When James Mills wrote in December of what political parties can learn from the success of the campaign to put Rage Against the Machine into the Christmas number 1 slot, I doubt he expected that his words would be taken so literally, so soon and by Liberal Democrat supporters.
But that’s what’s been happening in the last few days, as Lib Dem supporters have been organising independently online via a new Facebook group, promoted by the man behind the “Get Rage Against the Machine to Christmas Number 1” campaign. The group has attracted some 110,000 members in the last few days alone.
The group aims to:
“encourage those who would vote Lib Dem, but usually “don’t want to waste their vote”, that if we unite we can really see a change in the unrepresentative two-party system.”
To put it into context, the official Conservative Facebook group has some 50,000 members, Labour’s has just over 25,000 and the official Lib Dem group has just under 49,000. LabourList, one of the largest of the other independent supporters’ networks on Facebook has under 2,000 members. These are groups which have taken months of cultivation, campaigning and connections.
The new pro-Lib Dem group’s creators write on the page’s wall:
“This group was not set up by the Liberal Democrats. It was set up by Ben Stockman, who soon sent Jon Morter (creator of the RATM group) an email asking if he would mention the group. Jon did – and that’s where we started.
“Our reference to the Christmas RATM effort is simply a recognition of the way people can join together for a purpose (any purpose!) using a social networking site. However, it’s good to see that Rage do also oppose two-party politics.”
The group’s members are also using proven web techniques – spreading news about campaigning events and organising online in order to mobilise offline – to try to translate the Lib Dems’ surge in the polls into votes.
Many commentators have spoken and written many thousands of words in the last few days as to how this election has been shaken up by the first TV debate. Now, people are considering how Nick Clegg is likely to maximise on his party’s opposition to the war in Iraq in this week’s debate on international affairs to compound his growing popularity (even though he himself was not in parliament at the time of the war).
But with the backing of Jon Morter, I wouldn’t underestimate the power that this initiative – and whatever else may come in the next fortnight – could have. There is a palpable sense that something could be changing in our political landscape, and it is accompanied by a sense of urgency. As Oliver Burkeman implies in the Guardian today, it is not ridiculous to suggest that Britain could be in the midst of its first Obama moment.
Barack Obama was able to harness an anti-establishment feeling, as Nick Clegg is now doing. He painted himself as a radical alternative to a tired, dynastic politics, with all its “worn-out dogmas”, “broken promises” and “more of the same”. He brought in new voters, who may not normally have been attracted to the Democrats, and young voters in particular. And he fed on a strong sense of disillusionment with the establishment, and the the harnessing of a moment, to re-energise and re-enfranchise voters.
Indeed, when I recorded the House of Comments podcast two weeks ago, after the Ask the Chancellors debate, I said:
“I think you’re misdefining the Obama moment as the election of Barack Obama, which in my interpretation it’s not. The Obama moment to my mind is the creation of a movement which seeks to claim government in order to express the greater will of the people. [It’s about embedding] yourself into existing structures of grassroots organisation, or creating new structures of grassroots organisation, in order to have this huge swell of enthusiasm behind you and take you into significant office. That to my mind is what the Obama moment is, not just the election of a new government.”
I’m not saying, for a moment, that Nick Clegg is a British Obama. He’s not, and – significantly – the Lib Dems do not have the time to build an organisation in time for the election to harness what Brian Barder calls the Clegg “epiphany”. It was that organisation which best defined and enabled Obama’s achievement in 2008 – and such a campaign takes months and years to build, and is part of the reason I advocate a permanent campaign at the grassroots level, embedded in communities on people’s real issues, as the best way to reconnect the Labour Party to its constituents. Clegg and the Lib Dems will not have as strong an organisational capacity at this election as either Labour or the Tories – and that’s why their share of the voting intention in the current polls will not, I imagine, deliver them to government.
But, with increasing noise about a possible Lib-Lab deal, and new leaks of plans for House of Lords reform this morning, it does feel like we could be in the midst of something important – that the election and its debates are being affected by the Lib Dem surge.
I’ll be keeping a close eye on how this Facebook group – amongst other things – develops and what other initiatives it may sporn.