The lessons for Labour from Obama's lacklustre campaign

The US president owes his victory to his political machine, not his campaign strategy.

President Obama has a second term but it was much closer than it should have been. He is the victor today because of an impressive tactical and organisational campaign but not on account of his campaign strategy. This morning we saw hope and change in his victory speech - the Obama of ‘08. It is a pity he and his senior strategists didn’t have the courage to do that earlier. Against a better opponent, he could have been defeated. There are big lessons for Labour in this.  

It started to go wrong the minute he won the 2008 election. Instead of his movement for change being transitioned into a new civic corps – 13 million community activists working to change their communities and campaigning on behalf of the President’s agenda – it was folded straight away. It became nothing more than an email list. Never had the gulf between the poetry of campaign and prose of governance been so wide; it was a shock. His personality – cerebral rather than emotional - seemed to morph with this shift. The normalisation of Barack Obama had begun.

One of the biggest myths that he, the Democrats and of course, their opponents managed to create is that he had no record to defend. His record in relative terms is better than any first term President since Franklin Roosevelt. In the battle to attack the Republicans for what they could get through Congress, the Democrats left the impression that they couldn’t get anything through Congress. It was only at the Democratic National Convention where this was addressed: President Bill Clinton came to the rescue.

There, President Obama himself gave a compelling, if slightly clunky, articulation of America with a long-term future under his plans or reverse to the failures of recent Republican presidents. It was the highlight of the campaign for the President. His post-Convention bounce almost put him out of sight of Romney. It was the last time that both a forceful articulation of his record in office and some substance about his forward-looking agenda was placed before the American electorate.

The campaign slogan was "forward". The American people were left asking "forward to what?" Instead, the campaign focused on its opponent far too readily. This was not the Obama they had voted for in 2008, who carefully sought to "take the High Road". This was down and dirty politics. It left the candidate’s voice muffled.

So what? He won, after all, what’s the problem? The problem is that the enthusiasm was gone. That meant that the election was far closer than it should have been. Not only that, but he lacks an enthusiastic propulsion of his second-term agenda against a divided, consequently obstructionist, Congress. The road ahead is now harder than it should have been.

The movement which was electrified in 2008 survives, but only here and there. The keeper of its "respect-empower-include" soul Steve Hildebrand didn’t have a central role this time – personnel matters. In the critical battleground state of Ohio, the living, breathing organism that was Obama ’08 became a professionalised machine in 2012. In every campaign, there is a moment when things tilt towards a military-style of organisation. This time round is was early. The movement is no more.

Luckily, the professional campaign deployed the latest techniques. It cross-tabulated electoral rolls, consumer databases, social media databases, and voting records. It ruthlessly combined these with information from the doorstep and from focus groups about what was playing well and all this information was combined. It built sophisticated models of voter behaviour which enabled very specific targeting of demographics with issues, fundraising asks and volunteering requests. Instead of direct mail, the preferred vehicle for all this was the doorstep campaigner. TV/web ads supplemented the whole operation in just as targeted a fashion. Yes, this was a machine but it was a very hi-tech and sleek one.

Data, modeling, targeting should, however, be the extra one per cent on the doorstep. What was lost was the four per cent that would have not only been motivated for this campaign but beyond it also. That is what hope and change gets you. Instead, we had attack, deflect, and micro-target.

The lessons Labour should take are mainly from Obama ’08 rather than ’12. Good data, organisation and targeting are necessary as the campaign draws to a close. Before that, it is necessary to build a movement. This means opening out the party as the Obama campaign did for the Democrats in 2008. Members will not be enough if the Conservative financial advantage is to be minimised. It needs neighbours to speak to neighbours, friends to friends, colleagues to colleagues.

A vague offer of change is insufficient as is relying on the negatives of your opponent. The story will be one of national renewal. People will need to know what this means in practical terms – including on their own standard of living. It’s not just about the pounds, shillings and pence though. People want to know that you have a practical vision for the nation. A lack of clarity and your leadership will be undermined.

Obama has given Labour both a guide to how it should be done and a warning of how it can go 'wrong' (a win is a win!). The best political machine in the world can make up for a lot, but it’s a hell of a risk to leave it to a clever political operation: it is more likely to be a necessary but insufficient contributor to victory.

Obama had residual support, his high likeability rating, and demographic changes in his favour. The voting electorate was 85 per cent white in 1988 but only 76 per cent or so by the last election according to Pew Research. Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress forecast that it could be as low as 72 per cent this time round. The Detroit bailout gave him some necessary electoral protection in the mid-west- with its cluster of battleground states. And even though Romney got back in the race, the Republicans as a whole still feel on the edge of mainstream America- when a majority of it votes.

Hope and change seems a long way off though – despite today’s speech, which hopefully is not a one-off replay of greatest hits. Labour should be careful not to learn the wrong lesson from Obama’s two victories. By all means learn some practical lessons from Obama ’12 but no more than that. It is Obama ’08 that still provides the way forward. Hope, change and practical vision provide the path to victory – even if Obama lost his way this time round.

Anthony Painter is author of Barack Obama: the movement for change

Marcus Roberts is deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society and worked on both Obama '08 and '12

"Against a better opponent, Obama could have been defeated." Photograph: Getty Images.
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6 ways Brexit is ruining our food

A meat-eating chocolate-lover? You're in trouble.

We were warned. “We’ve got to get our act together”, said Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London about an impending culinary crisis. He predicted that food would be the second biggest Brexit issue after the future of banking in the City of London. But whereas The City, ominously capitalised, is an ephemeral consideration for those outside the infamous metropolitan liberal elite, food certainly isn’t. Food affects us all – and so far it’s been hit hard by Brexit, after the value of the pound has been savaged, making importing to the UK more expensive. Here are six ways in which Brexit has is ruining our food.

Walnut Whip

The final insult. The sign that Brexit really has gone too far. It was announced yesterday that Walnut Whips would become nothing more than mere Whips. The reason given for this abomination was that the new range would cater for those who didn’t like, or were allergic to, nuts, allowing them to enjoy just the gooey, chocolatey goodness within. Closer inspection reveals that’s not quite the whole story. Walnut importers like Helen Graham, told the Guardian that the pound’s post-Brexit fall in value after last June, combined with “strong global demand” and a poor walnut yield in Chile, have led to Whips shedding the Walnut - not consumer demand. Nestlé say that individual packets and Christmas bumper packs will still be available - but at this rate, getting hold of them might prove harder in practice than in theory.

Marmite

2016’s Marmite shortages was perhaps the first sign that not all was well. Marmite is the ultimate Brexit metaphor: you either love it or hate it, a binary reflected in the 48-52 per cent vote – and the bitter taste it leaves for many. Marmite’s endangered status was confirmed after Tesco entered hostile negotiations with food megacorp Unilever, who wanted to raise trade prices by 10 per cent due to that inconvenient falling pound. Lynx deodorant, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Persil washing powder and PG Tips tea were similarly affected, but none inspired quite the same amount of outrage as the yeast-based spread.

Toblerone

The beauty of Toblerone is the frequency of its triangles. That angularity has been undermined by manufacturer Mondelēz’s decision to space them out, removing 10 per cent of the bar’s total chocolate in the process. Art has truly been tampered with. The scandal led to Colin Beattie MSP calling for the Scottish Parliament to offer condolences to triangle fans, blaming it directly on Brexit. Defending the change, a spokeswoman for Mondelēz said "this change wasn't done as a result of Brexit", suggesting it's part of the sad trend of chocolates getting skimpier. That said, they did admit that the current exchange rate was "not favourable" - and that in itself is directly due to Brexit. They also refused to be drawn on whether they'd be changing their signature chocolate in other EU territories. Hmm. Semantics aside, the dispute is getting legal. Poundland, who are seeking to bring out a "Twin Peaks" alternative to Toblerone echoing the brand's original shape but with two peaks per block instead of one, claim that Toblerone's shape is no longer distinctive enough to warrant a trademark. They claim that their new rival has "a British taste, and with all the spaces in the right places". Shots. Fired.

Cheddar

This one hurts more because it’s closer to home. Our Irish neighbours are reportedly considering turning away from cheddar to mozzarella. This act of dairy-based betrayal is understandable: if export tariffs to the UK go up, Irish cheese producers will have to sell their wares primarily on the continent – for which mozzarella would be a better fit. Tragic.

Chlorinated chicken

Ah, the big one. The subject of not only a transatlantic war of words, but also the source of strife within the cabinet. With the UK forced to look to the US for trade support, it was feared that the country's’ trademark chlorinated chicken would be forced upon these shores as a concession. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox called the media “obsessed” with the topic, dismissing fears over Britain’s meat of the future by saying that there is “no health risk”. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, however, said that there is no way that chlorinated chicken would reach British shelves. The row has faded away somewhat – but this game of chicken between these cabinet heavyweights may yet be renewed when Parliament reconvenes.

Hormone beef

Hormone beef is similarly contentious. US farmers raise cows on growth hormones to fatten them up for markets. As with chlorinated chicken, it’s a practice banned under EU law. It’s a touchy subject for US trade negotiators. Gregg Doud, a senior figure in Trump’s agriculture team, has said that accepting hormone beef is essential to any trade agreement. This debate, too, will presumably rumble on.

All told, it’s a good time to be a vegetarian, but a bad time to have a sweet tooth. Most of the upheaval rests around the weakness of the pound, so maybe the only way forward is to just eat good old homegrown British fruit. At least we'd all be healthier and more in pocket. Oh wait. Apparently British fruit harvests are in jeopardy too, given that most of our fruit is picked by short-term EU migrants. Ah, well, at least we've all got Boris Johnson to make sure that we can have our bananas curved, in packs of more than three.