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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Live blog: Jeremy Corbyn hit by shadow cabinet revolt

Three shadow cabinet members resign following the sacking of Hilary Benn. 

11:47 The hope among Labour MPs is that Corbyn will "do the decent thing" and resign if (or rather when) he loses the confidence vote due on Tuesday. They are convinced they will win a majority but believe that reports of "80 per cent support" are wide of the mark. 

11:40 Labour's only Scottish MP, Ian Murray, has just resigned as shadow Scotland secretary. As I noted earlier, this means the job will have to be done by a non-Scottish MP or a peer. 

11:21 Shadow Scotland secretary Ian Murray (see 09:11) and shadow transport secretary Lillian Greenwood are expected to be the next to resign. 

11:11 Shadow minister for young people Gloria De Piero has become the latest to resign. It's worth noting that De Piero is a close ally of Tom Watson (she's married to his aide James Robinson). Many will see this as a sign that the coup has the tacit approval of Watson (who is currently en route from Glastonbury). 

De Piero wrote in her resignation letter to Corbyn: "I have always enjoyed a warm personal relationship with you and I want to thank you for the opportunity to serve in your shadow cabinet. I accepted that invitation because I thought it was right to support you in your attempt to achieve the Labour victory the country so badly needs.

"I do not believe you can deliver that victory at a general election, which may take place in a matter of months. I have been contacted by many of my members this weekend and It is clear that a good number of them share that view and have lost faith in your leadership.”

10:58 Shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry has backed Corbyn, telling Michael Crick that "of course" she has confidence in his leadership. She is the fourth shadow cabinet minister to back Corbyn (along with McDonnell, Abbott and Trickett). 

10:52 Our Staggers editor Julia Rampen has written up Benn and McDonnell's TV appearances. 

"Two different visions for the Labour Party's future clashed today on primetime TV. Hours after being sacked from the shadow cabinet, Corbyn critic Hilary Benn was on the Andrew Marr Show ruling himself out of a leadership challenge. However, he issued a not-so-coded cry for revolt as he urged others to "do the right thing" for the party. Moments later, shadowhancellor John McDonnell sought to quell rumours of a coup by telling Andrew Neil Jeremy was "not going anywhere". He reminded any shadow ministers watching of the grassroots support Labour has enjoyed under Corbyn and the public petition urging them to back their leader."

10:46 Asked to comment, Tony Blair told the BBC: "I think this is for the PLP. I don't think it's right for me or helpful to intervene." 

10:38 On the leadership, it's worth noting that while Corbyn would need 50 MP/MEP nominations to make the ballot (were he not on automatically), an alternative left-wing candidate would only need 37 (15 per cent of the total). 

10:27 Jon Trickett, one of just three shadow cabinet Corbynites, has tweeted: "200,000 people already signed the petition in solidarity with the leadership. I stand with our party membership." 

10:14 McDonnell has told the BBC's Andrew Neil: "I will never stand for the leadership of the Labour Party". He confirmed that this would remain the case if Corbyn resigned. McDonnell, who stood unsuccessfully for the Labour leadership in 2007 and 2010 (failing to make the ballot), added that if Corbyn was forced to fitght another election he would "chair his campaign".  

10:12 Tom Watson is returning from Glastonbury to London. He's been spotted at Castle Cary train station. 

10:07 A spokesman for John McDonnell has told me that it's "not true" that Seema Malhotra, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, is canvassing MPs on his behalf. Labour figures have long believed that the shadow chancellor and former Labour leadership contender has ambitions to succeed Corbyn. 

09:51 Appearing on the Marr Show, Hilary Benn has just announced that he will not stand for the Labour leadership. "I am not going to be a candidate for leader of the Labour Party." Tom Watson, Angela Eagle and Dan Jarvis are those most commonly cited by Corbyn's opponents as alternative leaders. 

09:46 Should Corbyn refuse to resign, Labour MPs are considering electing an independent PLP leader, an option first floated by Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's former press secretary, in the New Statesman. He argued that as the representatives of the party's 9.35 million voters, their mandate trumped Corbyn's.

09:38 Here's Stephen on the issue of whether Corbyn could form a shadow cabinet after the revolt. "A lot of chatter about whether Corbyn could replace 10 of his shadow cabinet. He couldn't, but a real question of whether he'd need to. Could get by with a frontbench of 18 to 20. There's no particular need to man-mark the government - Corbyn has already created a series of jobs without shadows, like Gloria De Piero's shadow minister for young people and voter registration. That might, in many ways, be more stable." 

09:32 Despite the revolt, there is no sign of Corbyn backing down. A spokesman said: "There will be no resignation from the elected leader of the party with a strong mandate".

09:11 Shadow Scotland secretary Ian Murray is one of those expected to resign. As Labour's only Scottish MP, the post would have to be filled by an MP south of the border or a peer. 

09:01 Diane Abbott, Corbyn's long-standing ally, has been promised the post of shadow foreign secretary, a Labour source has told me. 

The shadow international developmnent secretary is one of just three Corbyn supporters in the shadow cabinet (along with John McDonnell and Jon Trickett). Though 36 MPs nominated him for the leadership, only 14 current members went on to vote for him. It is this that explains why Corbyn is fighting the rebellion. He never had his MPs' support to begin with and is confident he retains the support of party activists (as all polls have suggested). 

But the weakness of his standing among the PLP means some hope he could yet be kept off the ballot in any new contest. Under Labour's rules, 50 MP/MEP nominations (20 per cent of the total) are required. 

08:52 Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones has joined the revolt, telling BBC Radio Wales that events make it "very difficult" for Corbyn to lead Labour into the next election. 

08:50 Tom Watson, a pivotal figure who Labour MPs have long believed could determine the success of any coup attempt is currently at Glastonbury. 

08:26 Following Hilary Benn's 1am sacking, Jeremy Corbyn will face shadow cabinet resignations this morning. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has become the first to depart.

The New Statesman will cover all the latest developments here. John McDonnell, Corbyn's closest ally, is appearing on The Andrew Marr Show at 9:45.

"This is the trigger. Jeremy's called our bluff," a shadow cabinet minister told me. He added that he expected to joined by a "significant number" of colleagues. The BBC's Laura Kuenssberg has reported that half of the 30 will resign this morning. 

Corbyn is set to face a vote of no confidence from Labour MPs on Tuesday followed by a leadership challenge. But his allies say he will not resign and are confident that he will make the ballot either automatically (as legal advice has suggested) or by winning the requisite 50 MP/MEP nominations. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.