“This election will be won by people, not posters”: The Douglas Alexander interview

Alex Smith

Douglas Alexander

Douglas Alexander is secretary of state for international development, and Labour’ general election coordinator. He met Alex Smith on Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010, at the Labour Party on Victoria Street.

You’ve been speaking a lot recently about this election being the “word of mouth election”, and you’re asking Labour supporters to advocate for Labour on the ground, in their workplaces and their communities. In your experience so far as election coordinator, how are people doing this?
At the end of the day it’s people who win elections, not posters – it always has been, and I think it always will be. So where and how people communicate their commitment and their support for Labour varies from individual to individual and community to community. Whether that’s by leafleting commuters as they come off a train at a station, or by talking to friends and family, or by working online, there are more opportunities than there have ever been for Labour to get its message across. But we are also more reliant than we’ve ever been on Labour Party members and supporters to take that message out to the country.

Is that because of financial limitations?
The financial constraints on Labour are real, and the financial imbalance with the Tories – thanks to the funding of people like Michael Ashcroft – is no secret. But even if we had the same amount of money as the Conservatives going into this election, I would be strongly urging that we didn’t spend it in the way in which the Tories are at the moment: they’re trying to fight a broadcast election in a networked age. If you look back at previous campaigns, you could reasonably judge that in 1997 we had a broadcast election – we had mastered the techniques of broadcast communication watching the New Democrats with Bill Clinton’s election. In 2001 and 2005, we were developing expertise in one-to-one communication, with an increased use, for example, of Direct Mail. And I think this is the first election of the networked age, where there’s a premium not just on authenticity, but also on dialogue. That will be manifest in the way we fight this campaign in the weeks and months ahead.

But the Tory campaign and the Tory posters that you’ve already mentioned is at least very visible. Does it concern you that it’s difficult to tangibly measure the effectiveness of a “word of mouth” campaign in comparison?
Well, visibility and credibility are two different things. The almost half a million pounds that the Tories spent in January, with their airbrushed David Cameron posters, didn’t help their campaign – it harmed their campaign, because it spoke to an essential truth that there is a strategy of concealment at the heart of Conservative messaging. That’s why they’re not comfortable with conversation, and instead want one-way communication. We have the ability to measure the conversations that our activists are having to an unprecedented degree, not least because of Contact Creator, which gives a visibility at campaign headquarters to levels of activism and activity that are taking place at ward level or at constituency level. On the morning of the Glasgow North East by-election, for example, I sat upstairs at Victoria Street and watched as the Labour promises were translated into Labour votes. So there is a capacity for monitoring both Get Out The Vote activity and the activity that precedes Get Out The Vote in a way that was unimaginable even a few years ago.

I know a couple of weeks ago the party nationally was contacting 200,000 voters weekly via the phone bank and door-to-door campaigning. Do you have any specific targets for the short campaign?
If you look at where we are now compared with where we’d been at an equivalent time in 2005 or an equivalent time in 2001, we currently have been between double and treble the number of contacts. That’s a huge tribute not just to Labour activists, but also to the passion that they’re bringing to this fight. In that sense, I would already predict that we will comfortably surpass the level of contacts that we have made in previous general elections during the short campaign simply by sustaining the momentum and level of activism that we’ve been generating in recent months. Some time ago, we incentivised Constituency Labour Parties to make contacts in return for further support from the centre, and those incentives have proved to be very effective. Also, people know we’re in the fight of our lives and they don’t want to give up the opportunity power gives you to deliver for the people you come into politics to serve without a fight. That energy and that momentum is what’s helped drive up levels of activity, even as our party membership is lower than it was in both 1997 and 2001.

Let’s go back to “word of mouth” as an electioneering technique. On the front page of the Labour Party website, there are endorsements for Labour from teachers, students, nurses, etc, but there is no space or facility for new people to upload their own endorsements, to feel involved, to give an email address which can then be used to ask them to get in touch with colleagues and to advocate on behalf of Labour at work or in the communities. If we talking about people spreading the message where they are, and about the party being in receive mode rather than broadcast mode, that would be a great way to do it and to help people feel they have a stake in the campaign…
Well, we are in receive mode for those new people who join the party. Every time somebody joins the Labour Party now we ask them to give a reason for why they’re joining Labour. Whether it’s been through specific campaigns that we’ve run – I’ve been heavily involved in the global Poverty Promise campaign; my cabinet colleague Ed Miliband has been heavily involved in Ed’s Pledge – we have been actively engaging directly with people who have come to us who may not be Labour Party members. But we are also constantly looking at our site and seeing what further innovations we can make, and I get the sense there are very real opportunities for people to engage with us, whether that’s online or offline.

I guess the reason I mention that is that I’m constantly asked whether this will be the “first internet election” the media are obsessed with the idea that it will be. What role do you think people using the web will play in shaping and improving Labour’s campaign..?
The internet will impact on this campaign in a number of different ways. It will empower our activists, because I think we have understood – in this election cycle – the importance of technology empowering activists rather than controlling them. Secondly, it will provide new means for a direct dialogue between political parties, politicians and the public – and there’s a real need for that conversation at the moment. It will provide new means by which the Labour Party can raise funds, both from small donations and also from large numbers of people. It will provide unprecedented information and news about the campaign to a wide cross-section of the electorate. And it will no doubt impact on the campaign in ways that we can’t yet predict.

At the heart of what the internet does for politics, though, is the same thing the internet does in so many other areas of our lives, which in the ugly language of theory is to disintermediate – to take down the barriers between people and the activities in which they want to participate. If you talk to senior Democrats, they say one of the reasons that the internet has been so central to fundraising in America is that historically political parties there – in terms of their organisations – have been very weak. If you had watched any Democratic Presidential candidate on television, from Jack Kennedy through to John Kerry, as a single mum committed to and interested in politics, you would probably have struggled to know how to make a donation to the local state Democratic Party. The ease with which people can now go online and make a donation has been transformative to progressive politics in the United States, and I think it’s already affecting the character of progressive politics here in the UK.

One of the examples of the Labour Party trying to use the online space and in quite a high-profile way is through Twitter, which you recently joined yourself. How do you think Twitter will help you in your role as election coordinator during the short campaign?
I think it will be both an opportunity to share information, and also to pass information on to Labour activists. I think people have a higher expectation of dialogue than in any previous election cycle, and Twitter is one means by which we can stay in touch and make sure we’re speaking directly to the interests and concerns of the people on whom we are relying to carry Labour’s message into the community.

And that’s the key thing, isn’t it online campaigning is useless unless it’s translated into the real world environment. Labour recently launched its new iPhone app, which is a good way of getting people to use the phone bank, etc. What’s the uptake been like on the app so far, and are people using it in the ways you’d intended?
Let’s deal with the general and then the specific. I agree with you that too often conversations about the role of the internet in politics focus on what’s happening in the online world, and not about the offline levels of activity that it enables. The big breakthrough of the Obama campaign during the Democratic primaries was in translating online activism into offline activity, whether that was oringinally through meet-ups, or whether it was through persuading people to undertake very traditional activities like knocking on doors or making telephone calls. And one of the fascinating aspects of the internet’s engagement with politics is how, in each cycle, it’s changing how technology is used in campaigns. In the Kerry/Dean cycle it was principally a means of fundraising; in the Obama campaign it was a powerful tool of organisation. So the Obama people were at pains to emphasise to Labour the importance of time. They said that one of the reasons they had been successful online was that they had faced the longest primary battle and then a long general election campaign, and they said to me in terms: “please don’t come to us with two or three weeks to go before your polling day and ask us how to build an online army”. They said the time to start is now, because even in the Obama campaign there was a process of trial and error, and of learning as they went along.

But that central insight that new media provides a means to undertake very traditional forms of activity has been central to how we’ve tried to use technology. Our iPhone app embodies that; it’s actually a useful tool, whether in relation to virtual phone banking, or whether it’s allowing people to access information in terms of where local meetings and local activities are taking place. It’s a very different product from the iPhone app that the Tories are offering – they have the froth of their swing-o-meter, but not the tools of organisation. In some ways that’s a reflection of the way the two parties are using the internet: the Tories know they need to be in that space, and they want to show the rest of the world that they’re using new technology, but they’re using it in quite a traditional way. In contrast, Labour’s iPhone app – although I don’t have the latest figures in front of me – is already able to be used as a tool of organisation to take Labour’s message beyond the community who are familiar with blackberries or iPhones and into a wide cross-section of the population for whom knocking on doors and making telephone calls will make the difference as to whether they vote Labour.

And another unprecedented thing we have in this election as opposed to previous will be the three TV debates. Lots of pundits are saying that this could be the TV election, rather than the online election. What plans do you have to try to tap into the potential interest around those debates to take a potential soundbite or key passage from the debate and disseminate it further?
Well, firstly the question of whether this is a TV election. If you look at the figures, the viewership of the 10 O’Clock News has fallen by a third since 1997. There were about 66 channels available across the UK in 1997, while there are now more than 400. Party Election Broadcasts were broadcast simultaneously at a set time on all terrestrial channels in 1997, while they’re now scheduled at different times by the broadcasters. So television as a channel of communication – while it’s still very important – is not as important as it was in previous elections where it was by far the predominant medium. So we will put a big effort into our broadcast campaign, of course we will, but we are also fully aware that it’s now only one of a number of channels by which we can directly talk to the electorate. We expect that these debates will be hugely significant in the public’s engagement with the short campaign, and they provide a real opportunity for us to talk directly with the British public about the choice that they face and the agenda we want to set for the future. So of course we are busily looking at how we can amplify the choices that that debate will reveal, and how we can communicate the messages from Labour about what we think the debate tells us about the choice facing the country on polling day.

It’s also quite a big opportunity for the Tories and for the Lib Dems, and perhaps in particular for Nick Clegg who for the first time will be on equal footing with the two main party leaders. How do you intend to mitigate that in specific marginal seats; do you have an in-built agility for messaging in specific seats, or just a general framework?
Our challenge is to sustain and build a coalition of support across a very diverse range of seats. In a number of seats we are facing a challenge from the Liberal Democrats, and in a number of seats we’re facing challenges from other parties like the Greens and sadly now the British National Party. And in a whole number of seats, the Conservatives are our main opponents. We have – both in our Members of Parliament standing in those seats, and in our candidates – a group of people who have years of collective experience in tailoring the discussion in those seats to the particular challenges that are faced. Some people think there is going to be great regional variation in the coming election; my sense is that there will be less regional variation than people expect, and more variation between seats than people expect. In that sense, the character of campaigns – sometimes even in constituencies adjacent to each other – will potentially be very different.

In Islington, where I’m a council candidate we’ve recently opened a new shopfront in quite a visible location on one of the main high streets going through the constituency. In the context of talking about iPhone apps and TV debates, that seems quite old fashioned, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s important to have that visible presence. What other types of tactic or technique can we expect from the short election campaign? Will Prescott be on his soap boxes? Will there be 1997 battle buses, or town hall-style meetings?
Firstly, I hear very good things about Labour’s campaign in Islington, and I’m optimistic in terms of how we can do in that council election, given the very poor record of delivery of the Liberal Democrats on the wrong priorities that they’ve set in the borough. And it’s clear that the momentum that is evident in Islington has been won by a great deal of hard work by Labour activists on a lot of issues that people, in the past, might dismissively have called “pavement politics”. But actually there’s a lesson for all of us from the Islington experience, which is that one of the best ways to try to defeat the Liberal Democrats is to take them on at what they would regard as their own game: discussing issues that are often local in character; revealing the liberal letdowns that are a constant feature of their record in local government; and with pride and with confidence, sharing with people the difference that a local Labour administration can make. In terms of our national campaign, the Conservatives will have unprecedented amounts of money and they will have unprecedented numbers of posters. But my sense is that – given the tough financial times through which people are living – we will have a range of ways of revealing to the British public that we get it and that we understand that this is a serious election with serious consequences for voters and for families across Britain. So during the short campaign you will see a lot of direct engagement and dialogue from Gordon as our leader, and from leading members of the cabinet speaking directly to voters about the concerns that they care about – and the voters will judge harshly a Conservative Party that, even before the short campaign, is at risk of seeming very remote from the day-to-day concerns that will be uppermost in people’s minds when they make their choice on polling day.

Are you talking about Gordon going round for tea and biscuits with local community leaders, as was reported in the Guardian last weekend? Does that have the potential do deliver more, do you think, than, say, a large-scale rally?
Gordon can be a formidable speaker in large settings as well as small ones. Again, if you look over the Atlantic to the Obama campaign, they had huge rallies, but also small house meetings. I think the public now expect their politicians to be able both to command a public stage and also engage often in quite up-close conversations with voters about the issues that they care about. In my own constituency, I long ago gave up any attempt to try and engage the electors on the issues that I was determined they should care about, and started recognising that the job of a local representative was to meet the voters on the common ground of the issues that they care about. That will be a feature of the way Gordon campaigns and the way the Labour Party campaigns in the upcoming contest.

What will those issues be, predominantly?
It varies from constituency to constituency, and from community to community, but I think the economy will be more central than in any election since 1997. My sense, in talking to people both within my constituency and beyond – and I did a couple of public meetings on Friday evening – is that how Britain earns its living, and how Britain pays its way in the world, are two central questions that sit below quite a lot of the anxieties and concerns that people feel in the wake of the global financial crisis. And so while in 2001 and 2005 public services were a dominant part of the election debate, my sense is that the economy will be more central than it has been in recent elections this time.

On a local scale, those anxieties are often expressed as concerns about housing or immigration it may all fall beneath the abstract of the financial crisis and the economy, but that economic support for people needs to be articulated through specific policy initiatives on those specific issues…
Of course, and I left a cabinet discussion this morning in which we talked about immigration and we talked about its impact on communities across Britain. The way those questions found expression on Friday night in a constituency I spoke in was as real anxiety about future jobs, either for the people in the audience themselves, or where the jobs were going to come from for their children or their grandchildren. Part of the way that we can counter the politics of division and hate from a party like the British National Party, who play both on anxiety and also on a sense of nostalgia, is to have a strong and credible story for every part of Britain about the fairer future that Labour offers. As a progressive party, we’re at our best when talking with confidence about our future as a country – and that helps explain why we are campaigning under the banner of a future fair for all.

And in the longer term, just as Organising for America continues to harness the power of local organisations even while President Obama sits in the White House, we need to develop a permanent campaign in local communities and to renew our own party that way. Another great example of that is in Edgbaston, where the local team have put together vibrant, innovative, hyper-local campaigns, and invite local people who aren’t necessarily party members to get involved. How does Labour harness some of that enthusiasm amongst our activists, which is grounded in this election campaign, in order to build a sustained and localised set of campaigns?
I’ve been out in Edgbaston campaigning with Gisela, so I recognise your description of the energy they’re bringing to that local campaign. The Labour Party is like most big organisations: some of the best innovation happens at its edge. Whether that’s in Edgbaston and the work they’re doing in a tough electoral fight, or in other areas with other candidates, part of our task after this election will be to continue to be willing and able to learn from the innovations we’re witnessing. We didn’t send an email or a letter from Victoria Street telling them that this is what they needed to do – we see our job here as facilitating that kind of innovation and momentum that’s evident in Edgbaston. I could also take you to Walthamstow, or to many other constituencies, and you would see the same thing. So we need the humility to continue to be a learning organisation after this election, because I couldn’t be more proud of some of the work that some of our outstanding candidates are doing on the ground, and I think there’s a lot we’ll be able to learn, absorb and replicate. But in the meantime, we’ve got an important task in making sure we win the election.

To finish up, then, I predict the election will be called two weeks today on the first Tuesday after Easter what three core messages would you give to LabourList readers in the meantime so they can help make the difference for that short campaign?
Well, I’m afraid I’m not going to give LabourList an exclusive on the election date – I think that would be better left to the Prime Minister at the right point. On what LabourList readers and supporters could do, firstly I’d ask that they take a look at the video we put out recently where I spoke about the word of mouth election – that gives some pointers as to how people can engage. Secondly, I’d ask people to sign up to my Twitter account in order that I can hear from them about the work they’re doing out on the doorstep and I can share with them the work we’re doing here at the headquarters. And, thirdly, I’d urge LabourList supporters to take a look at MembersNet so they can see the local meetings and the local campaigning that we’d like them to be engaged in in the weeks ahead – because the online space is going to be vital, but so to are the doorsteps, so too are the telephones, so too is the street work. We need not just our members, but all our supporters, to be engaged, to make sure we don’t have an election that’s dominated by posters, but rather that we get one that’s dominated by people.

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