Not all American lessons cross the pond well
Somewhat belatedly I'm responding to the news that the PM has penned the foreword to a new Fabian pamphlet about things Labour should copy from the Obama campaign.
I want to sound a note of caution.
I think it's great that we are looking at what we can learn from a winning campaign by a sister party.
Clearly there are tactics and technological advances that we need to replicate. And the Obama campaign reaffirmed the importance of voter contact - good old-fashioned phone and doorstep canvassing.
But I am fed up with the "cultural cringe" that assumes we can never innovate in campaigning ourselves, that the Democrats have nothing to learn from New Labour, and that every good campaigning idea originates in the USA.
We just won three General Elections in a period when the Democrats couldn't even beat George W Bush. Maybe as well as looking at the US we should look at what worked here, in our political culture, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.
We are also in danger of being so completely caught up in Obama hype that we forget to look at great campaigning by sister parties that are geographically nearer (the Nordic social democrat parties could teach us a thing or two about organisation) or culturally more similar to us than America is - the Australian Labor victory by Kevin Rudd in a similar parliamentary system to us is a rather more practical model for UK Labour than a massively-funded US Presidential campaign.
The pamphlet isn't out yet but press coverage of it suggests it is overly starry-eyed about the way Obama built a mass movement. We could have done that in 1997 when we were the insurgency against an unpopular government. To a certain extend we did as we managed to get 400,000 people to join the Party. To suggest there is any potential for creating a structure to harness mass volunteer enthusiasm a la Obama for Labour as incumbents in the coming General Election is a dangerous fantasy and a potential waste of time and resource. We need to work out how to deploy and get the maximum effect from our knackered tens of activists per seat, not dream about thousands of youthful fanatics who don't exist in our current political reality or if they did would probably be actively hostile to Labour. In any case as an organiser I know I'd rather have ten experienced activists prepared to canvass for ten hours each than 100 newbies only prepared to do an hour each - the output is the same but the organisational effort involved in training and co-ordination isn't worth it.
Most dangerous of all are the hints at undermining Labour's structures. It's because we have permanent structures that are based on units for fighting elections - branches for council wards, CLPs for constituencies - that we do not have to reinvent campaigning networks every four years at immense financial and organisational cost like the US parties do. The "rigidity" of Labour's structures that the pamphlet knocks is the skeleton around which the flesh and muscle of individual campaigns take shape. The Democrats would do well to copy European political parties and set up permanent membership-based structures.
We don't need or want open primaries here because we are part of a European democratic socialist tradition of membership based parties where - flawed though the model is in Labour's case - membership carries both rights to chose the ideological direction of the party, its policies and candidates and responsibilities to fund the party and campaign - a contract that give us long-term resilience rather than short-term flashes of mass enthusiasm that disappear with the candidate that inspired them. If every Labour MP disappeared, Labour would still exist as a membership organisation and could be rebuilt. It almost happened in 1931. The same would not be the same if the Democrat office-holders all disappeared - there is no permanent body of members that gives their party a life beyond being a series of temporary fan clubs for candidates.
I don't believe for one minute the idea that the Obama campaign was about dropping "Command and Control". It was about making volunteers think they were self-organising but actually was highly controlled in terms of message, tactics and use of IT. I've read precinct organiser packs that Obama's people produced and they micro-directed the ground operation - stuff like specifying when the coffee breaks should be at phone bank sessions and how each committee room should be laid out - to a degree that any Labour Agent, all of us having our own quirky ways of doing stuff - would never accept. Nor did Obama volunteers have the opportunities to debate and dissent from the party's platform and policies that Labour activists expect.
I'm pleased the Fabians are contributing to this debate, but let's not lose sight of the differences between the UK and US that mean many aspects of the Obama campaign experience are inspiring to have seen but either irrelevant to us or actually possibly damaging to the existing campaigning and democratic strengths of the Labour Party.