by Mark Stockwell
Each year, as autumn descends, nature-lovers’ thoughts turn to the russet and auburn vistas of New England. Every four years, an altogether different breed joins them in gazing longingly across the Atlantic as the leaves crispen and fall at home. But the only colours they care about are primary colours – red and blue.
With the end of the party conferences and the return to a dank, dreary Westminster, Britain’s political classes huddle round to bask in the reflected glow of a US presidential election.
The states of New England, for the most part solid blue Democrat territory, are but a passing concern. These peculiar beasts garner what warmth they can from the battleground states of the mid-West and the sunshine state of Florida.
With the axis of US politics tilted so far to the right, there are quite a few UK Conservatives who back the Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular. It is, on the other hand, vanishingly unlikely you will come across anyone on the British left cheering for a Republican.
There are all sorts of good policy reasons why both left and right in the UK should welcome the Obama victory which seems the likely outcome of next Tuesday’s poll. But if Labour is looking to Obama to win vicarious battles on deficit reduction, the size of government, or the role of the state in the provision of public services, they are missing an important point.
As a guide to its own electoral prospects, Labour should be cautious about celebrating Obama’s re-election.
As the Times’ Danny Finkelstein is fond of pointing out (here (£), for example), there are only three basic types of election campaign – “It’s time for a change”, “Better the devil you know” and “We’re on the right track; don’t turn back”.
Opposition parties mostly only have one of these available to them. Governments, on the other hand, get to choose – up to a point at least.
It’s pretty clear that Obama has chosen the last of these. Type “Obama speech turn back” into Google and you’ll see what I mean. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the president utter words to the effect of “We’ve come a long way, we’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve come too far to turn back.”
The Conservatives, too, have already settled on that as their campaign theme – for all that some on the extreme fringes seem to want to go for a “change” platform, the main plank of which is “change the prime minister.”
Take the reaction to last week’s GDP figures.
David Cameron struggled a little at prime minister’s questions to suppress his understandable relief at the return to growth. But, there was precious little triumphalism from the coalition, though; no talk of “green shoots”, still less “sunlit uplands.” The line rigidly adhered to was, “we inherited a hell of a mess, we’ve got a long way to go, but it shows the measures we’ve taken so far are going in the right direction.”
It was, in other words, a track taken straight from Barack Obama’s re-election playlist.
It’s not a good idea to read too much into what another country’s election might mean for our own – history does not repeat itself either as tragedy or as farce. Still, what parallels there are should concern Labour.
There’ll be satisfaction to be had, certainly, in the re-election of a left-leaning president – but the key to an Obama victory will have been incumbency, not leaning left.
Mitt Romney will have gone into the election against a gloomy economic backdrop, leading a “time for a change” campaign. He’ll have been written off by the pundits after some clumsy early outings. He’ll have come back fighting and surprised many with some strong performances and an unexpected ability to “speak human.”
He’ll have had Obama genuinely worried at times.
And then he’ll have lost.
Mark Stockwell is a former adviser to the Conservative party. He now works in public affairs.