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Something in the tea
Anyone tempted to use the expected success of Tea Party-backed Republican candidates in next week’s US elections to pronounce the beginning of the end of Barack Obama’s presidency should not raise their hopes too high. Success in mid-term elections is no guarantee of even a decent showing in the presidential elections two years later. Just ask Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, whose ‘Contract with America’ helped the Republicans seize the House in 1994, for the first time in 40 years. Two years later Bill Clinton was re-elected by a landslide.
The Republicans are assured of a good night on Tuesday, but success could prove to be their undoing. Relations between the Tea Party and the rest of the Republicans could all too easily descend into the infighting already seen in Delaware,where Christine O’Donnell won the Republican nomination in spite of being described by the party’s chairman in the state as ‘not a viable candidate for any office’. In 2012 the Republican party will have to pick one presidential candidate — at which point one branch of the party is not going to be pleased.
This said, the President would be foolish to ignore the lesson from next week’s elections. It is easy to portray the Tea Party as a bunch of fruitcakes who appeal toAmerica’s lowest common denominator.Many of them provide ample ammunition for such a portrayal: O’Donnell admits to having dabbled in witchcraft and now appears to believe that US scientists are developing mice with fully functioning human brains, while another Tea Party-backed candidate, Jim de Mint of South Carolina, has argued that lesbians, or even straight women with active sex lives, should be forbidden from working in state schools. Yet to deride the Tea Party crowd as dangerous extremists ignores the reason for their popularity, which straddles party boundaries: according to a YouGov poll, 9 per cent of Democratic voters support the goals of the Tea Party movement.
The Tea Party is strongest in the guise in which it began: as a tax revolt. Strip away its extreme libertarianism — which somehow manages to co-exist with Mr de Mint’s illiberal views — and you have a very simple, coherent core belief: that government should be smaller and spend less money. Despite David Cameron’s distaste for the Tea Party, expressed obliquely in an interview with the Financial Times two weeks ago, its underlying principle is really no different from the Big Society.
In Britain we have no need for a Tea Party because we now have a government committed to reducing the size of the state. US voters, by contrast, have as President a man who still believes in borrowing and spending more.Anyone who sniffs at the Tea Party’s predominantly blue-collar membership should look at it from their point of view. A good number of them have lost their homes to aggressive foreclosures by banks which have been bailed out with vast sums of taxpayers’ money.They are deeply suspicious of Washington and have every right to be.
Barack Obama has had problems in office in part because he came to the White House by way of the Senate. It is no accident that the most successful US presidents of recent times were former state governors, who had already learned to respect the instincts of the people. If Obama wants to win again in two years’ time he will have to do as Bill Clinton did after the Republican triumph of 1994: abandon pet projects and understand why hard-up Americans want to spend their own money, not have government do it for them.
The Fire Brigades Union’s choice of Guy Fawkes Night for a strike over changes in shift patterns is unlikely to endear it to the people. What if a bonfire sets fire to a house? Or, worse, what if nobody notices that fire crews are on strike? In 2002, during the last national fire brigade strike, the soldiers drafted in to provide cover complained of inactivity.
Firefighters have a difficult and dangerous job which they perform to great
Burning issue admiration. But fire crews respond to one fifteenth as many calls as ambulance crews, and there are twice as many firefighters as ambulance staff.
The interests of the public would better served if the role of a firefighter was broadened to include paramedic support. This is what happens in many other countries including France, where the Sapeurs Pompiers provide a single emergency service, and in the US, where the bulk of work for some fire crews is covering medical emergencies. In Britain, every move in this direction has been opposed by the Fire Brigades Union.
The firefighters’ union has a choice: does it want its members to remain embarrassingly underemployed, or does it want the higher wages which could result from the greater efficiencies of better-utilised emergency services? Like so many other unions before it, the FBU seems determined to be its own worst enemy.
the spectator | 30 October 2010 | www.spectator.co.uk