By Will Straw
The Labour Party announced last week that it was adopting one of the most successful techniques used by the Obama campaign in the American election. Throughout both the primary and general election, Obama supporters anywhere in the U.S. could log onto his website and download a list of voters’ names and telephone numbers. From the comfort of their own home, they could then set about the most important task in any campaign: persuading people to vote.
The creation of Labour’s online virtual phone bank is an important development and shows that the Party is both learning from Obama’s extraordinary success and also examining its own culture. Unlike a command and control approach to canvassing where door-to-door trips or evening telephone blitzes are organized by the local constituency party, online canvassing means that anyone can get involved.
This has two key advantages. First, those who do shift work and aren’t available on Saturday mornings or week nights can get in on the act. Second, supporters living in rural areas or without a local Labour group can make a contribution. And since we all know an overzealous Labour activist who likes to complain about our own level of dedication no matter how much we do, home phone banking removes the middle man unnecessarily holding us to account.
Some are fearful that an online facility is open to abuse. To allay this, Obama’s team only gave out ten numbers at a time and used simple algorithms to detect phony submitted information. And if a member of the public calls HQ to complain about someone’s behaviour, that individual can quickly be barred from getting new numbers to call. Labour is wisely taking these precautions.
There is, though, one problem with Labour’s approach. The new system is only open to Party members who have to gain a security code to get the information. By contrast, anyone could access Obama’s database so long as they were willing to provide a valid email address and phone number. The need for a security code creates an unnecessary barrier to entry that will deter some members. But it also means that supportive non-members cannot take part. This is a double blow as it reduces productivity and prevents the Party from collecting the names and contact details of new supporters who might also be willing to do other tasks like leafleting or door-to-door canvassing.
Obama’s success was down to both technology and trust. Although he carefully managed the message of his campaign, he was willing to allow local activism to be truly decentralised so that anyone could join the operation and get the tools they needed to campaign. Labour’s own venture into online campaigning is a step in the right direction but not yet bold enough.
Will Straw is co-editor with Nick Anstead of a forthcoming book, “The Change We Need: Lessons for Britain from Obama’s Victory,” to be published in March by the Fabian Society.