By Will Straw
The Change We Need: What Britain Can Learn from Obama’s Victory, published today by the Fabian Society, is a book about culture, not technology. I moved to the United States two years ago – first to study in New York and then to work for a think tank and advocacy organisation in Washington, D.C. During this time I have been fortunate to have a window seat – first volunteering for Hillary Clinton and then for Barack Obama – as America had its most important election in a generation.
I was struck by the contrast between Clinton’s traditional, top-down organisation and Obama’s grassroots, bottom-up campaign that fully embraced the network potential of Web 2.0: Facebook, You Tube, and blogging. The main goal at Clinton’s New York fundraising office was squeezing wealthy Wall Street types for the federal limit of 2,300 dollars. When volunteers phoned up to get involved, their name and contact details were written down and added to a pile to be sifted through at a later point when spare hands were needed for an event.
By comparison, Obama’s campaign entered all this information into a database so that people were instantly thanked for volunteering, invited to training sessions, and asked what role they wanted to play in the campaign. Instead of focusing purely on high-end donors, they were asking for 5, 10 or 25 dollars from as many people as they could find. As we all know, the latter approach prevailed.
The aim of our book has been to show how the evolution of American politics over the last four years has been driven by changes in society, rather than because of Obama’s unique candidacy. In the networked society, citizens do not require the institutional scaffolding offered by political parties to engage in political activity. Anyone can set up a simple campaigning group on an issue with a few clicks of a mouse.
Obama’s genius was to understand these changes and embed them into his campaign from the start. The book brings together 16 authors who worked on the 2008 election or observed it at close quarters. Ben Brandzel and Faiz Shakir are to grassroots mobilisation and blogging what Obama was to community organisation. Marcus Roberts and Karin Christiansen – despite being British – spent weeks pounding the streets of Ohio, New York and Florida because they believed in Obama’s cause. Glenn Nye stood (and won) for the Democrats in a previously safe Republican seat because of his opposition to the Iraq War, where he had served. There are chapters on fundraising, the use of data, and Obama’s message of “hope” and “change.”
My co-editor, Nick Anstead, and I have attempted to distil all this in our conclusion by explaining these changes in the context of Labour’s history. We chart the progression from a grassroots movement which has – partly in response to the internecine warfare of the 1980s and the advent of the 24/7 mainstream media – come to adopt a successful top-down structure. We contend that this model will lead the party towards irrelevance if it does not respond to these changes in society. As an attempt to start a debate, we have set out five principles that all political parties should consider:
• Remove all barriers to participation, for example, by scrapping party membership fees and instead allowing members to set their own subscription level.
• Create a cultural glasnost by enabling channels for dissent and debate.
• Give supporters the tools to self-organise as the Labour Party has already done by letting supporters phone canvass from their homes by accessing the voter file online.
• Keep supporters better informed by establishing individualised links with its activists.
• Reward hard work and entrepreneurialism, for example, by considering a move towards open primaries for candidate selection.
Among these ideas there is no single silver bullet, no technological patch that can save the party from electoral defeat. Indeed, without a clear vision and corresponding set of policies, all other reforms are cosmetic. But we hope our book shows that the decline of political movements is not an inevitability and, in many ways, modern society is more suited to it than any previous generation.
Nick Anstead and Will Straw are the co-editors of The Change We Need: What Britain can learn from Obama’s Victory, published today by the Fabian Society.