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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser