When Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, announced recently her decision to stand for the Labour Leadership contest, the sighs of both relief and disappointment could be heard all the way from Brixton to Enfield.
To say that the response was mixed would be the biggest understatement of the century. Diane Abbott is a polarising figure. On the one hand her supporters point at a long political career based on grassroots activism. Diane also opposed the invasion of Iraq, one of New Labour's bugbears, took an earlier stand against the erosion of civil liberties and has campaigned to raise minority representation in politics. On the other hand her detractors will cry: 'Hypocrite!' following her decision to send her son to a private school. Her weekly slot on 'This Week', a late-night political programme on BBC1, has brought her closer to Michael Portillo, a former Tory MP; too close for comfort some would say.
I admit that I was chuffed when she finally came clear about running for the Labour leadership on Radio Four's Today programme. Not least, because she rendered a usually vocal James Naughtie, one of the presenters, speechless. Not an easy task, as regular listeners of that programme will aver. But it was what came after that made me wonder whether Diane herself was going a little bit over the top in her enthusiasm to explain why she had put her hat in the ring.
'I followed the Obama campaign and it seemed strange that when the US has a black president, we didn't even have a black candidate for our leadership', she told Hugh Muir of The Guardian straight after. The half cynical part of me was expecting the 'O' word to come out any minute; the romantic one was still hoping that wouldn't be the case.
No, Diane, you're not Barack Obama. And neither is any politician in the UK. And furthermore, we're as far from an 'Obama moment' on these shores as we are from developing artificial life (synthetic DNA, notwithstanding).
I had so far resisted writing about the current president of the USA, not out of fear or reverence, but because so much has been said, argued and counter-argued that one more comment would merely roll off into the vacuum of oblivion. However a recent essay by Naomi Klein ('Branding America', The Guardian Review, Saturday 16th January) made me aware of the perils that await any politician - from the US or elsewhere - that attempts to jump on the 'O' bandwagon.
This is not a post about Obama. It's rather a column about the effect his electoral campaign marketing strategy had in the rest of the world - and it still has. In her fine piece, Naomi dissects the process that made Obama electable. Note that word: electable. And I would like to add, if I may, a few more elements of my own.
The first one is an external factor that was briefly referred to but was quickly overshadowed by Obamamania. Without a George W Bush there wouldn't be a Barack in the White House now. That might seem a bit harsh, but, please, bear in mind that Bush outsourced almost the whole operational side of government to the private sector. In Naomi's own words, 'this hollowing out was not a side project of the Bush years; it was a central mission, reaching into every field of governance. And though the Bush clan was often ridiculed for its incompetence, the process of auctioning off the state, leaving behind only a shell – or a brand – was approached with tremendous focus and precision.' In the UK, on the other hand, this 'hollowing out' has not been as thorough as on the other side of the Atlantic. Therefore the catalyst needed to trigger off a radical overhaul of the political system is not ripe yet. In fact, it has not even been planted.
That leads me to the second element. As much as I celebrated Obama's victory, caution never abandoned me. At some point I remember thinking that one of the reasons why I wanted to see him in the White House (besides his stand on the Iraq war and his plans for healthcare reform) was the fact that had Hillary been elected instead we would have been staring at the following dynastic structure: Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton. Bro, can you spare a dime?
For the third factor I quote Naomi again on the fundamental principle of branding: ‘find your message, trademark and protect it and repeat yourself ad nauseam through as many synergised platforms as possible.’ In Obama’s case that was rebranding the US under the ‘Yes, We Can!’ slogan. In Diane’s case, or any other politician looking to exploit a similar gap in the market the possibilities are narrower because this coalition government has conquered that indispensable middle ground on which its future existence will depend but also from which it will fend off any opposition. The first measures taken by the new government in the UK were aimed at dispelling any doubts that this would be a lukewarm administration: the scrapping of the ID cards programme, downsizing or getting rid of useless quangos, school reform and devolution of power (policing amongst other services). This middle-of-the-road approach will make it very difficult for any future opponent to introduce their own version of ‘Change We Can Believe In’. One of the salient aspects of marketing is how a brand trascends the function of the product it promotes. People don’t just buy Nike because the company makes good trainers, but also because they want to trascend their own lives (especially the less well-off) through the brand, hence the effectiveness of their ‘Just Do It’ campaign. Likewise, people - especially youngsters - bought into the Obama brand, mainly, although not exclusively, because he became the canvas on which they projected their innermost desires. All the efforts that have followed thereafter (including The Sun's idiotic Photoshopped cover likening David Cameron to Barack) have been excrucitiangly awful and unimaginative.
I’ve left for the end of this column the most obvious element of why Diane's 'O' moment is unlikely to materialise and yet I was at pains trying to figure out how to write about it. But it’s better to face up to the proverbial elephant in the room head on. Diane Abbott is a black woman of a certain age and weight. Yes, I know that we’re in the 21st century but we’re not in a post-racial era. Nor did Obama usher in one. What he did provide was a temporary solution to the damage inflicted on the US reputation abroad by the Bush administration. And Obama did not hesitate to become the spokesperson for the youtube, facebook generation. As Naomi excellently describes, Barack Obama and his team used every single available tool in the New Gadgets Bible to ram their message home: Change. Logos, expert viral marketing, product placement and choice of strategic alliances (Klein mentions Oprah, the Kennedy family and many hip-hop stars), there was never a shortage of ideas. Unlike the US president, Abbott comes across more like the auntie who tells you off when you don’t show your face around her house for a long time.
I would also like to add that even Obama couldn’t have foreseen that the best weapon for his never-ending arsenal was provided by the Republicans themselves: Sarah Palin. Never have I seen more political incompetence and incoherence than that displayed by Palin. Even Tina Fey, in her famous sketches of the vice-presidential candidate, was far too lenient on Sarah. In fact it wouldn't be far-fetched to imagine that many self-avowed right-wingers would have preferred the writer and star of the American sitcom 30 Rock to run alongside senator John McCain, rather than the Alaskan version of Xena the Warrior Princess. And I still believe that that factor was what finally tipped the scales in Obama’s favour. Unfortunately for Diane Abbott, unless the ‘Cameron/Clegg’ double act starts spewing out nonsense about Britain sharing a border with Russia, there’s not much to galvanise Labour voters, let alone the British electorate to take her up to the next level.
And yet, I support Diane's decision to join the fray for the Labour leadership. Because she will force the other candidates to adopt a more radical position. Diane is fighting a battle on the grounds of better housing, more female and ethnic minority representation in government (there are only four women in the current cabinet) and stronger trade unions. If she can add a cohesive economic agenda to the impressive array of issues she is bringing to the Labour leadership battle, she could be the Wild Card who gets to play in the final of the World Series.
As for whether we need an 'O' moment in the UK or not, I will borrow again Naomi Klein's words on Barack and the effect he's had on the various movements that exist worldwide and that are making demands of the elites that rule them: "What the election and the global embrace of Obama's brand proved decisively is that there is a tremendous appetite for progressive change – that many, many people do not want markets opened at gunpoint, are repelled by torture, believe passionately in civil liberties, want corporations out of politics, see global warming as the fight of our time, and very much want to be part of a political project larger than themselves." Forget about the 'O' moment, Diane, you just need us, the people.
Photo taken from Diane Abbott's website.
Next Post: 'Multilinguals Are...? (Review)', to be published on Tuesday 8th June at 11:59pm (GMT)