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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.

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

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.