The 2008 Obama campaign showed innovation in political campaigning that had never previously been seen, mobilising grassroots support via the internet. He reaped the reward of millions of volunteers and small-sum campaign donors, but Obama’s innovative campaign also set a precedent for innovative policy making – people saw that he could deliver a pioneering new project and believed he could do the same across public services. Labour continues to deliver tired leaflets through letterboxes and in doing so we miss an opportunity to show the electorate what we are capable of.
To capitalise on its polling lead, Labour should produce an ‘Obama style’ show of self-confidence and innovation in the run-up to 2015. Obama used interactive online tools, YouTube campaign videos and the broader internet to develop networks and raise money; in doing so he completely changed the way US politicians interact with voters, organise support and deliver advertising. The huge community that Obama mobilised subsequently shared more campaign material, generated more policy ideas and delivered more votes than any in US history. Yet an eye-catching campaign not only creates momentum and draws votes; it also stirs up excitement about what might be achievable by that party in government.
British political campaigns seem to shrink from modernisation – Labour clings to old-fashioned canvassing, emails that gripe about the Tories, and delivering leaflets that nobody reads. We’re at a time when party membership is declining, the populace is cynical, social media and internet usage are the very fabric of life and yet we have not revamped our approach to engaging with people. Labour ought to lead in bursting the bubble of predictability and testing out new ways of engaging with the public: build a striking online profile, deliver YouTube campaign videos, harness social networks, find new ways of using volunteers in communities, invite policy suggestions and campaign ideas online.
This approach should not stop with campaigning. While an innovative campaign should be the primary focus and could act as a platform for re-election, new approaches could also be used to garner forward-thinking policy ideas. One of the most exciting and innovative areas at the moment is social enterprise; organisations such as ‘Care4Care’ are creating new currencies that will cater for care for the elderly, others are finding ways to fill the growing gap in youth services. NESTA and Participle are testing out pioneering ideas for the delivery of public services when there’s no money left. Large private sector companies are investing in designing new public service models. Far from running scared of the private sector and social enterprise, Labour should focus on the ideas being generated in these spaces if it is realistic about winning in 2015. The party needs to work out how to implement left-wing policies whilst constraining spending. Using interactive approaches to harness the ideas of individuals, social enterprise and the private sector will not only engage the public, it will help the party answer some of its toughest policy questions.
Labour has the benefit of a polling lead at the moment, yet public opinion will continue to fluctuate and it will not be enough to wait, with fingers crossed, for the Tories to commit more follies. If Labour can lead with an innovative campaign, make the most of new ideas to transform its policy agenda and thus succeed in building an identity independent from the Coalition and our many complaints against it, then it can genuinely build both public trust and ‘Obama-style’ momentum.