New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Election 2024
  2. UK Politics
13 June 2012updated 02 Sep 2021 5:34pm

There are reasons to think Beto O’Rourke can’t teach Labour much. Him losing isn’t one

Good campaigns can lose. Bad campaigns can win.

By Stephen Bush

Labour politicians are never happier than when they are learning from America. This holds even when the Labour party is led by a life-long anti-Atlanticist, with a long distrust of the United States’ role in the world.

A lot of people are rolling their eyes at the news that the latest beneficiary of this may be former staffers on Beto O’Rourke’s failed campaign to defeat Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who have been asked to advise Momentum on how they can improve their campaigning here in the United Kingdom. The central reason for the rolled eyes, of course, is that O’Rourke lost.

There are couple of important problems here: the first is that while O’Rourke lost, Texas Democrats had their best overall performance in decades with him at the top of the ticket, picking up vital seats in the House of Representatives and turning the Texas legislature itself into a winnable proposition next time. Declaring him a failure is a lot like declaring a Conservative parliamentary candidate who came within a few thousand votes of defeating Jeremy Corbyn in Islington North while Islington Conservatives won 15 seats on the borough council (they presently have zero) a failure.

The second problem is that one of the things that Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle gets absolutely right is that the most important lessons you can learn from the United States – and indeed, from other countries full stop – are methodological. (As one senior staffer put it in 2016, the really important lessons of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for them were “hold big rallies – make great videos” which certainly helped them in terms of their 2017 campaign.) And, for the most part, a good campaign might lose for other reasons that have nothing to do with its methodology.

Take the Liberal Democrat election campaign in 2017. The party had a very impressive press office, excellent on-the-ground data-gathering, and a lean and well-drilled electoral machine. But, crucially, they had a leader whose views on sexual and reproductive rights put him at odds with the voters they were targeting. The Liberal Democrats had an excellent idea of how badly this was damaging them because of the things that were good about their campaign. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how good your data collection or whatever is if your leader is electoral Kryptonite to the voters that you need.

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Don’t forget that Labour were only an extra 2,227 votes in the right parts of the country from a parliament in which the only viable government would have been one led by Jeremy Corbyn. If Labour had been able to borrow from the things that the Liberal Democrat campaign did well, could they have got those extra 2,227 votes? It’s certainly possible. Could borrowing from the things that O’Rourke did well allow them to do that, or better, next time? Again, it’s definitely possible.

There are, however, legitimate reasons to think that Labour are barking up the wrong tree in this particular instance. Texas was just 70 per cent white at the time of the last census – 87 per cent of the United Kingdom is white. 40 per cent of Texans have a college degree or higher – just a quarter of Brits do. It may be that there are few useful methodological innovations from a very, very different electorate that can be applied to the United Kingdom. Perfectly plausible.

Or you may be of the view that Corbyn himself is so electorally toxic that there are no methodological innovations that can get him past the 40 per cent of the electorate he got last time so it’s a waste of time. This is, again, plausible, but it is a very, very, very big call given that very few people in January 2017 thought he could get more than 25 per cent of the vote with the downside risk that anyone making it will look very foolish.

It is, however, at least a theory whose moving parts are in place, which is more than can be said for dismissing Momentum’s plan to learn from Beto O’Rourke simply because he “only” came close in Texas.

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