, Then Money
To be given hope is to be given everything; to lose it, can leave a nation in despair. Austerity may be coming to an end in small areas of the European Union, but for most Euro Zone countries, modest or even sustained growth has come at an enormous price. That price has, in Greece, been the rise of fascism (thankfully, taken on by most of the Greek Establishment and the Left) and a Depression the like of which the country hasn’t seen since World War II. In Spain, unemployment is at an immorally high level, throwing hundreds of thousands onto the dole queue. France’s good life has been dismissed by the Anglo-German model as sclerotic. Italy is is still living La Dolce Vita when she can but is as broke as any other ‘sovereign’. The great hope for 2015 is that people in despair can see light at the end of a tunnel; that they will consider voting Left and Progressive and beware the siren voices of the Washington Consensus. The anti-austerity slogans may have come up against the dead hand of the Financial markets but that doesn’t mean opposition to the status quo should be dismissed as impossible due to circumstances beyond the control of the People. This is not an endorsement of the non-voting revolution but that of a democratic revolution; the vote is still the single most important aspect in our lives as citizens. We can change the system from within; it may be painstaking and incremental but without getting too Obama-esque, a voice of millions can be stronger than the voice of the few. If there is to be a revolution, let it be peaceful and just; our experiences of revolutions show that it is rarely either.
Problems for the MiliBrand
Ed Miliband is not taking his shellacking lying down. According to current opinion polls, he is the most unpopular Labour Party Leader since the 1970s and in popular parlance (due to being under attack from a right-wing media), he can’t catch a cold. He is in full Hamlet mode, facing a sea of troubles. Labour should, it is argued, be miles ahead in the polls at this stage of the electoral cycle. Worst of all, natural supporters are turning or have turned against him – we’re thinking of you, New Statesman – and are trying to label him a Gordon Brown Mark II. It has not been a good few weeks for Mr Miliband. The Observer’s recent front page splash suggested with most of his Front Bench willing to support Alan Johnson as an alternative leader that Ed’s days were numbered. To paraphrase ‘Pulp Fiction’, Left and Right are saying ‘Ed’s Dead Baby, Ed’s Dead’.
What are Ed’s actual weaknesses? Apart from him being human and flawed, there are two specific character issues that reside. A lot of the criticism centres around him not being an Alpha Male; it really does. Well, so what? The questions should be: will he make the right economic and foreign policy choices as Prime Minister and would he make better choices than David Cameron? Who would you trust more? Who would you say is more connected to the average citizen? Then there’s the Brother Question. This is slightly trickier as we’re dealing with unknowables here so let’s say what’s evident. There is no clear evidence that David would be a significantly more popular leader than Ed. There is policy evidence, however, to suggest that Ed is more left wing and less Blairite than David. Labour supporters need to recognise this.
Why the attack now? Lynton Crosby’s been planning this onslaught for months. If you don’t think the British Press is biased against Labour, just read the headlines and opinion articles. The Press has turned feral since Leveson and the Tories have played along with a lot of it; anti-immigrant, pro-plutocrat, and obsessed with finding ‘evidence’ to show that Ed Miliband is ‘weak’. The Labour Party Leader knows he will not get a fair shake of the dice; there’s six months of tabloid and broadsheet war to go, whether he continues as leader (as is currently likely) or is taken out in a coup. The phoney war is over.
Yet Miliband has strengths and can play to those. The first is to accept that Murdoch Press support is gone, possibly for a generation. Co-operate with them by all means, but don’t do them any favours. Instead, Miliband needs to re-stress the ‘One Nation’ strategy; appeal to above the 35% but emphasise equality rather than opportunity. In other words, tilt to the Centre-Left rather than Centre-Right. He has the mettle to stick with what’s right. He should be given that chance. Politics should be full of fallible people; it should be human. Ditching a leader mid-stream is a risk Labour Party MPs shouldn’t take; they can win forthcoming General Election and they need to believe it.
To Boldly Go
‘Interstellar’ is currently the number one movie in much of the World. It’s easy to see why. Not only does everyone need some escapism at least some time in their lives, they also need to think of something bigger than themselves. This capacity for imagination; thinking of what’s out there, of what’s possible, resonates with our situation on Earth now. We live in a politically uncertain World, one where market forces rather than human solidarity is the predominant driving force
for our human race. Good science fiction helps us look up from beyond our locked-in world view and enables us to become human again. Christopher Nolan manages to capture this extremely well via his protagonists; we see humanity at its best and worst and see, in that oldest dramatic conceit, a mirror up to ourselves. Our World and our lives are so precious yet we gamble with the very survival of the planet. Sometimes, the answer is in the stars; what made us, can be the saving of us too.
Obama and a Hostile Congress
How many times does it have to be said? The Republican Party is on a wrecking mission to degrade and destroy the legacy of the Obama Presidency. They’re determined to make the Lame Duck period start now. The President has an opportunity to take an ‘oh F*** it’ stance over the next two years and rule by Executive Order as much as possible. Unlike all of the Republicans, he’s been elected twice, nationally. He has the Bully Pulpit. Time enough to make that potential legacy stronger and live up to Paul Krugman’s eloquent description of Obama as a great President. The Chomsky line that Obama is some sort of PR Man for The System and a Projector of American Might doesn’t ring true, despite determined ‘whataboutery’ on the part of some of the Left. Obama can bend the arc of history for good; let Obama be Obama.
The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are the sensation de-jour garnering Tory defectors and increasing their support in the polls to become the de-facto ‘Fourth Party’. A group of erstwhile misfits dismissed as ‘fruitcakes’ only one election ago is now climbing ascendant. They are causing major disruption to the electoral calculus of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. They are making the political weather and look set to do so for much of the run up to the next General Election. Where lies the appeal in this quixotic party, hitting 15% in general polling, capable of holding the seats of defecting Conservatives at opportunistically called by-elections and maybe gaining even more in 2015?
Their main asset is their leader. Nigel Farage, a populist ‘anti-politician’, is seen by his supporters as a plain-speaking, anti-establishment man of the people. He is fluent in ‘plainmanspeak’, (despite being a pin-striped former ‘City’ worker), a language most politicians spend a lifetime trying to perfect. He addresses valid questions about democratic deficits in the European project; his solutions would not be the preferred options for most rational analysts, but he is right to question a drift away from subsidiarity towards the centre. Europe – the leaving of or staying in – will be a huge issue in the 2015 election.
Farage and UKIP have had several successes; the principal among these has been to put the Conservatives on the back foot over an in-or-out EU referendum. Cameron has been forced into a path that may see Britain out of Europe for a generation; if, and it’s a big if, the Tories win in 2015, and are unable to get their negotiated concessions from Brussels, then they’ll be leading the campaign for a ‘No’ vote. This would be manna from heaven for UKIP and Farage will not be overly disappointed with the unlikely event of a Conservative majority nextyear. Nigel Farage can see himself as the leader who brought Britain out of Europe; for good or ill, that would be an historic legacy.
But Farage is a typical politician in that he wants power; he’ll be planning for scenarios where UKIP hold the balance of power after the next election. He knows he can rely on the support of the increasingly jingoistic red-tops; Cameron is as loathed as Miliband by some of the Tory-supposed Fleet Street friends. His ambition is to be kingmaker; he knows (surely?) that he’ll never be Prime Minister but he can help build the next government and shape policy if his party picks up the 30-35 seats that the most optimistic predictions are saying they will. Or he can just turn the screw until April and force the Conservatives and Labour to harden their positions on Europe; total victory would be in getting Miliband to cave in to referendum demands.
There is a ceiling in the UKIP vote; they are developing saner policies in other areas, but they are still seen by most voters as a two trick pony, obsessed with ‘Europe’ and Immigration at the expense of bread and butter issues. If they are to be a successful catch-all party as opposed to a niche acquired taste, they will need to be more subdued about their rasion d’etre. But if they do dampen down the populism and become more generalist, they run the risk of losing their core support. We may already have reached ‘peak Farage’.
He still has to purge his party of the racists if he is to be taken more seriously. His economic polices are barely coherent and he really needs to raise the calibre of his spokespeople to grow his support. Some of UKIP’s ‘Front Bench’ are woefully unsuited to national politics (and dim to boot) and the party is still seen as racist by most ethnic voters. Having a ‘humorous’ song done calypso-style which jokes about immigration is woefully inappropriate for a serious political party. If they are serious, they can not align themselves with neo-nazi apologists in the European Parliament.
If UKIP can keep piling up the by-election coups – and there’s no sign in any let up with the Tory defection rate – they can keep up their progress right up until the general election. Farage is nothing if not a fighter and he will relish being the centre of attention over the next few months. If the new intakes like Douglas Carswell can defer to their General, he will continue to be the prime mover in his party.
UKIP were a joke of a political party in the 1990s. They are in the Poujadist tradition; Farage’s statements on integration and race are in some ways less insidious than the Tory dog-whistle ones; you know what you’re getting with him, however depressing and ‘Little England’ it might be. While the main parties will be saying ‘Vote Farage and you get Miliband/Cameron’, maybe when you vote Farage, that’s who you’ll get. For his heartland supporters, he is the heir to the Thatcher mantle, not Cameron.
The Scottish Independence Referendum lived up to all of the expected drama. As an exercise in mass political involvement, it may be unparalleled for the next 20 years. As a test of democratic robustness, it passed with flying colours. There may be criticism from the ‘Yes’ camp of BBC coverage and the media ganging up them but no blood was spilled, nobody died and while there are massive fault lines now after the result, the structures of civil society held. Yet while the Union stood firm-ish, it was never a sure thing; likely, but never definite.
The ‘Yes’ side can be justifiably proud of their result; they went well beyond the SNP core vote and their 45% outcome leaves them to believe they are within the ‘one more push’ territory to achieve an Independent Scotland. While many on the ‘No’ side were highly critical of some of their opponents ‘show us your patriotism’ school of nationalism, the overall picture is of a movement that mobilised the non-political and disaffected as well as the usual activist suspects. The involvement of the Scottish Greens meant that ‘Yes’ wasn’t dominated by one political party. It was a disappointing but massive result for the Independence side.
What of the prospective Father of the Nation himself, Alex Salmond? His leadership over the past two years demonstrated both his strengths and weaknesses. His strength was in being able to take the sheer strain of an ultra-marathon US-style campaign and inspire his side to within striking distance of his goal. His weakness was perhaps the weakness of all referendum leaders; he polarised the debate, painting his opponents and himself into a corner. All those on the ‘No’ side were portrayed as propagandists for Westminster rule. Salmond refused to entertain any (justifiable) doubts about a ‘Yes’ vote; if he’d said that Scotland might face short-term recession it would have been more intellectually honest. Instead, there was a refrain saying that any new settlement would be a land of milk and honey. Scotia Nova may well have prospered economically but no-one could know for sure. If Salmond had conceded that there were risks with independence, he may have pushed the ‘Yes’ vote even closer to victory. In the end, enough people just didn’t believe or trust his version of near future events. As such, it will be fascinating to watch the tactics and approach of the next SNP leader; will Nicola Sturgeon (the favourite for succession) reach out to voters and minds that Salmond was simply unable to reach? His legacy depends on what happens over the next two years; will Westminster honour or backslide on ‘The Vow’ and will it leave an opening for another go for independence in the next ten years?
Then there was the epic role of Gordon Brown. Derided and loathed by most of the Tory Press and widely seen as a failed Prime Minister, he came out fighting and delivered a week of storming performances that probably provided a knock out for the ‘No’ side. He is still hugely respected in Scotland and, the key word, trusted. His promise that the would be ‘Devo-Max’ (more or less) if the Scots supported him, swung votes and he has now staked his reputation on sticking to his word. He has said he will not take a future senior role in Scottish politics; many will try to persuade him to change his mind. He offers the strongest bulwark against a resurgent and reinvigorated SNP.
Boris Johnson has not exactly stunned the Westminster village by announcing his intention to run for parliament in 2015. Cameron has issued an enthusiastic, if ‘what else could he say?’ welcome for this. With less than a year to go before the next British General Election. Johnson has chosen his moment to strike. What is Boris playing at? What’s he up to then?
Apart from George Osborne and Teresa May, up steps Boris Johnson as Blonde Ambition himself, back to fulfil his destiny as leader until the next election and then, cripes, Prime Minister himself! As Private Eye might say; ‘there’s a turn up for the books, eh readers?!’
The man has style. He has successfully mixed right wing, Thatcherite free market mercantilism along with social liberalism and some nudges to the Left. He is, as politicians go, incredibly well known and popular. London should really be a Labour city; he has bucked the trend and won two mayoral elections in a row.
But nobody knows who’s going to win in 2015, let alone 2019 or 2020. Boris is in the frame now though and on past form, it would be foolhardy to bet against the irresistible rise of Boris Johnson.
Israel has a right to exist. It has a right to defend itself. It does not have a right to commit war crimes. What has happened in the recent ‘mowing the lawn’ operation contravenes all international law and humanitarian instincts. What is so devastating for American critics of Netanyahu and Likud in particular is that any criticism of Israel is wilfully misinterpreted as criticism of the Jewish People and therefore Anti-Semitism. These are insidious McCarthy-ite tactics and have been adopted by the Israeli Right since 1967; any attack on Israel’s policy is an attack on the Jews. This is patently absurd. If one is to criticise British or American Government, does that make one anti-British or anti-American? Or, if you’re critical of the Saudi Arabian regime, does that mean you’re anti-Muslim or anti-Arab? Or does is mean that by being critical of one side, you are uncritically supportive of the other? No, no, and no. The true Internationalist tries to uphold a system of universal human rights. But there’s also a recognition that we have a duty to interrogate any narratives that invert and subvert the truth. The ongoing occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands is a running sore in the Middle East. A two-state solution will ultimately have to be found, one that gives both sides security. This may not be possible for decades; but it helps nobody to argue that Israel is entitled to do whatever the state chooses to do, From this we get the old saw; might is right. This solves nothing.