Labour has been taking lessons from Obama's "ground game" campaign. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Show Hide image

En français, s'il vous plaît! EU lead negotiator wants to talk Brexit in French

C'est très difficile. 

In November 2015, after the Paris attacks, Theresa May said: "Nous sommes solidaires avec vous, nous sommes tous ensemble." ("We are in solidarity with you, we are all together.")

But now the Prime Minister might have to brush up her French and take it to a much higher level.

Reuters reports the EU's lead Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, would like to hold the talks in French, not English (an EU spokeswoman said no official language had been agreed). 

As for the Home office? Aucun commentaire.

But on Twitter, British social media users are finding it all très amusant.

In the UK, foreign language teaching has suffered from years of neglect. The government may regret this now . . .

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.