Published writing

I write and publish articles when possible. A selection of them (in no particular order!) are below:

How Obama’s 2012 election ground game won Nevada

As the dust settles on the 2012 US presidential election and Obama recommences his business of addressing the fiscal cliff, the post-mortem on his victory is beginning in earnest. The race to publish the first book on the campaign has already begun – as has the search for willing victims to run in 2016.

The question many are pondering now is how, and when, did this race change from a tight squeeze into an Obama landslide? And why were so many commentators (Nate “Psychic” Silver aside) shocked by the storming victory he achieved on 6 November? While the progressive half of America breathed an enormous sigh of relief that day, there was concurrent unease at how drastically wrong many on the right had been about the likely outcome of the election.

Those of us who worked within the famous Obama “ground game” have some significant insights into these questions. As a Brit who spent the final six weeks of the campaign volunteering in “battleground” Nevada, I hesitate to claim too much personal credit for the eventual outcome. I can, however, advocate on behalf of a group of the toughest, most dedicated and energetic political organisers that I have ever encountered.

Hankering after change and a shot of American enthusiasm, I set off for Nevada with few preconceptions other than that Las Vegas would probably not be a place I would ever choose to revisit. On that score, I was more or less correct. Placed in a regional field team in the suburban north of the city, I set about getting to grips with political organising Obama-style, and began to learn how the field teams were manipulating the juggernaut that was the 2012 presidential campaign.

The first thing to know about the “ground game” was that it was built on the unstoppable triumvirate of brains, belief and bloody hard work. Barack Obama and Jim Messina began their careers as a community organisers, and their genuine commitment to grassroots campaigning was tangible in the structure and ethos of the organisation.

Many of the staff were predictably young, given the short-term contracts, low pay and required energy levels. Criteria for survival on this campaign included the ability work 14-hour days for months on end and operating an iPhone at superhuman speed. In my eclectic team, however, there was a 48-year-old Zumba instructor and a 42-year-old screenwriter keeping the rest of our young feet on the ground.

In Nevada, there were two key elements to the field strategy: registering new voters and “getting out the vote”. Woven through these building blocks was the recruitment, training and eventual leadership of local volunteers. In some other battleground states, voter persuasion played a more significant role that it did in Nevada. We knew we had enough Obama supporters in the state – all we needed to do was get them to the polls. Believe me, that was not as easy at it sounds.

The campaign’s commitment to training local people as volunteer leaders was utterly genuine. By the time I arrived, there was already a solid volunteer workforce working alongside us from morning until night – entering data, making calls, canvassing and managing the office. It was these locals who brought soul to the campaign, welcoming staff into their strange city and looking after us when we forgot to look after ourselves.

Things didn’t run smoothly all the time, of course: the saying “never work with children, animals … or volunteers” did run through my mind on a regular basis. There were big characters to manage, egos to nourish and a huge volunteer “flake rate” whenever organising an event.

That said, we would not have won Nevada without them. Romney’s paid canvassers and robocalls could never compete with the authenticity of the Obama supporters. This was not the “movement” of 2008, but it retained the honest rawness of political activism. As unpolished and scrappy as we were, at times, we never substituted money for passion.

The Obama campaign also had a geeky edge to add to that raw passion in the form of superior data and technology. Calls to “clean your data” still ring in my ears: nothing was more important that accurately reporting numbers, so that the in-house IT teams could analyse, refresh and recreate our targets and numbers nightly.

In Nevada, the ground game proved that having a one-to-one conversation with a voter at the door is by far the best way of winning an election. The seemingly glib poster we made for our new volunteers – “Behind every door is a voter. Make sure you knock on every door so we win!” – now suddenly takes on a new significance.

The real key to victory, however, was this: we didn’t just knock on each door once. We knocked on the doors of known Obama supporters again, and again, and again, until we knew that they knew where and when to vote. And then, we just kept on knocking until they had voted. We provided them with a ride to the polls if they couldn’t get there and we redirected them if they turned up at the wrong place.

The Democrats registered just under 100,000 new Nevadan voters in the year preceding the election, and there was an 81% turnout to the polls. We eventually won by the biggest margin of all swing states. The 2012 Obama campaign enfranchised thousands upon thousands of Nevadans in those final few months before the election, giving them a voice in one of the most divisive elections of recent history. Surely, American democracy was the real winner here?

Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ 21/11/2012

Viragos pressed: Yesterday’s No Pay Day proves the glass ceiling still exists

‘We basically campaign for gender equality,’ my easy-going neighbour said to me as we sat at the kitchen table sipping tea last April. Lovely I thought. How worthwhile. How wholesome. The loaded term ‘feminism’, alongside its chain of negative and frankly fear-inducing connotations had not, as yet, crept into my mind. I was still blissfully ignorant of two things. Firstly that my neighbour was in fact the Director of the Fawcett Society, the most prominent Feminist organization in the country, well known for its vociferous activism at grass roots level as well as in Westminster. I was also yet to discover that I would be spending the best part of two months over the summer working for her and her colleagues – in effect ‘faking-it’ as a Feminist.

I think the reason I didn’t immediately assume I had stumbled into the world of hardcore feminism was, to be honest, because I didn’t realise it still existed. I mean, yes, they did wang on about gender in Part I History and there is the Cambridge Women’s Union. But seriously? It’s all so last millennium, right? Wrong. After just a few days in the Fawcett Society offices in Clerkenwell (yes, Fawcett’s so hip it resides alongside funky modelling agencies and painfully trendy advertising companies – lunch breaks in Pret were a self-conscious experience) I couldn’t escape the immediacy the issues they address. From startlingly low conviction rates for rape in certain areas of the UK to gender-based employment discrimination and ‘Sexism and the City’, these modern day feminists have it covered. And it’s not only Harriet Harman and Shami Chakrabati that wear Fawcett’s eye-catching ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-Shirt. Bill Bailey does too.

When Bill Bailey signed-up to wearing the aforementioned T-Shirt, however, I’m wondering whether he knew as little about feminism as I did. I thought that making sure I was able to put the chain back on my bike, jump start a car, and reinstall Microsoft Windows was a feminist statement. I was, as you might imagine, put to shame very early on in my time at Fawcett. On asking one of the young campaigners when she first became a Feminist, for example, she replied ‘I’ve always been one.’ In fact her very first essay at primary school was on feminism. ‘F*** me that’s scary,’ was my first thought. ‘I need to get out!’ soon followed. At that age I was at an all- girls prep school learning (amongst other more normal subjects) art appreciation, poetry recitation, and ballet. I had a glimmer of hope when I remembered they also taught us to do a proper tie knot, until I realised that was just preparation for when we become 30-something Sloane-rangers and our husband requires us to do his tie whilst he takes a business call. Damn.

As my time with the Feminists wore on, personal grudges began to spontaneously re-emerge and I caught a little bit of that much-maligned angry feminist bug. Why was it that as a trumpeter in the National Youth Orchestra it was always assumed I couldn’t play as loudly as my male peers? And why am I statistically far less likely to get a first in my History finals than if I was a bloke? I was like Lindsay Lohan in ‘Mean Girls’, initially just pretending to be part of the group because I was intrigued, only to be sucked in without even realising it was happening. And we all know what’s become of Lindsay. I needed to be more careful.

As the weeks went by, I exited this unpleasant period of personal bitterness and moved into a more mellow and socially-acceptable stage I like to call rubbish or reluctant feminism. This basically stemmed from the realisation that – bra-burning and man-hating put very far to the side – there are some facts that just can’t be ignored. Extremely pertinent to Cambridge soon-to-be graduates, for example, is the gender pay gap. You may be shocked to read that despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970, women in the UK in full-time employment earn on average 17% per annum less than men. Ouch. That’s the equivalent of women receiving their last pay slip on the 30th October, yesterday, and working unpaid for the rest of the year. Even those of you terrified by feminism must agree that it’s an unacceptable situation. And it’s not just applicable to the low-paid sector. Those of you hoping (or now perhaps praying) to get a job in the city will probably find on signing your first contract there’s a clause forbidding discussion of earnings with colleagues. So women won’t even know if they’re losing-out on dosh.

However you decide to mark ‘No Pay Day’ on the 30th October – be it by joining the Fawcett Society, writing to an MP, forgetting that it even exists, or in my case triumphantly putting my chain back on my bike in a show of solidarity with reluctant feminists all over the world – at least spare a thought for those impassioned women in Clerkenwell who are doing their utmost to keep feminism alive.

Varsity: 31/10/2008

The NHS: our nation’s Mulberry bag

The tortuous passage of the latest health reforms shook this country to its core. Not even Danny Boyle’s back-flipping paediatric patients at the Olympic opening ceremony have erased the memory of 75 year-old June Hautot shouting in distress as she attempted to prevent Andrew Lansley from entering Downing Street earlier this year.

Incontrovertibly ideological and designed by profit-driven consultancy firms, the average NHS patient and health service employee were last on the list of true ‘stakeholders’ in the latest set of health reforms.

Even the pause in the legislative timetable was falsely advertised – it soon became clear that the ‘listening exercise’ was designed to compel the public to listen to Lansley expound a Tory health policy that had become a toxic blend of dishonesty, anger and desperation. Contrary to what the Number 10 PR machine would have you know, the GPs that outright supported the reforms could be counted on your fingers.

Labour’s opposition to the Bill was impressive and even in post mortem it appears that little more could have been done. The opposition campaign has been analysed, the cries to repeal the Act in its entirety are lulling and a new question is arising from the ashes – where should Labour go next with health policy?

Certainly the weight of public engagement and anger towards the health reforms has presented Labour with a significant opportunity to draw in voters with a compelling and workable health policy both in their forthcoming manifesto and when fighting the next election. Indeed, Labour must harness the discontent over the Tory direction of travel for the NHS and remould it into a positive and pragmatic vision for the future.

But Labour must also be mindful not to underestimate the increased knowledge-base that the many voters now have in the wake of the fierce media coverage of the reforms. Clinical commissioning, Any Qualified Provider and the ‘cherry-picking’ of services have begun to trip off the tongue – health policy hasn’t been so zeitgeist for many years.

This means, however, that emotive statements about the Cameron’s ‘betrayal’ of the NHS are no longer sufficient to allay many people’s fears about the future of the nation’s health. Miliband may need rhetoric to entice and enrage a certain section of the electorate, but he must also recognise that substantive policy is urgently needed to give foundations to this broad critical stance.

That is not to suggest that Labour should tackle all the difficult questions in public – by all means let Cameron and Lansley squirm over how to meet austerity targets without hospital closures, keep waiting times down and ‘teach’ recalcitrant doctors how to commission healthcare. Lansley must learn to lie in the bed that he has made – even if that bed proves to be an extremely uncomfortable combination of underfunded services and an utterly deflated workforce.

But there are questions that the Labour policy review must nonetheless address head-on. Honesty (at least in private) about the past is the first exigency: increased private sector involvement in the NHS and the introduction of a market into healthcare is to a great extent a New Labour legacy. How to rein it in, particularly in relation to hospital management and the running of CCGs, is a question for which an answer will need to be found.

In developing a new vision for the NHS, Labour must to stop relying on the crutch of nostalgia. Of course Bevan’s vision for healthcare is something of which the Labour movement should be proud, but new ideas need to be added into the mix. Now the future of free healthcare is fundamentally at risk, we need to start talking the language of equality, dignity and in some cases human rights.

For those who work in the health service in particular, nostalgia is a particularly hollow rallying call. For them, the NHS is a reality not a socialist ideal. Austerity measures have them fearing redundancy, failing to meet their mortgage repayments or in some cases not treating their patients to the standards they deserve. The opinions and concerns of the NHS workforce should be taken as a key barometer in the Labour policy review – not least because one in twenty-three voters in the UK is an NHS employee.

Labour must develop core policy messages that ring true right across the NHS workforce, from porters to senior managers, nurses to consultants. The Tories have failed spectacularly in this, leaving the way open for Labour to glide in on a collective vision of workable healthcare in the modern age.

I am confident that most Young Fabians would agree that the provision of high-quality, free, universal healthcare is a goal far exceeding petty party politics and blasé jibes. The NHS is after all not a brand – it is the institution in which we heal our sick, train our doctors and nurses, employ a significant segment of our population, give birth to our children and care for people at the end of their lives.

For those with a more materialistic streak, the NHS is our nation’s Mulberry bag. Painfully expensive, causing you to oscillate between fearing that it is beyond your means and acknowledging that it is the best thing you could ever spend money on. It’s durable, if a little scuffed after much use, but with a judicious polish it can certainly last long into the future. Most importantly, however, it makes you the perennial envy of all those who don’t have it. The difference, however, is that having a Mulberry only seems like a matter of life or death…

Young Fabians in ‘Anticipations’: 09/2012


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