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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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