What can British political parties learn from Obama?

12:48 pm - November 3rd 2008

by Nick Anstead    

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Internet guru recently Tim O’Reilly published a blog entry titled Why I Support Barack Obama. In 2004, O’Reilly coined the phrase web 2.0 to describe the new forms of content creation and organization occurring on sites like YouTube, Wikipedia and eBay (if you are still a bit hazy about the web 2.0 concept, this video may help).

O’Reilly pointed to the way Obama had run his election campaign, especially online. He argued this proved that the Senator would be a President comfortable in the information age.

We should hope so. The web is changing pretty much every aspect of our lives – how we access information, how we shop, even how we interact with our friends and loved ones. It is certainly changing how American politics works.

This is most obvious in political fundraising. Obama has achieved unprecedented fundraising success, raising more than $600 million, largely through online donations. But the web also made Obama successful in more traditional, community-based forms of politics. Using the web, Obama was able to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers to work in key swing states. in North Carolina, not won by a Democrat since 1976, he has 17,000 volunteers and 40 field offices. In Virginia, in the Republican column since 1964, Obama had enough volunteers to canvas more than a quarter of a million houses in one weekend. How was this success achieved?

The Obama campaign team (unlike the Clinton campaign) were not control freaks. They let their supporters self-organize, so activists could recruit more volunteers and donors from their communities. Rather than just being lackies for paid political hacks, volunteers could be promoted through the campaign structure and end up managing teams of people. The Obama team even allowed their supporters to use the campaign’s website to criticize the candidate and his political issues. In simple terms, supporters were treated as grown ups, rather than a commodity.

By controlling a bit less and enabling a bit more, the Obama team were able to build a much more powerful political organization, able to harness the creativity and enthusiasm of millions of Americans.

In the early days of the Internet, people linked the new technology as libertarian. But that is wrong. The Internet is heralding a new form of collectivism. If we think of virtually everything remarkable that happens online – whether it is the Obama campaign or an amateur YouTube video getting millions of hits, it works because people are interacting, collaborating and exchanging information.

Can British parties harness this powerful new organizing tool? In a Fabian free thinking paper that I have co-authored with Will Straw, we explore the possible lessons from the Obama campaign for Labour. But the challenges are huge. It certainly means that parties have to change fundamentally. For the past twenty-five years, Labour’s organizing ideology has stressed central control and professionalism at the expense of grassroots participation. Even dissenters from this position, such as Save the Labour Party, have tended to advocate a very institutionalized model of “resolutionary socialism”, and are seemingly obsessed with the power of an annual conference.

Both of these approaches stifle new collectivism, which works best in an open, organic and fluid environment. If they are really serious about learning the lessons of the Obama campaign, Labour must break out of this old debate, and instead look for new ways to open up its institutions, encourage participation and, above all, trust citizens enough to give them a genuine stake in the party and its campaigns. That really would be a revolutionary change.

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About the author
Nick Anstead is a co-author with Will Straw of Yes We Can: How Lessons From America Should Change British Politics, published by the Fabian Society at www.fabians.org.uk. He is a lecturer in US politics at the University of East Anglia.
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Reader comments

We are still light years behind the Americans as far as propagting politics via the internet is concerned, we have much to learn still.

An Obama win is starting to look more rather than less likely. I’d like to know what an Obama Presidency would mean for Britons.

Oh please! How many of the volunteers in this US election have never been involved formerly? How much of the money raised during this election came from previously untapped sources?

Really this article is falling for the hype surrounding Obama – yes, he has done some things differently and some better, but it’s not all that much of a change.

I think describing authoring a ‘Fabian free-thinking’ paper must be some sort of self-congratulatory irony resulting from a myopic obsession with the Labour party. If the author was truly free-thinking he would perhaps be able to look across the spectrum of UK political parties where he would see a wide variety of different practises.

I think one lesson from Obama that Labour are going to find difficult to take on board is the political message of change. People seem to have a tendency to boil Obama’s campaign down to its organising techniques and ignore the heart of it – politics.

Is a Brown government really going to be able to say “let’s withdraw from an unpopular and costly war” no, of course it isn’t, no matter how it structures campaign teams.

Is it going to be able to say let’s bring in more state intervention into health care to benefit the most needy when it’s been in charge of introducing massive private investment and control over NHS services? The only area it can authentically reproduce is a deepening commitment to combatting climate change – but that has to start today, not during the election campaign.

Its natural to look to Obama as a winner (hopefully) for lessons – but unless people take on board that there’s a political message that’s winning people over they’ll miss the point entirely. Obama isn’t just a good spin doctor who’s mobilised supporters by a sheer act of will – he’s a candidate worth supporting.

Why do British politicians have anything to learn from American politics? I mean, American political culture is completely different to ours – as this election campaign has made clear. In many ways we’re much better off.

if British politicians took hints from the Americans they would be seen as ranting, religious loons obsessed with their opponents personal lives and backgrounds. Whereas if an American politician acted like a British one they’d think he was boringly buttoned-down and wonder why he wasn’t fighting back against the attack ads.

Obama’s success in fundraising and recruiting activists suggest to me that political parties in the UK shouldn’t be funded by the state. British people are not apathetic about politics, and if parties cannot recruit activists and donations then it’s because the parties don’t inspire people.

Thomas – its easy to be cynical from far, but let me tell you something – this election is very definitely different from the others.

Yesterday a woman at our phone bank broke down crying in happiness at the number of people who had turned up to volunteer. Over the weekend we had over 700 people come in and volunteer just at this one office – and there are over 50 offices across LA alone.

In Pennsylvania – volunteers knocked on over 1.8m doors across the state just on Sat and Sunday!

Anyone who says this is politics as usual has clearly, clearly not realised how many people are getting involved in this election. I’m telling you, its insane.

This bit:
But that is wrong. The Internet is heralding a new form of collectivism. If we think of virtually everything remarkable that happens online – whether it is the Obama campaign or an amateur YouTube video getting millions of hits, it works because people are interacting, collaborating and exchanging information.

Is spot on.

All I can say is I’ll be thoroughly pissed off if he loses.

But no two elections are alike. This partly because the issues and characters are different, but largely because the techniques and technologies evolve as the lessons are learnt or forgotten.

Sceptical, but never cynical.

I also seen people break down in sheer joy at the positive responses and enthusiastic offers of help during elections – this is normal close to the end of a good campaign when emotions are running high and the collective feeling is palpable.

But while I wish you all the luck in the world getting the vote out tomorrow mine would be a clear-headed choice on the options from knowledge which I’ve had available to me – mine is not a belief in any candidate as the messianic saviour we’ve all been waiting for, so I warn you in the fullness of enthusiasm not to get your hopes up too high.

Obama is as human as the next person and all political careers end in failure, so be careful about overburdening his (finger-crossed) presidency with unrealistic expectations.

Nevertheless you can tell everybody there that he has the best wishes of this critical white working-class independent, and that I hope I am representative of my demographic on that side of the water.

Just please remember that for the successful candidate polling day is not the climax of the job it is only just the beginning.

I also strongly wish to congratualate the efforts in resisting temptation and preventing any serious notes of sourness from entering the campaign – it will leave a lasting legacy of goodwill among even the bitterest of opponents which will assist conciliation and progress long after the result is consigned to history. Win or lose this message is one that will set an example for democracy in all its forms in every corner of the world.

I’m interested in how far the US Election is actually a competition of marketing rather politics, and how far voters have become a commodity to be consumed by political parties.

I’m amazed that anybody wants to save the Labour Party. Let them wallow in their corruption and incompetence, now that they are the enemy of the working-class.

Hi all, thanks for your comments.

To handle a few key issues.

Thomas – a lot of evidence would suggest that Obama is gaining political support and activism from those who have never been involved before. Young people in particular have been galvanised by his candidacy.

But this must also be seen as the culmination of a process. US civil society has gradually been re-awakened since 2000. If one measures the level of activism among the electorate in 2004, you find it was the highest recorded since the late 1960s (you can go and crunch the numbers for yourself over at the American Election Survey website. The AES has been asking a set of participation questions since 1952). Although we won’t have the data for a number of months, I suspect this election will be even higher.

So I strongly disagree with your assertion that no two elections are alike. Political life has rhythms and patterns which extend beyond a single election cycle, which ensures that no election is isolated from what comes before or after. Dean proved the potential of networked campaigning, Obama managed to harness it. In structural terms, the networks created to oppose the Iraq War have been significant in both 2004 and 2008.

As for only considering the Labour Party, I suspect you should probably avoid Fabian pamphlets if that is a problem for you. Although, in fact, I think ours makes far broader points about civic society and the evoluition of social interaction, and how it relates to competative politics. I hope the arguments it articulates would be relevant to any British political party.

Jim – A good point in the short term about Labour’s current situation, but ultimately my interest is in the longer future of political mobilisation. Admittedly, I have the luxury of not being a professional politician, so I can afford to think further ahead.

Woobegone – In the opening paragraphs of my bit of the pamphlet, I deal with this issue. My argument is that this is not Americanisation (Americanization..?) but modernisation. That means the Obama campaign signifies new ways of doing politics in a changing social environment. I strongly endorse your point that culture and institutions make a huge difference to the way politics is done (believe me, I spend a lot of my time thinking about such things!), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t general lessons about mobilisation that can be learned. I certainly don’t think our pamphlet buys into the hype. This isn’t about quick fixes.

Philip – asbolutely agree. I don’t know if you saw a piece that I had published on the New Statesman website last week, but it made exactly that point.

Nick – Point taken, and I’m sure you have thought about this! I don’t have time to read the pamplet, but what worries me about the whole idea that the internet could become a major force in British politics is that we don’t really “do” grassroots. I mean there are grassroots campaigns on issues – like Stop the War – but not for political parties. I vote Lib Dem but I’d never go to a Lib Dem “rally” like the kind that Obama is so good at. Likewise, if the Lib Dems set up some kind of online grassroots effort, I don’t think I’d join.

To be fair maybe it would work. Maybe it would change British politics for the better. I guess what I’m saying is that it would be a real fundamental change, not just a better way of getting funds and votes. It would mean a change in our whole political culture. But maybe that’s what we want? 🙂

quick response.

I also get a sense of increased activism levels, and that while some of this may be due to the inspirational nature of Obama’s ‘transformative’ persona I tend to agree that this is more likely to be derived from a harnessing of a better connected campaigning effort developed from Howard Dean-inspired techniques and more fully involving voters – but doesn’t this support the reasoning I outlined for claiming no two elections are alike?

Dear Nick

Thanks for the puff for Save the Labour Party. I’m not sure where you got your information about our stance on policy-making, which you expressed as:

……. a very institutionalized model of “resolutionary socialism”, and are seemingly obsessed with the power of an annual conference.

Surely it would have been more relevant to refer to our collaborative work with CommentonThis.com and Compass Youth to open up the policy-making process during the third year of the latest policy-making round inside the Labour Party?

Peter Kenyon
chair, Save the Labour Party
clerk, LabOUR Commission
Labour Party NEC member – constituency section

Hi Peter,

Sorry if I’ve misunderstood, but in our previous conversations, you didn’t seem too enamoured with what I would term soft-institutional internal party democracy (relying on feedback loops and a more “open source” model). As I understood it, Save the Labour Party is in favour of rooting democracy through branches, CLPs and, ultimately conference – in other words a hard institutional form. Is that not correct (if it isn’t, then I’m sorry – I’ve misunderstood your position). My view, as you know, is those institutions offer far too narrow avenues for participation. Instead, we need to find a way of giving activists a carrot and a stick to genuinely influence politician’s behaviour. The mechanism for empowerment must be self-generated collectivism.

Also, I probably shouldn’t have used the phrase “resolutionary” democracy as that has pejorative connotations (my intention was to use it descriptively), but ultimately am I right in saying that the form of internal party democracy you are in favour of relies on resolutions (in other words policy expressed through long expressions of tightly worded language) running up through the structure of the party?

Best, Nick

Dear Nick

Thanks for responding so promptly. We are going to have to unpack our democracy, the role of political parties, judiciary, legislature and executive a little bit more before you will draw an answer out of me to your final question.

I know we have recently experienced a period of executive ‘sofa’ activity during which writing decisions down was frowned upon. Look where it lead us…to war. The Judiciary and the Legislature have so far as I can establish continued with the time-honoured fashion of writing down what is said, and/or intended, debated, decided or judged. Political parties are in the business of determining a set of values and aspirations, seeking electoral support and, if successful at an election in winning power, turning those ideas into law to enable implementation.

So to that extent my colleagues and I agree that it is a good idea to resolve what are values and aspirations are in as an unambiguous form of words as possible.

You may not be aware that Save the Labour Party was a prime mover behind the LabOUR Commission and we supported retaining Partnership in Power and the National Policy Forum as a better way of making policy than the former Annual Conference resolution-based system. There were, however, a long list of reforms to PiP and the NPF in the LabOUR Commission Interim Report to enable PiP to genuinely reflect members’ views when it comes to writing the next Election Manifesto. I am struggling to remember a single one that has yet to be recommended by the Party’s National Executive Committee, let alone Annual Conference.

The result tonight across the pond will merely add to the urgency with which the Labour Party has to act to unleash that huge reawakening we both yearn, and which I cited on my blog earlier today. And yes, you got a ‘puff’.

Sorry Thomas – didn’t respond directly to your previous point. I think it does rather disprove your point about elections not being alike. Rather they exist within a linked continuum. The Dean campaign heralded the start of a new form of campaigning, the Obama campaign was the next stage of that process. But there are clear linkages between the two. I would venture to suggest that the stage afterwards may take place outside an election cycle as Obama supporters figure out how to influence their party in power. Who knows where that will lead us?

Peter – thanks for the reply. Sofa government was a problem of the executive, rather than the party. After all, the man who coined the phrase, Lord Butler, was advocating a return to cabinet government and a generalist civil service.

The unambiguous form of words sounds attractive on the face of it, but lets imagine the by-product – bureaucracy, long drawn out meetings, and haggling over the precise positioning and meaning of words. This is hardly a vibrant, participatory form of democracy for the Web 2.0 age. I simply don’t believe that it can construct broad communities of deliberation, because it is such an atypical form of activity for most citizens. Therefore it generates tendencies towards to things: apathy and centralisation of power (either in the hands of a motivated middle management – as in the 80s – or the party leadership – as in the 90s. Neither of these situations strikes me as terribly attractive).

The problem I have with this debate in Labour at the moment is that you are either on one side of it or the other. However, things have changed since the time when the terms of that debate were framed. There are so many other ways to engage in deliberative action. Barriers to collective action have been lowered considerably, so parties need can rely far more on self-mobilised collective action. At the very least, we need to change the terms of the discussion.

Oh and thanks for the link! I have just added you to my blogroll.

In the early days of the Internet, people linked the new technology as libertarian. But that is wrong. The Internet is heralding a new form of collectivism. If we think of virtually everything remarkable that happens online – whether it is the Obama campaign or an amateur YouTube video getting millions of hits, it works because people are interacting, collaborating and exchanging information.

Uhh, really? There is nothing *more* libertarian than the idea of people voluntarily coming together and creating spontaneous order through millions of decentralized actions. It’s no coincidence that Wikipedia, for instance, was inspired by one of Hayek’s essays.

Dan: Wikipedia, for instance, was inspired by one of Hayek’s essays.

Out of interest, which one?


I’m pretty sure it was The Use of Knowledge in Society.

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