Are we learning from Obama’s campaign?

8:24 pm - March 24th 2009

by Anthony Painter    

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There is a real difficulty in translating the Obama campaign to the UK. Inevitably, we end up focusing on the easy bits – the technology for example. The tougher bits such as how you pluck a energised movement out of the ether tend to be ignored. We focus on the more recent influences on Obama ’08 – and the Howard Dean campaign – and forget that it is actually rooted in very old-fashioned politics.

The Fabian Society’s Change We Need launched with self-conscious irony in Millbank Tower last night. Though excellent in many respects, it falls into this trap to a degree.

There is a strong emphasis on the technological aspects of the campaign, with Nick Anstead and Will Straw declaring that, “The 2008 election will be remembered for Barack Obama’s mastery of the internet.”

I’m willing to bet a crisp ten dollar bill that won’t be in the top ten reasons for why this last election will be remembered. Actually, even if we only focus on the campaign itself, the internet was a mere fraction of the Obama ’08 story.

When researching Barack Obama: The Movement For Change, I met people like Al Kindle, who was Obama’s ‘street heat’- the guy who registered the voters and got out the vote street by street- in the new president’s Senate run in 2004. He was quite clear: the origins of the Obama’s campaign were actually in Chicago’s independent Democratic politics in the 1970s and 1980s which coalesced around getting Harold Washington- Chicago’s first African American mayor- elected in unlikely circumstances in 1983.

They built a movement outside traditional Democratic party structures, raised cash through tens of thousands of small donations, constructed innovative coalitions, made the public policy argument to shift resources to deprived neighbourhoods, and delivered change. Sound familiar?

David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, wrote the blueprint for Harold Washington’s re-election campaign in 1987. Barack Obama himself saw it at close quarters as a community organiser in some of those deprived neighbourhoods. As Al Kindle said, “What we did for Barack in Iowa is exactly the same as we did for Harold and as we did for Obama’s run for US Senate. We played the rules, registered the voters and built a coalition.”

Obama ’08 projected that style of personalised, movement campaigning onto a national scale- the internet helped sure but that’s not the core lesson. Ben Brandzel speaking at the event last night cautioned that the Ken Livingstone campaign had all the technological tools that the Obama campaign had. Why wouldn’t they? They are straightforward after all but that didn’t instantly transform it into an Obama-esque movement based campaign.

So we are learning many incomplete lessons from Obama ’08. A crucial difference is also under-estimated. The Obama campaign was constructed outside of the Democratic party- it’s almost as if he built a new political party then conducted a hostile takeover of the Democrats. Certainly in the case of the Labour party, the question is being asked about how these changes can be adopted inside the party. The institutional and cultural barriers are significant. They are not insurmountable but a pretty good pole vaulting technique will be a basic requirement.

Perhaps there is a more basic and fundamental question that the Obama campaign provokes for the Labour party. What sort of Labour party is desirable? What sort of party do the British people want and then how do we get there?

Let me take a crack at it as a starter for ten: Labour should be a movement based party that is grounded in local communities, responds to them, provides political leadership, and identifiably makes a difference to people’s lives on every level of government. As a basic starting point, the number of people who are actively involved- on a number of different levels- with the Labour party has to increase ten-fold.

Such a party would bring many people, so long alienated form politics, back in from the cold. This will mean designing institutions around objectives rather than vice versa.

The answer is not in the internet- though that will help to a degree – and it’s not in building unstable coalitions of special interests. Obama ’08 can’t provide all the answers ultimately though it can give us hope that it can be done. Rather we have to completely re-think the Labour party’s role in relation to people, communities and their relationship to the political process.

It will be doing some things right already but falling short elsewhere. It will need the sort of extraordinary local leadership demonstrated by those Chicago pioneers thirty years or so ago. Ready to step up to the plate?

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About the author
This is a guest post. Anthony is author of Barack Obama: The Movement for Change and blogs at
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Reader comments

I think this is exactly right.

Since the launch of LabourList there’s been a hilarious amount of guff published about whether it will help Labour in any way – of course it won’t, as if the web can be used to recruit thousands of people.

Alastair Campbell even thought he was recruiting people to the party through his blog. How does that compare to the number of people he’s driven away?

Unless they learn about localism, community organising and engagement, its a waste of time. The online operations won’t do anything.

Labour won’t change its policies or political ideology in government, especially not now. If they want to learn from Obama, they need to reassess their entire approach to politics and ask what people in the UK really need.

The technology and even the community organising come after all of that. They can do as much community organising as they like but until it is clear to the public that they are a party willing to look themselves in the mirror and change themselves before they try to change the country, people just won’t want to know.

On a separate issue, why have they chosen the dregs of their party to lead their online presence? John Prescott, Derek Draper, Alastair Campbell… do they really think these are the faces of a new energised movement? They just remind people of all the reasons they went off Labour in the first place. They might as well have Tony McNulty present a talk show.

I saw this on Alix Mortimer’s blog, and while I share her apprehension of the six in question, surely they’d make a better choice to front Labour’s net machine?

“surely they’d make a better choice to front Labour’s net machine?”

The best that can be said for this lot is that they can’t do any worse than Dolly Draper. Alix has hit the nail on the head as she so often does; how can an identikit drone like Reeves possibly be thought of as one of the brightest and best? Her campaign in Bromley & Chislehurst was appalling; finishing behind Nigel Farage says it all. Of those six only Chuka stands out and even then his comments re the Miranda Grell affair really stuck in the craw.

Perhaps people should read pages 10 and 11 of the Prologue of his ” The Audacity of Hope”. This appears far more of a traditionalI (liberty and and supportive of small businesses) Liberal , working class Labour or one nation conservative view of politics than many middle class left wing metropolitan humanities educated types in the UK. I have not heard many middle class left wing people revere the courage and competence of our military; state their belief in free markets and entrepreneurship; reject the politics of victimhood or consider a breakdown in culture which will not be cured by money alone.

It was said that the Labour Party owd more Methodism than Marxism. If it wants to re-connect to it’s core vote of hard working , honest, aspirational , often traditional in outlook , vaguely patriotic and supportive of the Armed Forces members of the working and lower middle classes, it may have to jettison much of it’s “progressive ” left wing middle class metropolitan views. Those who have been burgled may not be too concerned about CCTV and the Big Brother state.

I thnk it it is time the left wing middle class types considered the implications of newspaper sales , only 400,000 buy the Guardian ; approximately 3.4 million buy Daily Mail and Telegraph and the Sun outsells the Daily Mirror by over 500,000.

Yeah, because what we should learn from twelve years of New Labour is to try and be MORE right wing. Idiot.

This dichotomy where only “middle class” left-wingers are radical, anti-business, anti-military is rubbish. How are you even defining “middle class” for this little bigotry binge? There’s a reason the “liberal” working class was superceded – and it was because the Liberal Party didn’t have the vocabulary to engage with the major issues confronting a working class that was growing more organised and more radicalised under the pressures of capitalist crisis.

When we organise and radicalise people, we’ll create a shift to the Left, rather than simply sitting on our hands and saying “Ah well, if the Daily Mail says it, it must be true.”

The point made @4 is a good one, I think: Obama’s politics are, from the point of view of the British Left as I have experienced it, quite right-wing in some places. Not so much in others. Mind you, we’ve all spent the last five years saying “So are Blair’s”.

I concur absolutely with Anthony Painter in pointing to Obama’s community-organiser years as crucial in determining the kind of campaign he ran, and its success. In saying this, Mr. Painter is citing Obama’s own story as to why he won. What you make of that is up to you.

But the main quote from this article that I am commenting on is:

“They built a movement outside traditional Democratic party structures, raised cash through tens of thousands of small donations, constructed innovative coalitions, made the public policy argument to shift resources to deprived neighbourhoods”

A movement outside the structure of the party. Innovative coalitions. Grass-roots movement. Decentralised.

Oo, hang on, what’d I say there? No, the Obama campaign was not terribly decentralised, though from the pov of the DNC it was dangerously so. It was a political hybrid, and that’s a good part of the reason why it worked.

I’d argue (and have in other comment debates) that decentralisation is being enforced upon anyone who wants to survive. The era of mass-conformist, herd-driven landslides achieved by straight-forward demagoguery in the service of a good idea is probably over; a more informed commentariat makes it hard, the negative-campaign machines make it very hard (even the Right, with their astounding machine for mobilising hate and anger, couldn’t manage a decent margin), and decades of betrayal by skilled demagogues make it harder still. The rising political stars of the last 20 years have been the conservation and road-protest movements, the Greens (not the party, the movement), the Neo-Pagan religions (particularly in the US since the 1980s), Stop the War, etc. Broad-based coalition movements which network together multiple autonomous nodes into a powerful tool. Sound familiar?

The main thing I would debate with Mr. Painter is this phrase:

“and delivered change”

I believe this is entirely not the case, and I hope President Obama agrees with me. The coalition you’re describing promised change; we are currently waiting to see what, and how much, the administration actually delivers.

John @6.

Steady- you’re putting words in my mouth there. I never mentioned ‘grass-roots’ and ‘decentralised’ as defining characteristics of the Obama campaign. In fact, I avoided the words deliberately. The Obama campaign was both top down AND bottom up: it combined both forces. For a good discussion on this please see Zack Exley on the ‘new organisers’:

When I mentioned ‘delivered change’ I was talking about the forces around Harold Washington. In the context of Chicago politics they did- significantly shifting power and voice to South and West side relatively deprived neighbourhoods of Chicago.

Charlie @4: you are right about the mainstream nature of Obama’s politics- look at the way he tried- even though he failed- to reach out to Republicans.

But why then use this to attack middle class liberal voices? Obama has elements of that sensibility. He is, amongst many other things, a Harvard lawyer who lived in Hyde Park, Chicago, the most liberal middle class part of town in the shadow of the University of Chicago. Can we get past this sterile authentic (white) working class v ‘inauthentic’ liberal middle class thing please? It’s a constant drain on the energy of the left.


Thanks for an engaged and interesting critique.

As the publisher, I don’t speak for the editors and authors, who can make their own argument. I think they are also keen to stress that those who think the most important lessons are technological rather than political will miss a large part of the point. (It may be that the nature of the project, by looking in-depth at the different aspects, was to get lessons at different levels). In any case, if you hear them appearing to argue the opposite, they will need to amplify that argument. So I hope Nick Anstead and/or Will Straw might join in on this one.

For myself, I very much agree about top-down and bottom-up; and about controlled and decentralised. The big point is that we have had a five decade plus debate about “All power to ….” the members, the constituencies, the PLP, the leader. That has often been an argument about who really and ultimately has legitimacy to determine what the party is for. And the politics of that has often been an oscillation between top-down (for electoral success) and bottom-up (for democratic legitimacy) control of a monolithic party. Well, this is an argument against a monolithic party structure. Because if we were to work out what the party should be for (social and political change – through electoral success and holding power; through public-facing advocacy in society and in communities; through sustaining participation to achieve both) and working out the effective and legitimate roles of all of the different parts of such a movement. It will be organised, and it will be messy. And it will require several groups to think through their pre-existing instincts and positions at all levels of the party.

I think much of that is both implict and explicit in the Change We Need pamphlet (particularly the editors’ conclusion) while an earlier articulation of a broadly similar argument (with similar broad direction of travel) about parties engaging with movement politics was made in the 2007 Fabian pamphlet ‘Facing Out’. How that is translated to change at all of the different levels of the party is a serious question. That debate needs to take place within the party, in parallel organisations and spaces (like the Fabian Society, the emerging Labour blogosphere) and to also be connected to voices involved in movement politics outside it (like Liberal Conspiracy, other progressive constituencies which contain Labour and not-Labour people).

Can we get past this sterile authentic (white) working class v ‘inauthentic’ liberal middle class thing please? It’s a constant drain on the energy of the left.

Well said. No one commenting here is working class, we are all middle class, and most if not all of us are liberal. None of that is a bad thing.

7 and 9. My comments are based upon listening to self employed craftsmen and foremen in industry; many who have served or have familiy and friends who have served in the Armed Forces and do not have much time( based upon their comments ) for archetypal Guardian readers. In fact many of the types who in the USA, voted for Hilary Clinton .

Yes, as you acknowledge Sunder @8, ‘Change we need’ covers a wide area and I would encourage anyone who is interested in the future of the left- not just the Labour party- to read it. My strong impression from the event on Monday and the book itself is that it leans too heavily on the wizz-bang aspects on Obama ’08. We are talking about emphasis, however, and that needs to be made clear if I didn’t quite achieve that in the article above (which I intended to). And it is clear that we are approaching this in the same spirit.

On the technology- it’s useful but we already have enough technology to organise so it’s not really a factor for real concern going forward. Facebook and the rest of it are fine, and we are both power users of that and other things, but I’m not at all sure it has real motivational application. The way that we are ultimately going to get people engaged is face to face, door to door, listening, responding, demonstrating that we can change communities. Everything I’ve experienced through political campaigning- in the West Midlands in the main- convinces me that this local, personalised, politics is the way to go. That is the assessment made by the Obama ’08 campaign also- based on his own experiences in Chicago. It did though integrate that cultural attitude and organisation with a highly disciplined national campaign.

There is a broader political point to make. We do have to avoid the mechanism which is a tired political trick of saying unless you advocate this or that policy then you are out of touch. Once we fall into that trap, we are finished. To avoid that we have to not only be engaged but we need to have a broader and free-flowing movement based politics. We need to listen outside the Labour party as well as to voices inside it- some of those voices may be very quiet though numerous so we must listen intently to the murmur. ‘Change we need’ argues for such a movement. I wholeheartedly agree. Ultimately, I suspect, that is something that needs to be inspired from above (an ‘above’ that is responsive) and delivered below.

12. Mike Killingworth

[10] Charlie, what age-groups were these guys (I assume they were all men) in? Ex-service personnel represent a small fraction of the electorate, we haven’t had conscription for 50 years, and those who volunteer to serve in the ranks are a self-selecting group.

More generally, the big difference in terms of political organisation is that in the USA it’s necessary to get people to register to vote. Parties here don’t need to do that, the State does it – although that may change of course.

I agree 100% with the comment that Labour needs a massive membership drive. The precodindtions for this are (i) opposition and (ii) a willingness to open up candidate selection. In many ways it would be easier to do this if the Party wound itself up and started again!

Comparing my (very small) campaign to the US candidates’ very large ones, this is almost exactly what I found.

The internet gives campaigners one big advantage, if they can use it properly: you can get out a message in multiple outlets at low financial cost. But to do that, you have to do unglamorous, non-technological things properly- like getting your facts right, expressing yourself as clearly as possible, building a broad coalition.

And once you have started a campaign on the web, you can’t keep it there. You need letters, telephone calls, face to face contacts. It’s a lot harder to brush somebody off in a meeting than it is to delete an email.

The number of campaigns to have either started in the UK blogosphere, or to have had a strong presence there, is pitifully small. I’m afraid that’s going to continue for as long as people fetishise technology or repeat empty slogans, and ignore the realities of activism. The internet has not changed everything.

Anthony @7:

Steady- you’re putting words in my mouth there. I never mentioned ‘grass-roots’ and ‘decentralised’ as defining characteristics of the Obama campaign. In fact, I avoided the words deliberately. The Obama campaign was both top down AND bottom up: it combined both forces.

This is entirely true: I said both of those things on my own account, and went on to agree that their campaign was a hybrid. I was indulging in a rhetorical technique, and I’m sorry if that misattributed your meaning.

When I mentioned ‘delivered change’ I was talking about the forces around Harold Washington. In the context of Chicago politics they did- significantly shifting power and voice to South and West side relatively deprived neighbourhoods of Chicago

Ah: this, on the other hand, was an honest misunderstanding. In Chicago he and the others who worked in Washington’s street-level revolution made immense changes and progress, many documented quite thoroughly in The Audacity of Hope.

Sunder @8: *applause* Distributed power structures++

Much of my creative thinking has been shaped by working in datacentres and design departments for the Information Revolution, over the decade between 1997 and 2007. One of the things that gave me was a considerable degree of faith in well-engigneered distributed systems as being unusually good at surviving and adapting to unpredictable change.

I like the idea of that in politics.

Anthony @11:

The way that we are ultimately going to get people engaged is face to face, door to door, listening, responding, demonstrating that we can change communities. Everything I’ve experienced through political campaigning- in the West Midlands in the main- convinces me that this local, personalised, politics is the way to go.

The strength of telecommunications tools is not so much in getting the word out to the people who don’t agree with you; it’s in finding and motivating the people who do. Something the Obama for America campaign did very well (I’ve mentioned volunteer numbers before) is using modern tech to find and then organise immense numbers of local people with local credibility who could then execute distributed retail politics on behalf of the campaign.

Multiple interlinked strategies; use the net to find and interface with activists, use activists to get out on the streets. Use blogosphere debate to refine and disseminate arguments: use real people talking to other real people to do the persuading. Use the web to make accurate information widely available, and to debunk false or flawed claims in the mainstream media: use the wits of the people who read those websites to carry the argument out into the arena of people who don’t read our blogs.

Mike @12: It’s a truism among the people I argue with that the Labour party no longer represents those who labour. By which I mean the section of the British contributing economy between 15 and 50 [1] who work for someone else. My guess is that’s most of us; and it seems pretty clear that Labour do not represent us.

There is therefore an argument for saying that if your party moves away, you should let it and start a new one. In British politics, that’ll just mean you lose; unless we change the frame of the debate in British politics.

[1] I do not, by this, mean to imply that no-one over 50 works. That’s clearly ridiculous. However, an extremely high percentage of those who have others working for them (i.e. boards and directors) in medium to large enterprise are 50 or over, due to practical market influences. I was lines for a demographic in which this class of people are largely missing.

John Q. Publican: ‘The strength of telecommunications tools is not so much in getting the word out to the people who don’t agree with you; it’s in finding and motivating the people who do.’

Technology will help you link the pool of potential activists, but the more the party leadership demoralises its supporters, the smaller that pool will be. You can have the shiniest toys you want to find supporters, but it won’t matter if there’s hardly anyone to find.

The message counts for at least as much as the medium. Obama used technology to link supporters, but he had supporters in the primaries because he had opposed the Iraq war and Hilary Clinton had not.

Alistair Campbell’s appearance on various websites is presumably meant to ‘motivate’ potential activists- how many of us see that man’s face and say ‘I’m not lifting a finger for the likes of you’?

Hi Anthony,

Many thanks for the thoughtful and engaged comment on the book. Actually, I come at this from rather the same angle as you do in the opening line of your post – namely, there are great difficulties translating US political lessons to the UK, and we were careful to put these caveats in the book. My entire PhD thesis is on the interaction between technology and institutions, and how the latter shapes the use of the former (I can send you a couple of articles I have written on this if you are interested – just contact me at

As I did my research though, a consequence of my position struck me which I think is important for this debate: if we assume that institutions influence the use of the technology, then we can also start to think in terms of institutional design – in other words, how do we make institutions that harness the potential of new communication technology, rather than stifle it.

I’m not sure I agree with your assertition that people won’t remember the Obama campaign’s use of the internet in the future. After all, people still talk about the significance of the TV debate between in 1960. In fact, I would argue that both are slightly erronious examples – the Kennedy-Nixon meeting was not repeated until 1976, so it did not make the event a fixed part of the election calender, and, for my money, the election that really demonstrated the potential of the internet was 2004, not 2008. But, in the case of 2008, I think we can paraphrase something said of Jesse Ventura, who used the internet to great effect in his successful 1998 Minnesota Gubernational run: “Obama didn’t win because of the internet, but he wouldn’t have won without it”. It is certainly hard to imagine him defeating Hillary without the model he employed online.

But to focus exclusively on this would be to miss the point, because I also agree with the account you give of Obama’s rise, and would add the vibrant community of progressive / civil society groups such, the great groundswell of activist politics going back to at least 2004 (check out the American National Election Survey data on this – by many measures, that election had more participation than any since 1972), and a fundamental generational shift taking place in the US, which some see as heralding a re-allignment cycle (one caveat: on the last one, I’m not so sure I agree that re-allignment is occurring – seeing those is more of an art than a science). But this was a broad shift, not just about technology or, for that matter, one guy who can give a good speech.

For me, the fundamental question that this raises and I hope the one that we start to engage with in the book (and I will certainly be spending more time in the next couple of years researching) is how do political parties interface with this environment? I would argue that the reason American parties were successful at this is because they are more plural, more open organisations, able to plug themselves into broader communities of activism. That nodality is a fundamental institutional attribute they have – and have long had, I would add – that our parties lack. More than anything re-examing this is the change we need. I also really hope that is what comes across through in the book.

One final note, on your second comment. Again, I think we may find ourselves in some agreement. I think the Obama campaign was a great top-down / bottom-up hybrid (in other bits of writing, I have said that Obama’s team was the bastard child of Dean and Bush in 2004: Dean’s use of self-organisation, Bush’s use of data management). I would still stick by this. The challenge for parties in the 21stC is to create platforms where citizens, networks and organisations can engage with them and communicate their message. That is necesserily a two-way process.

Whoops – typo-tastic. Last lines of penaultimate paragraph should be:

“More than anything, re-examining this is the change we need. I also really hope that is what comes across through in the book.”

Dan Hardie @15:

Technology will help you link the pool of potential activists, but the more the party leadership demoralises its supporters, the smaller that pool will be.</em.

Ah; from my pov I’d already established I wasn’t talking about how Labour or the Conservatives win elections. I was talking about how we, the people who are barred from influence because of the party system, subvert the system to win elections.

Having some guys on the inside would really help, sure; but the point I was making about distributed control systems are that they allow you to operate around the Established lock-down of dissent into the carefully controlled and manipulated channels of the two-party system.

The message counts for at least as much as the medium.

Absolutely: “Use debate to refine and disseminate arguments” is saying ‘get the message right: and the net can even help with that’. What we’re doing right here is refining the argument. Peer review: you’re doing it right 🙂

I’m not one to say that the internet is a panacea; I used to hack it’s innards for a living. I’ve recently been in a bunfight on that issue over on my blog, with someone making unrealistic claims for the impact of the internet on education policy. What I do believe is that lowering the cost of entry to the national political market (we can get the word out cheaper and faster: the last one of these was the development of the moveable-type printing press and the evolution of handbills) gives those of us who are not aligned well with the two party system a fighting chance, for the first time in at least 150 years.

I think Nick is right to say that the use of technology to link activists was key to Obama’s primary campaign against Hilary, but it’s hard to see that it is key to his victory in the general election against McCain. There, the economy was so bad that any Democrat was going to beat any Republican, absent a ‘candidate found in bed with dead girl or live boy’ scandal.

Obama’s eventual numbers were smack in the middle of the result predicted for a Democrat in ’08 by Ray Fair’s model, which predicts US election results based on economic indicators.

And if the technological mobilisation of activists counted for Obama in the primaries, rather than in the general election, that has rather big implications for UK politics. We don’t have primaries or anything close. It’s thus questionable how much relevance the Obama mobilisation model has for us.

It might well be the case that UK politics, and the Labour Party in particular, would be healthier if we did select candidates by primaries, but we don’t.

Nick @16, Thank you for a thoughtful response- I’m glad you commented and congratulations on the book. We are at risk of getting very boring if we keep agreeing so I’m going to focus on where we seem to have a difference of perspective because we do mostly agree!

It’s a moot point whether Barack Obama would have beaten Hillary without the internet. She had the technology too. What she didn’t have was the inspirational insurgency. Bobby Kennedy in 1968 looked like he would defeat Lyndon B Johnson (prior to Johnson’s withdrawal) and had a similarly insurgent campaign and who knows what would have happened there? I know the historical comparisons are far from exact but movements find a way with or without technology. Martin Luther King got a quarter of a million people to Washington in 1963 without the internet…..

I don’t like the ‘nodal’ model that you describe. It assumes that there are pockets of activism and all a political party has to do is join up the dots. This is scarily reminiscent of the coalition of interests stuff from the early 1980s. The elegance of the Obama campaign is that it brought millions into politics who were not active or even voting.

While in Altgeld Gardens, one of the communities where Obama was a community organiser, I came across the example of a guy in his 80s who was voting for the first time- heartbreakingly. Why was he voting? Barack Obama. Why hadn’t he voted before? He couldn’t read or write. How did he get to vote this time? A group of residents went on a voter registration campaign in Altgeld, knocked on his door, coaxed him into talking about his issue that had held him back for his whole life and about which he was deeply embarrassed. People who weren’t previously involved knocking the doors of others who weren’t invovled to make a difference: majestically old-fashioned.

And at event after event I met scores of people who had been recruited or engaged in the same way.

Ultimately, the internet is a useful organisational tool. We are exchanging our thoughts here in a rather cold and rationalistic fashion as the medium dictates. Even if that guy in Altgeld could read and write and had access to the internet, this would not engage him. If we were talking to him we might stand a better chance. That for me is the limitation of a networked politics. It is a community politics that I am advocating instead: similarities, sure, but far more soul.

p.s. I do think that there is a realignment in US politics: due to (ethno) demographic, educational and cultural change. The 2004 Ohio campaign was the last hurrah of the backlash politics mastered by Atwater/ Rove/ Buchanan from 1966 onwards for me. The Republicans are toast if they try that again- political/ economic events depending!

21. Mike Killingworth


It might well be the case that UK politics, and the Labour Party in particular, would be healthier if we did select candidates by primaries, but we don’t.

Much of this discussion is about means and primaries are one possible end towards which the means might be directed.

There is of course a paradox in being a Party member – the opportunity to input into candidate (and leader) selection is about the only tangible thing you get for your money, so it’s rational to want your Party to have as small a membership as possible so that your own vote has the greatest possible weight. (There is I think some evidence of this thinking in some safe Labour seats…) Of course, the Party’s collective need is exactly the opposite.

Here’s some blue sky thinking for a reformed system…

Voters have the chance to identify themselves on the roll as Party supporters (cf. the “registered Democrat” option in the US).

State funding is available to Parties for (i) those HQ functions which relate to good governance, due diligence etc and (ii) the conduct of primaries open to either “identified” voters in the ward/constituency or to all voters there.

Campaigning funding has to be raised either wholly within the Constituency or funding from outside (e.g. by Trade Unions, rich individuals etc) has to be on a “matching” basis.

Only candidates adopted by primary process shall qualify in determining the amount of free airtime to be awarded to a Party for PPBs, “equal coverage” by the Beeb etc.

22. Sunder Katwala


Thanks for your response. I didn’t think the initial post was unfair: it is an interesting and nuanced critique. I shall follow the Painter/Anstead discussion here with interest: both of you know a lot more about this and have studied it more closely that I have. It seems to me a particular strength of LC that it provides a space where nuanced discussions are possible.

I suggest the following might be a reasonable amateur hypothesis: “Obama didn’t win because of the internet, but he wouldn’t have won without it. But that wouldn’t have been enough without his ground-game (especially in caucus states)”. And it wouldn’t have been a winning strategy if he had not had the public argument which framed the [primary] campaign on his terms, and which offered him sufficient resilience against attacks once he was the front-runner.

Obama’s was a successful insurgency where others had failed. The ‘movement versus the machine’ seems a valid shorthand to me. In such a tight primary race, many of the things he did better than the HC campaign were important. Perhaps each was necessary and none sufficient. My impression was that the momentum he gained from what he did online, from the engagement he got from that, and from the way that shaped the public narrative of what was at stake made a significant contribution to what took him from long-shot, to contender, to front-runner by the first primary. Clearly, it seems to have been a large part of why he was financially competitive, and then dominant. But that we should not underestimate how much the old-fashioned ground operations contributed to the delegate count, when it came to voter registration and mobilisation.

Of course, these two sources of strength were closely linked and very far from hermetically sealed from each other. Of course, we could attempt a qualitative assessment of which mattered more, but I am not convinced it makes sense. If part of the implication seems to be that the internet revolution brings could help to bring back poltiics as ‘contact sport’ of the early 20th century which was diminished in the 1960-2000 era, that seems a good thing.

I get the sense from what you’ve been writing that you think there are promising developments stirring from below?

23. Sunder Katwala

Though, If anyone would prefer a less nuanced and intelligent discussion, I have riposted to Luke Akehurst’s loyalist miserabilism (about why all of this loved up Obama nonsense risks getting in the way of a proper factional fight to eradicate a Trot infestation) here

Why We Can’t

Sunder @22. Yes, I have been taken aback actually by the pent up energy there is in the party to do things differently. I’ve done quite a few events on Obama over the past couple of months and quite a few people who don’t normally get involved have been turning up and even a number of people from outside the party have done also. Actually, their concern is not, for example, the government’s policy on raising private investment for the Royal Mail. Their concern is what they can do and what we do as party to improve the lot for their neighbours, family, and friends and their local communities.

The problem with Luke’s approach is that it risks giving an opportunity for capture because you don’t have defence in numbers as people are put off by the current arcane way of doing things. This point was made excellently by Ben Brandzel on Monday night. I have seen local parties taken over by all sorts of different cliques: nepotists, people on the make, buddies, vanity hacks but not ‘trots’ recently. It could happen again but by turning local Labour parties into a constant ideological struggle or factional dispute you are turning them into a show of strength between one small group and another. Who is to say who will win?

Anthony – the more I read this article, the more I like it by the way. Thanks for writing it.

I’ll come back to Derek Draper and Luke Akehurst later – as they’re both quite amusing sideshows to this debate. But I have to run now..

Obama’s campaign was fundamentally about who he was and his own personal message. You can talk about how the Democrats used grassroots and internet campaigning, but you would just be overlooking the simple fact that it was a personality contest and the personality popular with both the media and the public won.

Personality, in UK politics, is not everything but, don’t be naive, it helps a lot. So Labour, for all of this internet based presence/campaigning, still have Brown as their figurehead and are therefore still on course to lose.

Forget any hope of getting people (by which I mean those who are ‘normal’, i.e. not members of any particular party) excited about the Labour Party because a) we are not Americans and b) regardless of Brown being in charge, there is an underlying boredom factor with Labour. The Tories don’t need to win, they just need people to bore of Labour or, even better, blame Brown for the recession: you need to stop blue-sky thinking about the Obama campaign and concentrate on how people perceive Labour and whether there is any hope of altering that perception.

I have a foot in both camps: working here in the UK – within the Labour Party(but not recently) and local and issue-based campaigns- and within American-oriented politics as well (which has intensified). I would just like to re-inforce the message that too much focus on the technology can be counter-productive.
At one of the many meetings, I have been to on this, someone on the technoglogy side involved with the Obama campaign, emphasized that the technology is there to make it easy for people to do things (whether it is just donating or plugging into something) and for people to link up.

In my US group here, some of us are particularly interested in linking policy analysis with activism: broadening and deepening involvement. When we hold an event, we try to ensure that people go away with three things:

1. Information about resources for getting better informed about the topic discussed: a short list of recommended books, journals, online resources etc. as most relevant and appropriate

2. Information about how to link up with others working in the field: either as policy wonks or activists: short list of a selection of campaigns and/or thinktanks working on that particular issue or policy area so that people can follow up/follow through the debates or campaigning

3. Information about what can be done next and/or what are the immediate or pending issues to be addressed: eg. highlighting legislation going through/out for consultation, a campaign on an immediate issue, a follow-up meeting, or even just how to donate money.

The organizers try to go away with people’s names, interests/skills and potential commitments.

It is just an example of how we try to keep our focus on every event/contact as part of a process of mobiilisation and engagement – with what people are interested in knowing and doing.

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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Are we learning from Obama’s campaign?

  2. Anthony Painter

    An article I have on Liberal Conspiracy about Herr Obama….and something or other. Read and comment here:

  3. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Are we learning from Obama’s campaign?

  4. Anthony Painter

    An article I have on Liberal Conspiracy about Herr Obama….and something or other. Read and comment here:

  5. Sunder Katwala

    #cwn Anthony Painter’s good critique. Much to agree with.

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