Can Barack Obama revive the spirit of 2008?

The return of the grassroots community organiser.

He was once hailed as the world's greatest celebrity but now the glitter is tarnished and the hero worship is barely anywhere to be found. So this week Barack Obama is going back on the road -- with just five weeks to save his Democratic Party from ignominy in November's midterm elections.

His blitz through four states is no ordinary road trip: this time the President is making a huge effort to re-discover the enthusiasm and the engagement that proved the key to his success in 2008. So there's just one rally, on Tuesday, to students at the University of Wisconsin, and a series of more informal meetings with "ordinary folks" in their own backyards.

This much more populist message aims to hit back at the Republican "Pledge to America" manifesto: and, as White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer put it, to show "why he thinks the direction the Republicans are pushing to go would be irresponsible, would be a mistake".

Instead the President will focus on the middle classes and America's public deficit, insisting it would be totally wrong to cut taxes and return to the Bush-style policies of the past, and what he's calling "the era of recklessness".

But policies aside, this trip is really meant to mark a return to the old-style Obama -- the grassroots community organiser, the one who spectacularly managed to to connect with ordinary people and fire up a political excitement they never knew they had.

It's an effort too to revive that coalition of young people and minorities that didn't just sweep him to power in 2008 -- but also seemed to usher in a completely new kind of politics, a kind based on inclusion and engagement and fuelled by the desire of individuals to make a difference.

And it's an attempt to turn around the political fortunes of the last 18 months, which has seen Obama and the Democrats beset by falling polls and disillusioned voters who simply don't want to turn out. As the Washington Post put it, Obama's much vaunted grassroots network is now "a shadow of its former self".

Latest polls in a number of key battleground states don't look good for the Democrats: as independent voters lean towards the GOP, while young people and minority voters say they're inclined to stay at home. Although "Organising for America" still has paid staffers in 50 states, trying to get out the vote and keep supporters engaged, there's a palpable "enthusiasm gap".

And hence Tuesday's speech to students in Madison -- trying to recapture just a little bit of the old magic -- and trying to get young people excited about politics again. It's being simulcast to 200 other campuses, with other youth events staged elsewhere, so there's no excuse to miss it.

Communications guru David Plouffe -- the man who forged much of the success story of 2008 -- is said to be behind the University of Wisconsin event, followed by three other old style mass political rallies in the run up to election day.

And meeting voters in their backyards is supposed to convince the country their President is not aloof and out of touch with the real problems they're facing in these tough economic times.

But it's all getting rather late for Obama to turn things around. Meantime there are murmurings about the effectiveness of the White House strategy team, who could once do no wrong, and some beleagued Democrats have insisted they don't want the President stumping for them right now, because it might just make things worse. It seems the old adage has never been more true -- the soaring poetry of campaigns is one thing, the complex and nuanced prose of government, quite another.

 

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.