To a meeting of US Democrats Abroad last night, to be interviewed by Catherine Mayer of Time magazine, then by the audience.
Always interesting to get the take of politically minded foreigners on our domestic scene, and there was more evidence, admittedly from generally Labour-minded people, that the Tories are weaker than is generally assumed. More frustration too, particularly at the drinks do afterwards, that Labour was not doing more to attack those weaknesses, and exploit the government’s many strengths, on the record and on policy in particular.
An interesting question in the q and a from a man who asked if I had noticed that the Tories seemed to be modelling claims to be ‘progressive Conservatives’ on the Bush Republican Party’s trumpeting of ‘compassionate Conservatism’.
Yes I had noticed. I remember once seeing Bill Clinton doing a brilliant speech on compassionate Conservatism. I don’t recall the exact words, but it was on the lines of ‘we’re really going to care when we lose you your job. When you can’t get health care, your pain is our pain.’
Progressive Conservatism is modelled in much the same way. In his conference speech, without a single thought through policy proposal to substantiate the claims, David Cameron said the Tories were the Party of the NHS and the Party of the poor. Such positions, if true, would indeed amount to progressive Conservatism. But they are not true. They are positioning statements backed up by nothing.
At two different events yesterday, I asked the audience what they thought of when I said the words Cameron and environment. The answers are nearly always the same – in this order … pictures with huskies at the Arctic, bike followed by car, wind turbine on house, new logo that is based on a tree. All image. But when you ask anyone for his policy on climate change – a progressive cause – nobody has a clue. Because he doesn’t have a clue. Because he doesn’t have a policy.
On Europe, how can it be progressive to forego relations with mainstream leaders of France and Germany in favour of his ragbag of racists and homophobes?
And on tax, at a time of recession, how can it be progressive to have as your number one commitment an inheritance tax cut for the 3000 wealthiest estates in the country? As I said last night, I remain genuinely perplexed as to why their commitment is so unshakeable when they must be aware through their polling of the potential political damage. I wonder if the explanation might be that the policy was the demand of some of his major donors.
So progressive he most certainly is not. His Conference speech showed that, with the loathing of government the key theme, commitment to social justice largely based on Labour policies his polling clearly showed to be too popular to undo.
Interesting too to get the take of Democrats Abroad on where Obama is politically these days. Catherine Mayer told me of a poll apparently showing that Hillary Clinton is now more popular than the President. She asked, based on my having travelled with TB as he went from stratospheric popularity to something closer to normal politics, what advice I would give about how to handle the journey.
Yet my sense is that Obama remains hugely popular by comparison with most leaders and politicians. Look at the pictures today of him being greeted by kids in New Orleans. Catherine asked the audience if she felt politics was more or less polarised than pre-election, and they clearly felt the answer was more. Part of the answer to that is that the Right tends to be noisier, nastier and more unscurpulous about claims it makes, and that is certainly the case in the US.
So the most important thing is to keep on keeping on with the policy agenda, and keep on explaining the values underpinning the decisions. He has a big basket of big issues to deal with – the global economy, his health reforms, climate change, Afghanistan, the Middle East peace process going through another very rocky phase, plenty more besides. In every decision he makes, there will be some who won’t like it. But there will be others who respond to clear and principled leadership. And when all is said and done, what he does is more important than what is said about it in a poll that will be long forgotten when the impact of what he does is felt.