At an event yesterday, The Politics of Hope, Les Back mentioned something I'd not heard before. Apparently 'Yes We Can' (translated into Spanish) was the organising slogan of a hispanic labour union in Texas. I doubt this is well known, or even necessarily provable as the origins of a pretty bland mantra. Some, after all, have attributed it to Bob the Builder.
Then consider the subtle reference to Sam Cooke's Change is Gonna Come in Obama's acceptance speech: "it's been a long time coming... but change has come". Was this the same change - i.e. civil rights - that he was referring to throughout his campaign? Suddenly that would make him seem a far more radical politician. The sort of black politician that, in contrast to the centrist post-racial one he projected, America would have been unlikely to elect.
So was Obama blowing dog whistles? It would be extraordinary if both of his favoured slogans - 'yes we can', 'change' - were selected or derived from parts of American political history that the Democratic party has spent the last 20 years trying to disentangle itself from. But it would be a brilliant piece of strategy if labour activists and civil rights activists could de-code these messages, but the media and the Right could not.
The Left tends to have a bigger problem knowing how to relate to its long ideological tail than the Right. In Europe this is partly (simplistically) explicable by the fact that some on the Left took much too long to criticise the gulag. In the United States, there is the shadow of '68 violence and George McGovern self-obsession to cope with. It is also because, a la the People's Front of Judea, the Left's tail tends to tear itself to pieces. The Right has its own problem, which is that people fairly close to its core speak a language that is not appealing or, sometimes, deemed acceptable. Hence Cameron's 'de-toxification' of the Tories.
So the Right has to blow dog whistles simply to communicate to some of its core supporters. As Michael Howard's deeply creepy slogan ran, 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?', the implication being that the media, Westminster, London, capitalism and who knows what else had created some vast cosmopolitan hubub, that crowded out the thoughts of both the Conservative Party and the electorate. Through some act of telepathy (or rather a Lynton Crosby focus group), the Conservatives would adopt the anti-immigration policies that this mystical demos actually wanted.
But could the Left blow dog whistles to sections of its long tail? Under Blair and Clinton the centre Left sent them in the opposite direction, sending out coded messages to the right, that bi-passed its own historic base. But there are votes in that historic base, and they can no longer be counted on in Britain (and haven't been countable on in America since the Reagan Democrats of 1980 onwards). To this end, it might be time for Gordon Brown to think what aspects of socialist history he might want to subtly allude to in speeches, in the hope that they might be picked up in the heartlands.
To suddenly drop the word 'comrades' in might be too much. But with neo-liberals in retreat, there are aspects of Labour that needn't be swept under the carpet - the welfare state, industrial policy, work (as opposed to 'hard working families'), nationalisation - that mere references to might awaken the odd dog around the North East and North West. Precisely what Labour's Leftist dog whistles would sound like is, quite rightly, not divinable by a London toff such as myself. But Obama didn't win in Indiana through Clinton-esque appeals to middle class mothers, and the same will very soon be true for Labour in Newcastle and Liverpool.