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What Britain must learn from Obama victory

JUBILATION: Obama supporters celebrate his election

IT WAS not the history-making victory of 2008 but Barack Obama’s re-election could prove to be just as momentous.

Four years ago, the whole world was transfixed: would Americans put a black man in the White House? Yes, they could. And they did it again last week. But when Americans headed to the polls at the last election, many were all ‘George Bushed’ out. Pitted against Republican John McCain, Obama, with his message of hope, looked like the refreshing change Americans wanted to believe in.

This time around, the novelty of the first black President had worn thin. After one term in office, Obama had a record that could be weighed and measured, with the jury very much still out.


The US economy is stable, but not booming. ‘Obamacare’, the Affordable Care Act, was passed - instantly improving access for decent healthcare. Overall, however, many critics argue that conditions for African Americans are worse with a black man in office. Yet Obama brought home 332 of the Electoral College votes to Mitt Romney’s 206. Obama also won the popular vote, though by a slim margin.

What is worth noting, however, is that the majority of Obama’s support came from black and Hispanic voters while losing some of the white votes he attracted in 2008.

It signals a crucial shift in America – not just a shift in demographics, but also the power balance, apparently along racial lines. Figures show 91 per cent of African Americans and 70 per cent of Latinos voted for Obama. Mitt Romney claimed 27 percent, according to a CNN exit poll.

White Americans overwhelmingly voted in favour of Romney, but the Republican base, consisting of middle-aged white conservatives, no longer has the power to win elections.

Obama sold a promise of change, but America is changing with or without him and the trend does not look set to reverse. Every month in the US, 50,000 Latinos become eligible to vote and reflects how diverse the nation is becoming. In 1996, only 10 percent of the electorate was considered “non-white”. That figure is now closer to 27 percent.

In his victory speech, Obama said: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

It is a message that strikes a chord with voters under the age of 30 who backed Obama in large numbers.

As Guardian columnist Gary Younge put it: “The Republican party has reached a point where it will either have to change or die. This election effectively exposed it as a mono-racial party in an increasingly multi-racial state.”

He added: “That is not only unbecoming, it is untenable.”

TWO TERMS: The President and his wife wave to crowds

Just like America, Britain is also changing and the 2011 Census is expected to reveal as much when early findings are published this year. Cities like Birmingham and Leicester are tipped to become the first where the so-called ethnic minorities will become the majority.

We know mixed race people in Britain belong to one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the UK, and Indian, African, eastern European, Chinese, Filipino and South American communities are expanding.

Though Conservatives will hasten to distance themselves from comparisons with the GOP, the party does face a similar image problem – a party of a privilege and one out of touch with the everyman.

It is also, some might argue, very white, Christian and male-dominated.


Obama’s victory should be considered a cautionary tale for David Cameron, if he wants his party to win the next General Election outright and by a clear margin.

In 2010, the Tories won 36 percent of the national vote, but only 16 percent of the BME vote. Labour attracted 68 per cent, according to a study published by race equality think tank, Runnymede Trust.

A recent article on Conservative Home website revealed tell-tale signs that some within the party are already worried about its approach and policies that could alienate ethnic minorities.

“By 2050 ethnic minorities will make up a fifth of the population,” wrote Paul Goodman. “On present voting trends, the [Conservative] party is facing demographic marginalisation. Which - again - is why our war on multiculturalism must end.”

Despite promoting black candidates such as Helen Grant, MP for Maidstone and The Weald, and Sam Gyimah MP, who represents East Surrey, the party lags behind Labour which has a good record with black and ethnic minority (BME) voters.

Even so, they too, will have to buck up their ideas and directly address issues on the black agenda if they want to gain power.

GRUDGE: Campaign literature like this may be hard to forget

A large number of BME voters aren’t even registered to vote, but if they were motivated to do by unpopular policy, the sleeping giant could wake up to shake up future elections.

Simon Woolley, chief executive of Operation Black Vote, said party leaders in Britain, if they were smart, should be “beating the path to black churches, mosques and community centres”.

“There is no doubt in my mind that whoever courts the black vote will be handed the keys to Downing Street after the next election,” he explained.

“We have got to learn the lessons of the Obama campaign which, critically, is about using the vote and demanding that issues such as high unemployment and a police force working for us not against us are effectively dealt with,” Woolley emphasized.

But, he stressed: “Until people vote, they can’t challenge the status quo.”

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