Labour has been taking lessons from Obama's "ground game" campaign. Photo: Getty
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Hedge fund managers vs grassroots campaigners: who will dictate the result in 2015?

If Labour’s campaign proves substandard in ten months, the reasons will lie far deeper than hedge fund managers bankrolling the Conservatives. 

“There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” So said Mark Hanna, the American political strategist credited with creating the modern campaign, in 1898.

Labour will be hoping that Hanna is wrong. A senior Labour source told the Times last week, “The Tories will probably outspend us two or three to one from January 2015 onwards.” The Conservatives are expected to spend £19.5m, the limit of what parties are allowed to spend in the year preceding an election; Labour’s spending is likely to be nearer £8m.

The largesse of Tory supporters has led to Labour figures fearing defeat at the hands of Conservative donors. And they are right to be anxious: the spending could turn marginal seats blue.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have invested in high-profile recruits from the Obama campaign – Jim Messina for the Conservatives; David Axelrod and Matthew McGregor for Labour – as if they are trying to convince themselves that the British election will resemble that in America. It is a seductive thought, but also a delusional one: over $1bn was spent on both presidential campaigns in 2012.

If the parties know that matching such funds is an impossibility, they have sought to learn from Obama’s advantage in campaign organisation – “ground game” in politico speak. In The Gamble, the political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck find that Obama gained three-tenths of a point in counties where he had a field office, and six-tenths of a point in counties where Obama had two or more field offices. In total, they estimate that Obama gained 248,000 votes over Romney from the superiority of his field operation. An equivalent advantage in Britain would amount to 50,000 votes in marginal seats: an election-winning prize. No wonder the fixation with the Obama campaign is so great.

The volunteer-driven aspect of Obama’s campaign is particularly attractive to Labour. This owes not to idealism but to desperation: given its perilous finances, Labour has no alternative but to rely on volunteers.

At least Labour can point to a significant advantage in party membership. As of last year, it had 187,000 members to the Conservative party’s 134,000. Rather than the fool’s gold of attempting to match the Tories ad-for-ad, Labour has trained over 100 community organisers, who will be entrusted with readying the volunteer army for battle, focusing on micro issues like payday lenders in areas where these are most prolific. Bottom-up, indeed; but how it squares with paying Axelrod a hefty six-figure sum is less clear.

Labour may like to depict the election as a struggle between their volunteer army and a Tory campaigning machine with more money than sense. But the Conservatives are not eschewing mundane campaigning. The Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps secured a swing of three times the national average when he held his seat in 2010. Newark was flooded with young activists – many eager to quench a late-night thirst – during last month’s by-election, giving a glimpse of the Tories’ Team 2015 campaign. But sheer numbers on the ground seem to count in Labour’s favour: according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling, Labour has recorded swings above the national average in the most marginal seats.

So perhaps Mark Hanna was only half-right. If the first thing that matters in politics is money, the second is the quantity and quality of those campaigning. If Labour’s campaign proves substandard in ten months, the reasons will lie far deeper than hedge fund managers bankrolling the Conservatives. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital