Why Cameron can learn very little from Obama's victory

The cycles and circumstances of British and American politics are too different. Credit: Stefan Roussseau/PA Archive

A lot of pundits here at Westminster today have been asking what lessons can be learned from Obama's election victory.

After a lot of consideration, I've come to the reluctant conclusion that there aren't any.

Of course, yes, it is evidence that incumbents can win, that negative advertising works, that core vote strategies don't and that expanding coalitions are important. But we knew all this. The fact is that Mitt Romney was a poor candidate who zig-zagged all over the place and, with the brief exception of the first TV debate, never really gave people a clear enough idea of what he stood for, or to be more accurate, what the great American public was supposed to be voting for. What was the one stand out reason to vote for Mitt? He never characterised that with sufficent clarity.

Some pundits have argued that it's a clear indication of the damage that can be wreaked by a swing to the right, but I doubt the Cameroons will think it is as simple as that.

Being seen to be socially illiberal is politically dangerous, because it enrages and engages a reasonably large section of people who might not otherwise be strongly politically aligned. But the truth is that the polls tell us consistently that what one might once have described as right-wing policies - limiting benefit entitlements, reducing immigration and dealing with the deficit through cutting public spending - are actually what the public seems to want.

I suspect Mr Cameron will be a wolf in sheep's clothing, a touchy feely 'centrist' with quite a focused right-wing platform (if the terms right and left even mean anything any more in British politics).

The reason that there is so little to learn from America is that the cycles and circumstances are just too different.

Here, David Cameron will almost certainly go into the next election with two very clear messages:

  • 1) Yes, it has been painful and we're sorry it has taken longer than we thought, but we're on the way now and you'd be crazy to gamble again on the guys who broke the bank in the first place.

  • 2) You've had the pain, now it is time for the gain. We trust you to spend your money better than the state does, so we will be delivering a steady series of tax cuts to leave you with more money in your pocket.

Labour's core problem, I think, is that it does not know with sufficient clarity yet what its answer to these arguments is going to be. And the events in America aren't going to help them.