Four lessons for the Labour Party from Barack Obama’s win


by Sunny Hundal    
8:45 am - January 25th 2013

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People sometimes assume it must be glamorous to work on a huge presidential election campaign. In reality it is mostly a series of repetitive, arduous, tiring and sometimes even frustrating set of tasks like knocking on doors, collecting data and actually getting people to get out there and vote on Election Day.

In October last year, I persuaded an anti-Mexican racist to vote for Obama, had to put the phone down on a woman who insisted on describing the process of ‘partial-birth abortion’ as “Obama is killing those babies”, and had to persuade one Catholic woman that, despite what her local church says, she wouldn’t go to hell for voting for Obama. Only the victory party makes the long, frustrating pleas worth it.

I can’t claim to have the definitive set of lessons for the Labour party from the election, but I think these four mattered perhaps the most.

We can win the ‘class war’

For the Democrat Third Way and New Labour generation, raising taxes on the richest and asking them to pay their fair share of taxes, in proportion to how much income they earned, had become a taboo. But no longer does this have to be the case. President Obama didn’t just want to raise taxes: his entire campaign was based on what Republicans referred to as ‘class war’. And significantly he won.

In a country where the rich are deified and almost everyone wants to be rich, Obama waged war with one narrative: that America’s problems would not be solved by simply letting the rich keep more of their taxes in the hope the rest will benefit. In a speech in April he said “trickle-down economics doesn’t work” and made that central to his campaign.

Voters across the United States, even fiscal conservatives who wanted a focus on reducing the national debt over other priorities, called for big tax rises on the top 2%. On election night Obama underscored this point by saying, “this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.” 

Ed Miliband faces a similar situation. The Conservatives have shown themselves to be out of touch by cutting taxes at the top. His Labour party have to appeal to voters who are worried about the national debt. The national mood overwhelmingly favours raising taxes on the richest to pay their fair share. The idea that such an electoral strategy can’t work because it’s “against aspiration” is no longer valid – times have changed.

We can win ‘culture wars’ too

Earlier this year, when President Obama mandated that religious institutions would now have to offer contraceptives to women under Obamacare, Catholic bishops and Evangelicals stridently opposed him. Democrats fretted that they would lose the ‘Culture Wars’ again, but it was Obama who won. In fact Obama won 55% of women voters according to exit polls, while Romney attracted only 44%.

Unlike previous Democrats, President Obama didn’t avoid women’s health; he made it a centrepiece of his agenda. Right until the end Obama and Biden reiterated their support for abortion rights while Romney dodged questions about equal pay legislation and pledged to defund Planned Parenthood. 

Labour and the Democrats have historically avoided contraception, women’s health and sex education as issues about ‘conscience’ and avoided taking sides. But the coalition of the socially liberal – not just women but younger voters – has reached past the tipping point. Even George Osborne conceded this point in The Times last month when he said Conservatives would lose significant blocks of voters if they tried to restrict gay marriage or make abortion harder.

Ed Miliband can and should seize the agenda, not just because it is electorally popular but because it the right thing to do. On the list should be: improving sex education provision, extending the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland and making it easier for women to get access to contraception and abortion in England. For a start he can scrap the redundant and patronising two-doctors-rule.

Being more sophisticated about swing voters

Conventional thinking states that independent voters, aka swing voters, decide elections and should be courted relentlessly. After all, your base will turn out for you anyway, right? Wrong. One of the key strengths of the Obama campaign was to look at the data rather than just make assumptions about people’s behaviour. They found that two major discoveries stood out.

First, most self-declared independents are fairly partisan in their politics but coy about revealing that. They found that independents who leaned Democrat voted for Obama in almost as high proportions as self-identified Democrats who voted for the President. That’s the first category of swing voters: people who lean a particular way but don’t explicitly identify as such. The second discovery was that this group of voters are mixed in with another group of actual ‘independents’ who rarely go and vote. And it’s debateable whether any campaign has the resources to get them to turn out.

But the Obama campaign went further. In their list of every registered voter in swing states, they assigned a score to each voter on aspects such as their likelihood of supporting the President, likelihood of voting and how open to persuasion they were. They conducted experiments to see which demographics of voters responded to which pitches about policies, and employed behavioural scientists to try and predict their behaviour.

Much of the analytics and behaviour modelling is beyond the reach of the Labour party for financial reasons. But the key lesson for Labour is to approach swing voters much more intelligently. They are not always centrists; they may be looking for signals that also appeal to ‘core voters’, and it may be futile to try and appeal to some groups entirely. At the last election this strategy amounted to assuming core Labour voters would turn out anyway and they just needed to tack to the centre to win. In the event, both ‘core’ and ‘swing’ voters who leaned towards Labour were repelled enough not to turn out.

Social media matters… in certain ways.

Our politicians don’t seem to know what to do with social media. Many of them spend an inordinate amount of time on Twitter posting pictures with references to wonderful people they met on the doorstep. Others regard all of social media as a waste of time that only appeals to the Westminster bubble than their constituents.

The Obama campaign used social media for specific and strategic purposes. The first was to build his personal brand as an empathetic, down-to-earth President who had a good sense of humour and would be fun to have a drink with. The second objective was to give his followers ways in which to spread his campaign messages. When a campaign staffer was asked why Obama chose to host an ‘Ask Me Anything’ debate on the popular website Reddit, the response was, “Because a whole bunch of our turnout targets were on Reddit.”

A study by Pew Internet found that 30% of registered voters had been encouraged to vote for Obama or Romney by family and friends via posts on social media such as Facebook or Twitter. Clearly it can have an impact, but the trick is to figure out how to best leverage the power of social media. 

The problem for Labour is that it uses social media as an extension of its press operation: to get information out about statements and speeches made by the shadow cabinet. There is no attempt to build a personal brand – particularly of Ed Miliband himself – nor is there an attempt to offer materials that ordinary people would want to share, not just Labour party members.

To put it simply, there are a few key elements to an election campaign: identifying voters, reaching them with information about issues they’re concerned about, and getting them to vote. Of course, the candidate, the policies, the opponent and the state of the economy matter greatly but the Obama campaign has simply been better than anyone else at executing these basics. To not learn from the best, despite our obvious limitations and differences, would be a travesty for the Labour movement.


Thie article was first published in Anticipations, the Young Fabians magazine.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,United States ,Westminster


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Reader comments


Ed Miliband is no Barack Obama.

This is an excellent article, although the lessons learned are not new in most senses. Even the lib dems manage to do some of this in some local council wards.

The reason is that crucial to the success is having lots of volunteers able to do the repetative and boring tasks like data entry and canvessing, and having the money to finance the operation (what Obama did really well prior to becomming president was bypass the large donors and raise lots of small sums from lots of people – once he did this the large donars sensed the possibility of victory and felt they needed to come on board). This is why the lib dems can only do it in some places.

It’s also why Labour started to lose elections….they lost the sense that you can only get lots of volunteers willing to do the boring stuff if you have something to motivate them with such as the feeling of involvement in creating a positive future. As a result organisationally they’ve been shite since around….2003. Can’t think what happened that year.

In October last year, I persuaded an anti-Mexican racist to vote for Obama, had to put the phone down on a woman who insisted on describing the process of ‘partial-birth abortion’ as “Obama is killing those babies”, and had to persuade one Catholic woman that, despite what her local church says, she wouldn’t go to hell for voting for Obama

I’m sure the two votes you gained Obama made a massive difference.

We can win the ‘class war’

We can win ‘culture wars’ too

‘Class’ and ‘culture’ mean very different things in the US and the UK. In the US anyone with a job self-identifies as ‘middle class’; in the UK you have journalists and academics pretending to be horny-handed sons of toil.

As to ‘culture’, the US is practically a theocracy when it comes to the non-seperation of church and state and women’s rights. There are few lessons to learn from America; we should be looking to the largely secular democracies of Europe.

And this:

Ed Miliband is no Barack Obama.

In forty foot neon letters. I don’t think there has ever been such a charisma-free politician ever elected to a senior party position.

He’s like the Silents in Doctor Who: the moment you stop looking at him you forget he ever existed.

`In a country where the rich are deified and almost everyone wants to be rich, Obama waged war with one narrative: that America’s problems would not be solved by simply letting the rich keep more of their taxes in the hope the rest will benefit. In a speech in April he said “trickle-down economics doesn’t work” and made that central to his campaign.’

Taxing the rich isn’t going to solve any of America’s problems. It has the same impact as cutting public spending: it takes money out of circulation to pay debts and causes economic contraction.

But boy what debts? The US banks went down owing $35 trillion and all these liabilities were guaranteed by the state because the banks creditors were the billionaires and speculators who bought into their thirty year credit bubble turned Ponzi Scheme. You could cut public spending to zero and raise taxes to 100% of all income and these debts still wouldn’t be touched. Of course with the contraction they would simply grow and grow as they are.

Taxing the rich isn’t going to solve America’s troubles any more than cutting public spending and welfare will it is only going to add to them.

Nothing can be done to halt the headlong charge of the US and indeed the world economy into irreversible permanent and bottomless depression as long as the powers that be insist on liquidating their assets and the people stand by and allow these counterfeit assets to count as genuine claims on the social product. If austerity isn’t to turn into a New Dark Ages then the first act must be to end the bail out of the bankrupt banks. They must be allowed to go under. Their bonds should be sold on the open market at their true worth $0.01 on the $1 not paid out $1 for $1 from the public purse. Centuries of accumulated national wealth is being liquidated for this purpose, welfare, wages and pensions are being sacrificed to it, the balance sheet of the state is being irreperably ruined and the mighty dollar debased in a way that would make the French kings blush.

No first things first the US banks must be let go, their staff, estates and deposits taken into administration to form a new People’s Bank with a monopoly of credit, so that the private financiers can never abuse their position to rob us all blind again, that can lend at base rate to small business and facilitate much needed social investment.

Welfare and public spending should be defended and the budget balanced by fair taxation but also by changing what constitutes income. The surpluses of the giant cash-hoarding, job slashing monopolies and their property must be dispropriated and made social property. They must be socialised and democratised with their managers elected by their workers not imposed by absent shareholders or elite social networks that use them as their own private trough.

Obama proved that a black liberal can win twice in the United States, so moderate social democracy should be able to win in the UK.

The main lesson is find yourself an inspiring and charismatic leader whose force of personality can weather the inevitable policy disappointments of governing in a recession.

Ed will likely be Prime Minister, but only as the least worst option and will enjoy little goodwill from the electorate.

Patronizing religious people?

Assuming Guardian values are nationwide?

The myth of the ‘progressive’ majority?

Liberalizing abortion law….in a country with some the most liberal abortion laws in the entire word.

A recipe for electoral success? Perhaps not.

You chaps never learn. Remember your AV referendum?

It was the Sun(ny) wot won it.

Unbelievable.

That last bit about Obama and his personal brand is interesting. I would have liked to have seen a bit of “Obama created his own base” with their efforts at voter registration (is Miliband Labour doing this), and how their 2008 campaign didn’t really stop in key states (have Labour been campaigning in their key 100 marginals since 2010?).


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