What not to learn from the Obama Campaign

This article was first published on the Young Fabians blog

There has been substantial coverage and analysis of the 2012 Obama campaign amongst UK progressives since his victory in early November.  As a veteran of the Nevada ‘ground game’, I think it makes a lot of sense to pay close attention to the way the campaign was run. I certainly learned a huge amount about innovative campaigning techniques during the two months I spent in the USA, and I am keen to tell Young Fabians and Labour Party members about my experiences.

I do, however, have a concurrent concern that we are putting too much emphasis on importing ideas and techniques directly from the USA. Hackneyed as the George Bernard Shaw quote is, we are ‘two countries separated by a common language’. If I noticed anything whilst I was out there, it was that I was first and foremost a foreigner. The UK still retains an utterly unique cultural identity to that of the United States and our political campaigning culture should continue to reflect this.

The obscene amount of money washing around the 2012 Presidential campaign is the most obvious demonstration of something to which we certainly should not aspire. Yes, the money paid for flashy online databases, branded t-shirts, iPhones and laptops, but it also paid for innumerable attack-ads and jet fuel for Air Force One to zip Obama to countless glitzy rallies and media events. I witnessed a vast amount of waste on the campaign and it was far from a ‘sustainable’ operation.

The famous ‘ground game’ should also be viewed with a critical eye. Just because it worked so well for Obama, it does not mean that it would translate well in Britain. The campaign relied on a greater level of intrusion than we are accustomed to in the UK. As a canvasser, it was a gift to know the name, age, voting history and family connections of the residents behind every door that I knocked on. But I was also uncomfortably aware that we were being extremely intrusive, almost ‘big brother-like’ at times.

Furthermore, it is all too easy to mythologise the community organising techniques used in the campaign and consequently to lose sight of quite how tightly things were being controlled from the centre. Targets, techniques and strategies were constantly being rolled out from HQ – this was not grassroots politics in its truest sense.

Rather, the campaign leadership took methods from community organising, combined them with data analysis fit for an intelligence agency, and used their new hybrid concoction to their advantage. Clever? Undoubtedly. Effective? Massively. But surely a rather strange fit for the British Labour movement.

Finally, whilst senior Labour politicians continue to hone their public speaking skills and improve their media personas, they must be careful not to imitate the Americans too closely. Let’s be honest, ‘fired up and ready to go’ just sounds cringeworthy
in a British accent! Most importantly, good presentation and confident delivery should never be used as a substitute for the quality of what politicians are actually saying. We expect different demonstrations of gravitas from our public figures than on the other side of the Atlantic, something that it’s all too easy to forget.

Mind you, Obama rolling out Katy Perry at his political rallies was a genuine stroke of genius. Nothing better than Katy in a skin-tight ballot paper dress to get floating voters to the polls. I know she’s American but Ed, maybe it’s already time for ‘your people’ to start talking to ‘her people’…


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