“Voters no longer just consume content, they produce it, they share it and they persuade each other.” These were the words of Jim Margolis, who ran Barack Obama’s advertising strategy during the 2012 presidential race. In many ways, these words define a modern political communications landscape that is more diverse, democratic and discursive.
I recently met Margolis and others from the 2012 Obama team, including David Axelrod who arrives in the UK this week, during a visit Chicago and Washington to discuss political communications and campaigning. They offer a unique insight into winning elections by utilising new technology, having expansive field operations and by deploying a powerful cost-of-living argument. That’s why it’s great news that Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander have hired Axelrod and co. to play a central role in Labour’s forthcoming election fight.
As Axelrod and his colleagues meet with the shadow cabinet this week, it is worth reflecting on some of the lessons from the US on campaign communications which are relevant for Labour.
The first is the importance of retaining and strengthening your argument. Those who argue Labour must change course from cost-of-living are wrong. Labour’s living standards agenda resonates and must be reinforced. Labour’s cost-of-living argument is about taking action now – like freezing energy bills or taxing bank bonuses to pay for youth jobs – but also it’s about making big changes to our economy for the future – like fixing the energy market and the banking system that are ripping off hard-pressed families and small businesses.
Barack Obama put the challenge well when he said in a speech in Kansas in December 2011: “This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class… At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family…this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share
Similarly, in January this year, Ed Miliband set out Labour’s general election argument: “The British middle class is being squeezed by a cost-of-living crisis as never before…The greatest challenge for our generation is how to tackle a crisis in living standards.”
The cost-of-living argument is the right argument and it’s also a winning argument. On the 2012, eve of poll in the US, Mitt Romney had a 7-point lead on “best to handle the economy” and a 14-point lead on “best to handle the deficit”. But Obama had an 8-point lead on “understanding economic problems facing ordinary people” and an 11-point lead “looking out for the middle classes”.
Another big lesson from the US is the increasing importance of online communications in modern campaigning. Obama himself said that “one of the biggest surprises of the campaign [was] just how powerfully our message merged with social networking and the power of the internet”. Today in the UK, there are 33 million Facebook accounts – half the population. A third of adults read their news online, whilst nearly a quarter use social media for news.
That is why every aspect of campaigning, whether online, on the doorstep or on the airwaves, should be integrated to mutually reinforce the same message. Like on the doorstep, in the digital world you can’t expect the voters to come to you. You have to build relationships and empower them. Labour is making strides here, which is why Dan Ryan, head of web-design for America 2012, recently said of Labour’s website: “This is the most innovative political splash page I’ve seen…It’s really great to see a political party really innovate in the web engagement space.”
Equally importantly, Obama in 2012 used online campaigning to expand the electorate, appealing to new and young voters – vital when recent figures in the UK highlight that 60 per cent of young people say they will not vote in 2015. The Obama mantra of “go local” replicated the doorstep conversation online. They used “big data’”to “ladder” voters from curiosity to activism.
Obama in 2012 also prioritised attack and rebuttal (just ask Mitt Romney if he regrets writing off 47 per cent of the American public). That is why Labour is building a new operation at our Brewers Green HQ so that when the Tories and their friends in the press tell a lie about Labour, we will hit back immediately and nail that lie.
What we are seeing in this local and European election campaign is how community and doorstep campaigning is driving Labour’s online communications – and vice versa. We know Labour is able to to call upon thousands more activists than a Conservative Party that has seen its membership halve under David Cameron. But in the face of hugely more powerful digital communications, the right-wing-dominated print press is also no longer the force it once was. And an online focus means that big money does not perhaps bring the same comparative advantage for the Conservatives that it once did. For example, an “infographic” is basically the same as an poster on a billboard, but it costs a lot less and far more people can see it on social media.
So digital communications combined with thousands of people campaigning on the ground – Labour’s great strengths today – are now more important than ever. As we will discuss this week with those who delivered Barack Obama to the White House, and kept him there, this will be a central part of Labour’s activity as we approach the general election.
By relentlessly focusing on how we as a country build an economy that works for working people, one where we earn and grow our way to higher living standards and shared prosperity, just like Obama in 2012, Labour has a winning argument as well as a winning campaign for 2015.