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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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.