A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

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.


Blogger Merseymike said...

I agree with nearly all of that.

The problem, though, is that people like me are still not convinced that we should re-join the party, and there are a lot of us.

11:40 pm, March 17, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good article Luke.

1:08 am, March 18, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with almost all of that.

The world of politics has fundamentally changed over the past few years and the structures of the Labour Party have become relics from a bygone age. To cling to these vestiges of patriarchal nonsense just holds back any truly progressive agenda.

If I disagree with Gordon Brown I'm a 'maverick'; if I think there are some areas of Lib/ Dem education policy that are interesting in I'm regarded as a heretic. If I donate £1200 a year to the Labour Party I'm some sort of radical socialist or a drug addled loyalist.

I'm all these things and more; in truth the existing 1920s/ 1930s political framework holds little interest for me and my friends.

I'm Chair of our local Party and passionate about many things but I care less about maintaining the structure of the Party than I am about ensuring everyone has the information they need to make rational choices about the people who wish to represent them.

1:24 am, March 18, 2009

Blogger Hughes Views said...

Top post Luke, I agree with nearly all of what you've written. There are real dangers in getting transfixed by recent events across the proverbial pond. As the incumbent we're not likely to be swamped by thousands of enthusiastic newcomer supporters or volunteers.

Let’s hope that a lot of members and party officials don’t disappear into months of comfortable theorising about campaigning. There are streets to be pounded and phones to be rung!

But I think there is some scope for more organisational flexibility within the party; one size may not fit all. A structure that works well in the Labour heartlands may not be the ideal one for some key marginal seats...

8:33 am, March 18, 2009

Blogger Letters From A Tory said...

"And the Obama campaign reaffirmed the importance of voter contact - good old-fashioned phone and doorstep canvassing."

The only problem being that any with a red badge or rosette turning up on someone's doorstep is likely to get an earful or possibly a beating. Good luck with that.

9:32 am, March 18, 2009

Blogger Duncan Hall said...

I rather agree with you, Luke. For one thing, our structures are not especially rigid - there has been an agenda of weakening those structures for more than a decade now and - while in some areas there has been successful resistance to that and you still have active branches, sending delegates to the GC, and EC meetings, etc, etc. - for members across much of the country they wouldn't have a clue what I was just going on about: the BLPs have been dissolved into the CLP, which has general open members meetings, and some officers might have occasional separate meetings to plan a newsletter, etc. To be honest, I think we've already been a bit too flexible, organisationally. There has been an effort to build a supporters' network of non-members - almost as if some in the upper echelons of party management wanted to see the huge collapse in party membership we've seen since 1997.

So a bit more rigidity in structures could be a good thing! Where I suspect we might disagree (to an extent) is that we should actually ensure that our systems are more inclusive of and responsive to that membership body outside parliament. The PLP should not be able to veto the membership from playing a full part in policy formulation and candidate selection, whether through their domination of the NEC, or through the election rules for leaders and deputy leaders.

Something like an Obama campaign could have happened in 1997 because there was a tangible shift in opinion - anti-Tory and pro-Labour. It is not something that you can just magic up at any time. What you need is an active and motivated mass membership. And to achieve that you need to reward activism and ensure genuine internal democracy. There was a tactical marginalisation of activists from the mid 80s, and it has left us severely short-handed in much of the country. It's not realistic to look at the handful of pensioners trying to arrange for the free newspaper delivery people to get a few leaflets out for them - the picture in two thirds of CLPs - and imagine it could be transformed into some mass youth machine, all through a few Youtube vids and greater use of text messaging. We have to fix the foundations, and build from there.

9:39 am, March 18, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

An excellent post. I'm entirely in agreement.

10:17 am, March 18, 2009

Blogger E10 Rifle said...

Not often I simultaneously agree with Luke and Dr Dunc on something, but this is one of those occasions.

11:58 am, March 18, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post - the thing that most struck me about the Obama campaign was how like Labour Party campaigns it was compared to the normal Democrat model.

If we are going to learn some lessons the most important are:

- Prioritising paying for staff (organisers) over flashy publicity, billboards etc. (Some Obama offices didn't even have functional printers until the last few days of the campaign, but they had four times the numbers of organisers we would have during an election campaign per head of population.)

- Volunteer management - doing all the things we do now but better, and being bolder in asking people to do things. We don't need to abolish membership to get non-members involved in campaigning & many are more likely to join if they get involved in campaigning first.

- Tieing campaigning into everything we do - eg stopping rallies, conference etc and handing out phones for people to make voter id calls.

It's also worth noting that the Obama campaign is now trying to set up a full-time ongoing campaign mechanism by employing organisers to mobilise communities behind the Obama agenda and compete with lobbyists - they again are learning lessons from us about 4-year campaigns (most people on the ground were shocked to hear we campaigned out of election times).

LFAT - those of us who canvass at least once a week for Labour know that getting an ear-bashing is rare, and most people are happy to see someone. Nice try trying to scare volunteers off.

12:38 pm, March 18, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obama was secretly planted into the American labour movement years ago by Militant. He's a Trot sleeper, with a secret plan to sign the US up to join the Fourth International. You are absolutely right to be distrustful of him.

8:59 am, March 19, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

We know where you live.

9:09 am, March 19, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Luke, spot on. Couldn't agree more.

7:43 pm, March 19, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, also Luke - yes the Obama campaign did micro-manage, and yes it did cause problems at times, BUT they had little alternative due to the fact that most people involved had never eg run a committee room before, or canvassed before, or been an organiser more than 2 months before the election date, etc

Again, our way of doing things doesn't leave us in that situation.

10:44 am, March 20, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post Luke - I helped on the Obama campaign, and although there are parts of it which certainly are transferable, it is simply crazy to believe we can mirror image replicate the whole package, given the context and position we are in.

8:57 pm, March 20, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love the revisionist analysis Luke!

9:54 am, March 21, 2009

Blogger kris said...

Luke, Obama stole it all from the Blair campaign of 97 and sprinkled some twitter on top.

But I forgot, you people threw Blair under the bus. All hail Gordon! (at least this week)

1:51 pm, March 21, 2009


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