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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.