Does Labour really need Obama’s digital guru?

March 2, 2009 3:54 pm

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By Mark HansonThomas Gensemer

PR outfit, Freud Communications have been busily spinning. They’re helping Blue State Digital, the company that provided the tools for the much fabled Obama online campaign and their MD, Thomas Gensemer, export some stardust and sell their services to UK-based corporates and charities.

I’ve met Thomas a few times and he’s always downplayed any talk of working with the British Labour Party but profile pieces in the Guardian and The Times reveal he’s secretly showing his ‘for hire’ light as the taxi rank of budding experts offering Labour advice grows by the day.

(PS Here’s Gawker’s view on the runners and riders in the queue of Obama digital gurus who will no doubt be getting their CVs out around the globe.)

So could Thomas do for Gordon what he did for Barack?

You may recall the ‘top secret’ session that took place at Labour HQ, where a select audience where invited to conspire with Thomas and his co-founder Joe Rospars on this very issue.

Sunny Hundal neatly summed up certain reservations about mistakenly believing buying a shiny set of tools will be the answer.

To be fair, though, that isn’t what Thomas is saying. If we check out his comments in the Guardian and The Times….

”Organisations can build very quickly, if they do the messaging right.”
“If you don’t have the audience, you don’t need the tools.”

The whole point is that if you can’t talk to a group of potential volunteers or voters on their level and in real-speak then there’s no point having the new website.

Gensemer recounts a hilarious anecdote of a campaign where supporters were invited to send feedback to the campaign. He wondered where the feedback was going. And then he got the answer. Upon locating the inbox where there were 78,000 unread emails!!!

This reminds me of a leading politician who expressed amazement to me that his constituents chase him if he doesn’t respond to emails within a week! And we’ve all volunteered for campaigns or signed up for a Facebook group and had no human being acknowledge or contact us.

Obama’s campaign has registered big-time on the consciousness of Labour’s big fish and they’re all saying “I want one of those.”

So, just pay dollars for Blue State and ‘Yes We Can’? No. We can’t.

Firstly our structures are different. There is no real permanent campaign structure to the Democrat Party in the US in the way that there is in the Labour Party here. You could argue that one of the biggest achievements of Obama’s campaign was to build a Western Parliamentary Democracy type Party.

Prior to Obama, volunteers coalesced around a campaign and then disappeared when they are over, only to have to be re-built again 4 years later. I think an interesting point here is that the very fact that the first iteration of Blue State’s software was called “party-builder” (that they built for the DNC) only goes to underline this.

Of course its true to say that the CLP structure is not now the most ideal structure for the 21st century (our Party structures largely remain the same as the ones created 100 odd years ago when the Party was created) – but moving away from this is a massive step that cannot, and will not, happen over night.

Should Party members also actually be seen as small donors, in the sense that membership means that we actually have 180,000 small donors giving to the Party on a regular basis?

Which brings me to internet fundraising – again massive differences between here and there? The literature on this largely recognises differences between US and UK culture on this – the fact that Americans give to causes of all descriptions far more than we do here and that it’s always going to make more sense and be more appealing to give to a candidate rather than a monolithic Party.

There’s always that greater incentive to give given that the strength of political campaigns in the States have always been judged on the amount of money they raise – and that they have a massive advantage in that they can use TV advertising to drive people to their websites to donate.

As a donor in the US I know that there’s a high chance that my is going to help fund a TV ad that might then turn the outcome of the election. As a donor in the UK I think my £10 may go to possibly fund a direct mail or a leaflet which is actually, on its own, very unlikely to turn an outcome of an election.

BUT, but, but…Labour’s approach to new media is changing. Here’s the Top Secret presentation that key figures in the Party signed up to.

Here’s a Labour politician getting it right at grassroots using freely available tools.

And Ministers are grasping the need to open themselves to communities, organised around particular interests and go and talk to them where they congregate. This is Yvette Cooper doing just that this week, via Moneysupermarket, a popular forum of people discussing personal finance issues. Yvette agreed to field questions from forum users.

BUT as we’re in government we have another challenge. The incumbency versus insurgency argument is well trodden but when it comes to practical implementation there are many more barriers. We are continually shooting ourselves in the foot by giving huge data capture opportunities to Government rather than the Party. I can understand totally why this happens – a Minister or Civil Servant has a good idea about a digital engagement opportunity and because they have the resources to make it happen internally they do it on a Government Platform without even thinking about whether it should actually be Party based.

We know from Obama’s campaign that all of their success was derived from the fact that they put capturing email at the centre of everything they did and then using these email addresses wisely to drive both fundraising and mobilisation. For example, their promise to let people who gave them mobile phone numbers know their VP choice first (and the fact that they carried out this promise by sending a text message at 2am because it was in danger of leaking to CNN first).

Compare this with the No10 petitions site – done on a Government platform when it could so easily have been done as Prime Minister and Leader of the Labour Party on a Party platform. 8 million email addresses are now sitting in Downing Street that can’t be touched by us (and indeed aren’t being used effectively by them) and, worse still, will be handed over to the Tories when they next get into power.

Of course Government has to engage using new media as well but the point that needs to be made is that Government doesn’t need to win the next General Election, the Labour Party does.

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