‘A new dawn has broken has it not?’ said Tony Blair on May 2nd 1997. Those of us who were part of the New Labour team win will find our excitement at Barack Obama’s victory tinged with poignant memories of eleven years ago and an urgent desire to warn of the perils of sky high expectations.
We already know that Barack Obama is a very special man. He has had to overcome personal and social hurdles higher than those that faced Tony Blair. And America is a very different country to the UK, with power more dispersed at the centre and in the states. But with Capitol Hill in the Democrats’ hands, and the Republicans about to enter several years of soul searching, Obama does have scope to deliver the change he promised. So what are the lessons of New Labour that the advisors to President Elect Obama should heed?
- Being in power is different to campaigning for power. Some of the best people in the fight to win office lack the patience, gravitas or personal skills to be in office. Obama will need to have some tough conversations with some good friends. The message needs to change and the way of telling it too. As former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said ‘you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose’. Labour lost goodwill when they looked like they were turning Whitehall into a second Millbank.
- Under promise and over deliver. Expectations for Obama are sky high but while everyone is hanging on his every word he has the opportunity to define success. Making grand pledges now makes for great headlines today when you don’t need them and accusations of failure when times aren’t so good. Much better to promise only what you can deliver and surprise people when the achievements outstrip the promises.
- Take the time to understand the last Government’s policies. It is the job of oppositions to traduce everything the incumbent has done. Things seem so much simpler from outside. It is vital to take the time to listen to those who have been inside Government, and can tell you why decisions were made, and which policies (however they may look from outside) might actually work. In 1997 Labour made the mistake of reversing the Conservative health reforms assuming these were inspired merely by ideology. In fact those reforms were the result of deep frustration with other change strategies, as Labour found out to its cost in term two. Iraq is the obvious area where Obama will need to make the transition from campaigning to decision making.
- Do the difficult stuff early. Tony Blair became a better domestic Prime Minister as the years passed. Unfortunately by the time he really got to grips with the job his political capital was in decline and much of the extra Government investment had already been committed. Obama needs to use the enthusiasm he now has, especially on his own side, to make hard choices.
- Don’t be seduced by the new toys. Labour ministers spent several years pulling levers in their Whitehall offices before anyone had the heart to tell them the levers weren’t actually attached to anything outside. Naturally, when you take office you want to believe you can do anything. But power isn’t like that and neither is society. President Obama needs to develop a clear understanding of the locus of his powers. In its early years Labour too often did things to people (local government, public service workers) rather than with them. As a result natural allies became disillusioned and the centre became chronically overloaded. It takes longer to persuade others to work in partnership but it is a much more realistic way of making change stick.
The reason above all why Barack Obama is such an exciting politician is his ability to engage people directly, to make them feel part of the change. This was one of the reasons his campaign was so special. He illustrated this quality - something he shares with JFK - in his brave speech about race after the Jeremiah Wright row. The new President must carry on explaining to people that real change can only come when government and people share ambitions and the responsibility for achieving them. This is transformative leadership. It is the value added great politicians bring. It is what can make Obama the brilliant campaigner into Obama the great President.
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