Andrew Grice: In substance as well as style, Brown can learn from Obama

The Week In Politics
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The Independent Online

"People here will vote for a strong commander-in-chief, not a diplomat," said the American hotel owner as he predicted the impact of Russia's aggression in Georgia on the US presidential election.

He was one of several ordinary Americans to tell me during my three-week holiday that, while they would vote for Barack Obama, they suspected that America as a whole might choose John McCain. And this was in liberal New England.

Senator Obama's historic and impressive speech to the Democratic Party Convention may have answered some of the doubts I encountered, including the "Where's the beef?" question.

But my wholly unscientific survey, in Maine, Boston, Cape Cod and New York, suggests Mr Obama still has a lot of convincing to do. The race is going to be much closer than many of us believed when Obamania gripped Europe during his world tour.

The tour didn't play nearly as well among Americans; the cult of celebrity could work against him.

To my surprise, I was impressed by what I saw of Senator McCain. I watched the two rivals pitch for the evangelical vote by taking questions at a church forum. The Republican candidate looked sharper than the Democrats' great hope. If he repeats this in the crucial televised debates, when they will lock horns directly, I reckon Mr McCain will win.

Parallels between the US and Britain are dangerous. But as I became addicted to the presidential race during my break, I couldn't help thinking about the lessons our own politicians could learn.

"Time for change" is the most potent political slogan. But Mr Obama's failure to open a lead in the polls shows politicians need to answer the "Change to what?" question. When he became Prime Minister, Gordon Brown declared "Let the work of change begin." But he has failed to carve out a distinctive agenda of his own.

Although the Democrats are trying to portray Mr McCain and George Bush as the same person, it will be easier for the independent-minded Republican candidate to distance himself from the outgoing President than for Mr Brown to escape punishment by disillusioned voters who remember his claims to have cured Britain's economic ills.

That the economy will almost certainly dominate the next election in both countries is another headache for Mr Brown. After Middle America, Middle Britain is now feeling the pinch, but the Prime Minister will find it hard to offer the tax cuts Mr Obama dangled in his speech. Even if he did, he would not be believed, or would get little credit for it.

Like Mr McCain, Mr Brown will attempt to play the "experience versus inexperience" card, portraying his opponent as a celebrity who may have style but lacks substance.

Of course, it will be much easier for David Cameron to be the "change candidate" at the next election, even if Labour decides to ditch Mr Brown. But there are important lessons from America for him too. Like Mr Obama, he hasn't yet answered the "Change to what?" question or "closed the deal" with the voters, despite running against a deeply unpopular administration. Both men have star quality but cannot afford to look too cocky about the election outcome.

Furthermore, the Obama speech will encourage those Labour ministers – including Mr Brown's man at the Denver convention Ed Miliband – who believe the Tories' "smaller state" message is the wrong one when voters are looking to the Government for some protection in hard times. Expect Labour to echo Mr Obama's claim that the right-of-centre party would leave people to sink or swim. It could be a productive counter-attack.

Mr Obama's speech was an overdue attempt to define himself, after a period in which he has been defined by his opponents. The challenge for Mr Brown is do to the same. He now has one final chance to tell what his government is about.

The Brown camp believes the Democrats' jamboree was too inward-looking, allowing too much media focus on the manoeuvrings of the Clintons. The lesson the Brownites draw is that Labour must avoid a navel-gazing party conference next month.

Mr Brown must somehow try to match Mr Obama's communications skills, to find some new messages to shift the spotlight to a forward policy agenda and away from his party's doubts about him and his own survival prospects. It will not be easy. Indeed, many Labour figures believe it will prove to be mission impossible.

For rolling comment on the US election visit: independent.co.uk/campaign08

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