Saturday, 31 August 2013

Obama has lost his way. And the world is a more frightening place.

President Obama is a true enigma. He falls into the intellectual camp of US Presidents, which in modern times has been predominantly Democrat and largely progressive. He will always be remembered for his incredible achievement in becoming the first-ever African American leader of the USA. And yet...

After seeing off Mitt Romney in last year’s election, Obama should be buoyant. Things hadn’t been good economically for the US in the aftermath of the financial crash and to triumph in spite of all that was fantastic. But we don’t see a confident victor. On the contrary. We are presented with a nervy, vacillating, agonising figure, who has now become embroiled in a developing fiasco over Syria.

A word of advice to world leaders. If you worry that people will cross your red lines, then don’t paint them in the first place.

When the first evidence emerged of Assad’s regime using chemical weapons, the President was desperate to say that it should all be looked into very, very slowly. So the vicious Syrian dictator saw that the famous red line was no trip wire. It was possible, he calculated, to act with impunity.

When the recent attack happened, it was on a scale that no one could ignore, although there was still a period of 48 hours in which there was a fair bit of head scratching and navel-gazing. Eventually, Obama and Secretary of State Kerry were stung into action and decided that something had to be done.

But the political pressure at home in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan is immense. When Obama gives interviews on Syria, he feels obliged to present any potential strike as the defence of American national interests, whereas actually the only logical justification for military action is as a humanitarian gesture and a deterrent to the tormentors of innocent people. Anything he does will be ‘narrow’ and ‘focused’, which could very easily be read as useless. If the missiles strikes when they come fail to destabilise Assad, then they will probably make the situation worse.

The comment threads online from the US are truly fascinating. Beyond the usual crowd of nuts who just hate Obama and everything he stands for, there is a fierce strand of strident isolationism. Why should we sort out other people’s problems? Why do we have to be the world’s policeman? Let them all go to hell.

Well, the reason America has to be the world’s policeman is because there would otherwise be a vacancy. I don’t like it any more than the next person. But no policing means anarchy.

The Russians act as the dozy, corrupt sheriff who pretends he hasn’t seen the crimes committed by his friends in the local saloon bar. The Chinese are pretty distant from a lot of the issues, preoccupied with local territorial disputes, domestic politics, the management of their powerhouse economy and international trade relations. And without those two nations on board, the United Nations is completely bankrupt as an institution. Its Security Council is paralysed by the Russian and Chinese vetoes.

The only solution – as in Kosovo – is a coalition of the willing. But then we find that it’s actually a coalition of the dithering. The UK parliament vote was absolutely extraordinary. While it is perfectly legitimate for MPs to vote against military action and speak up for the concerns of their constituents, Cameron had already conceded that they were NOT voting on the question of military force. He made it easy for them to come out and say in principle that they held Assad accountable for his despicable actions. But they couldn’t even manage that. Cameron looks like a fool and, yes, Miliband looks just a little bit like the ‘copper-bottomed s**t’ they paint him. In the long run, I don’t think either man will gain from what has happened in the past week.

And now, the dithering is catching. Obama – looking for two or three days like a relatively decisive leader who’d stand on principle – has decided that he needs the backing of Congress before giving the order to his troops. There might be another week or ten days for Assad to plan his response to what is now the most telegraphed military operation in history.

Of course, Congress will ultimately back the President. But members will come under immense pressure in the meantime from their constituents, who don’t like the idea of the Syrian escapade one little bit. And the very fact that the whole thing notionally hangs in the balance makes Obama look like the weakest president on foreign policy in over 30 years. Jimmy Carter may be remembered for his terrible misjudgement over the Iranian hostage crisis. But at least he made a decision.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Crunch time for Labour

I first met Chris Bryant over twenty years ago, when he was working for the Labour Party in Camden, north London. As one of the officers in Frank Dobson’s constituency of Holborn & St Pancras, I remember being quite tickled at the idea we’d chosen to employ an ordained Church of England vicar to organise our campaigns.

Chris was always bright and ambitious. And although he has tripped up once or twice along the way, his rise within the Labour Party has been pretty steady over the years.

Until this week, of course.

One can only hope that the former curate still finds solace in prayer, as his performance as Shadow Minister for Borders and Immigration has left the whole of the Labour Party in need of divine intervention.

In the course of 24 hours, he managed to convince corporations that Labour didn’t understand business and make liberal supporters of the party squirm as he seemed to appropriate the language of the right. At the same time, he confirmed to potential UKIP voters that the British left has nothing coherent to say on the subject of border control. It was a triple whammy of epic proportions.

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much if Labour were doing better generally. But the runes cast in the past week or two look very ominous indeed. There’s been talk of Ed Miliband reshuffling his shadow cabinet again, which simply draws attention to his own inadequacies as a leader.

Meanwhile, the latest poll from ICM makes desperate reading. Between June and August, the percentage of the population agreeing that the Tories were best trusted to manage the economy has risen from 28% to 40%. Trust in Labour’s economic competence has risen too, but not by nearly as much. And from a much lower base. The Conservatives are, in fact, a full 16% ahead of Labour on this critical indicator.

Don’t be fooled by the headline figures which still put Labour marginally ahead of the Tories in voting intentions. I am prepared to say quite categorically that if Labour continues to lag so far behind the Tories on economic competence, there is no way they will win an election in 2015. Those with long memories will remember Neil Kinnock’s well-intentioned, but ultimately disastrous, bids for power in 1987 and 1992. History repeats itself, although probably not quite in the way Karl Marx predicted. The farce was in the 1980s and the tragedy is staring Labour in the face right now.

How can it be that Labour finds itself in such a mess? The ConDem coalition is staggeringly out of touch, scarily ideological, largely incompetent and run by a cabinet of millionaires. Miliband should be making mincemeat of them, surely?

Complacency has been the ruination of Labour in the past three years. They thought that the Coalition would bury itself in the economic quagmire of austerity. And although unemployment didn’t rise quite as high as some analysts had predicted (largely due to phenomena such as an increase in part-time working and the adoption of controversial zero-hours contracts), most of the indicators embarrassed the Tories.

There was the double-dip recession, or at least the appearance of one. No lending from banks to small businesses. Lack of availability of mortgages. Inflation eroding people’s savings and placing extra pressure on families. All Labour needed to do was keep pointing this stuff out and wait for things to get steadily worse.

The problem is that we’ve reached the middle of 2013 and things aren’t getting steadily worse any more. We can’t pretend that everything in the garden is rosy, but most impartial observers agree that are genuine signs of recovery. Record export figures reported. The construction sector showing signs of a pick up. Not to mention that old chestnut of rising house prices. Apparently, they’re now increasing at a level not seen since the halcyon days of 2006.

Of course, the good news may not be sustained. Some of it is froth. God knows another housing bubble is the last thing we need. But there’s no doubting the political death knell that the figures sound for Labour.

Austerity has undoubtedly inhibited growth. My sense, however, is that the UK economy is resilient enough to have weathered the worst of it. The Eurozone – representing about half our export market – has also steadied itself more effectively than many people imagined. Labour cannot win the general election by relying on the Coalition being perceived as an economic failure. The question is whether the politicians who have pursued this mantra are able to find a new theme. Or whether they would have the confidence of the public even if they did.