The lessons Labour still needs to learn from Obama 2012

The party should aspire to build a campaign that redistributes resources from safe seats to the battlegrounds that will determine the outcome.

Forward: The change Labour still needs is the Fabian Society’s attempt to capture lessons for Labour from Obama 2012, but it isn’t yet clear the party is much in the mood to learn them. Over 12 chapters, contributors detail the different ways the numbers informed the strategy, getting pleasingly practical on everything from canvassing techniques to conference scheduling, but one unanswered question hangs over all the essays: is Labour ready for the dominance of data?

Unfortunately the collection is likely to suffer from a similar reflex hostility as its predecessor The Change we Need, which led one exasperated Labour figure to proclaim, “do you know what? If these were good ideas we’d have had them already”, a sentence which would surely lead to a P45 in a Facebook, Google or Apple but which beautifully encapsulates the key difference between the culture of a Democratic presidential campaign and a Labour general election one. 

The unsung heroes of Brewers Green resent pamphlets like Forward (and blogs like this) because the movement expects them to take the blame when things go wrong, but not the credit when things go right. By-election victories, killer rapid rebuttal, donor cultivation and conference choreography don’t happen by accident, nor entirely thanks to elected politicians. Instead over-worked, under-paid, often brilliant but entirely anonymous staffers provide the platform on which MPs make their reputation and Labour commentators make their cash. I can’t say I blame them if they don’t take up the many offers of unsolicited advice.

But if they take the time to read this latest collection, I think they’ll find a team of outriders who want to help them entrench much of the best work they’ve pioneered. Whether it’s the increasing effectiveness of Labour’s digital team (itself a hive of Obama alumni) or the professional volunteer management that Arnie Graff and colleagues are doing, many of the lessons of Obama 2012 are already being taken on board. The biggest one that is not – that data should be decision-determinant – is not yet running through all elements of planning not because Labour staff don’t understand it, but because they answer to a shifting constellation of egos and factions that make up the collective leadership of our broad-church party.

The Obama for America chain of command was sufficiently clear that election-watchers sitting in Peckham or Portree knew who did what, with what authority and on the basis of what qualification. I’m not sure even people at the theoretical top of Labour’s organogram could draw it, far less explain it to a spectator from New Hampshire.

Likewise, it didn’t take very much to work out what districts of what states mattered most because the Obama campaign hammered the list home with a relentless and very public discipline. Having one national campaign with one national candidate meant the strategic primacy of harvesting battleground votes went undisputed, but just try getting a safe Labour MP to gift their CLP campaign resources to the nearest marginal and see how far you get.

Two things are really interacting here: the franchise nature of Labour, and the unbalanced geography of power of Britain. For all that Labour’s external comms get branded ‘Team Labour’ anybody who has ever tried to manage even a council-wide campaign will tell you how hard it is to get candidates in the hopeless wards to entirely sacrifice their chances at the altar of working the winnables. Candidates are incredibly powerful in our system because candidates eventually get to be councillors and MPs and the whole Labour infrastructure is geared around servicing the hunches and vested interests of politicians rather than professionals.

That is an entirely proper way to make policy decisions, but a terrible way to make political ones. If a Labour government is going to spend people’s money and make laws to interfere in their lives, the least the punters can expect is that decisions get made by people who’ve had the courtesy to get themselves elected. But if Labour volunteers are going to go out banging on doors to get sworn at in the snow, they too have legitimate expectations: that the tasks they are being asked to do might actually work to deliver a Labour government.

That this is not always so at the moment is exacerbated by the weighting of Britain’s power geography to London. In the US the campaigns are managed from the home state of the candidate, not the capital of the country. It means that a Chicago can make clear-headed decisions about an Ohio, without suffocating under the groupthink of a proximate press pack and the self-interested lobbying of down-ticket candidates. The concentration of the entire political class in SW1, however, means our conversation takes place in broad brush strokes of suburban swtichers and Aldi Mums, rather than precise calligraphy about the folk we actually mean: 92 people in Thurrock, 194 people in Cardiff North, 214 people in Sherwood.

Neither of these entrenched factors of our system is going to be eliminated by one pamphlet. But I hope they can at least be mitigated if people read and understand the clearest lesson of all which emerges from these pages: Obama won because he really, really wanted to. Creating the conditions for victory guided every single decision, including those with which I felt uncomfortable and detail in my own Forward chapter. Reading the collection as a whole, it is hard not to despair when comparing the picture which emerges with that painted by Andrew Adonis in 5 Days in May: “Their side was desperate for power; too many on ours were desperate to give it up”.

Perhaps, therefore, among all Obama’s lessons for Labour the most important is that the change we still need is simple: the will to win. 

Barack Obama speaks on September 28, 2012 at a campaign fund raising event in Washington, DC. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.