10 things Labour conference can learn from the Democratic convention

6th November, 2013 3:02 pm

By Olly Parker and Polly Billington

In September 2012, Charlotte North Carolina and the Democratic party welcomed tens of thousands of journalists, delegates and volunteers to what is a small southern American electoral battleground. For two weeks we flew over and joined the staff of the Democratic National Committee. We were low ranking cogs in a machine charged with running one of the biggest media events on the planet.

Over the next two weeks the Democratic national convention made us reassess everything that we had all previously held dear about our Labour party conference back home. Below are 10 lessons the Labour party should take on board when hosting its annual conference.

1. Your conference message is your campaign message

The message discipline on show at the convention was nothing short of extraordinary. Barack Obama’s campaign messages ran through the convention like a stick of rock – every flat surface, every TV screen, every speech and every media interview all came back to the same campaign slogan: ‘Forward, not back’.

2. You’re not putting on an event, you’re running a TV channel 

For four days the conference ran live on rolling news channels. When it came to scheduling, staging, speeches and running order everything was done for maximum impact with a potential television audience. And right from the start, this showed.

To win the election Barack Obama needed to build a voting coalition of college educated liberals, younger voters, ethnic minorities, trade unionists and women. Much like our own conference, different days and slots were given over to different themes, but instead of those themes being decided by policy areas, they were instead directed by the groups of voters the Obama campaign needed to reach out to.

Speeches were all delivered straight to camera framed with the campaign messages in sight and the big speeches were timed to run when viewing figures were at their highest. Joe Biden’s speech, for example, was moved so it didn’t clash with a football game. In essence they had days and days of free television advertising beamed to millions of viewers.

3. It’s all about the big speech

Let’s face it, the big speech is the reason for every political convention and with an estimated 35 million Americans tuning in, the Democrats weren’t about to waste the moment. Everything that day built up to the last 30 seconds of that speech and the TV pictures that followed.

The speech itself was a run through of the convention’s key messages, ending with an impassioned plea for America to continue moving forward (not back).

The lesson here is, while it’s completely right that the focus needs to be on the leader’s speech, are we missing a trick by almost completely ignoring the rest of our line-up? Bill Clinton’s speech and personal popularity earned Obama another hearing with a set of swing voters the campaign had difficulty in securing. Could the same be done here?

4. Motivate the troops

Volunteer motivation was audible in everything that was said, and issues like a women’s right to choose were as much about motivating the activists as they were about reaching out to the swing voters. In a campaign that aimed to put 2.2 million volunteers in the field, and raise hundreds of millions in small donations, throwing ‘red meat’ to those already solidly in your column was, and is a must.

5. The fringe matters

At the halfway point it’s time to fly a flag for the way we do things here at home. One very noticeable feature of the convention was that there is no conference fringe to speak of – save for a few caucus meetings where speakers recite their stump speeches – and no place to join the debate or challenge the party’s elected representatives on policy or strategy. This is a real strength of our way of doing things.

6. If it feels like a festival, why not treat it like one?

A gathering of like minds coming together over a shared passion to make new friends, see their favourites live and even buy a t-shirt. You could be talking about Glastonbury and personally speaking, our group of friends have always treated Labour party conference a little bit like a music festival.

However, a better model might be a form of literary festival where alongside formal business there is a focus on daytime activities, accessible to all.

7. Don’t be afraid of different ways to deliver your message

On the morning of Obama’s speech we casually asked what the line-up for the day was. The answer was James Taylor, Mary J Blige, Foo Fighters, Scarlett Johansson and Eva Longoria. This was not the kind of answer we were used to getting back home.

The artists were chosen as suitable conduits for the key messages the campaign wanted to deliver to different groups of voters. The net result was coverage in a hundred specialist, non-political magazines and media outlets that normally don’t pay attention to elections.

8. Harness the power of your volunteers

This was a lesson for Labour’s machine as a whole. The way Obama used volunteers was as effective at the convention as it was the doorstep. They did it because they believed, but they also did it because they were cared for and felt that they belonged. Pizza and hot dogs and coke are all pretty important after long shifts running up stairs, however the party also made them feel valued and useful.

9. Politics matters: For three weeks in September the media have to take it seriously

Every year the media clarion call of ‘what’s the point of conference?’ gets steadily louder. But the fact is, political parties and the decisions they make matter, and they affect us all.  We shouldn’t be ashamed of making this case to the press, in plain terms.

10. End on a high

The leader finishes speaking and we all go home. No ifs, no buts.

No one is suggesting Labour imports the US model wholesale – our two cultures and ways of doing things are different and our reticence and irony as a nation might make some of the glitzier elements hard to translate – but our definition of vibrancy and values rooted in people’s lives can, and should be translated in years to come.

This is an abridged version of a chapter in the Fabian publication ‘Forward: The change Labour still needs’ edited by Marcus Roberts

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  • After reading the title and seeing who the authors were I expected to nod and smile my way through this. Instead I’ve read it with a puzzled and furrowed brow, wondering if this perhaps owes more to the past than the future.
    1) Message discipline, nothing to quibble with here as in today’s fragmented media landscape Churchill’s mantra of hitting your message like a pile driver and hitting it again and again has never been more true. But that’s rather the point, this isn’t a new idea and should be what we are already doing.
    2) I love the theme idea as its far better than policy areas that don’t mean much to most people. But the reality about the TV coverage is that the only people who’ll watch the rolling news are the political obsessives – like us. TV is still more about the soundbite, except today it’s social media as well the evening news and next day’s papers.
    3) So what’s being suggested here? Are we meant to decipher the code about a past Democratic hero speaking to a past Labour hero speaking?
    4) Motivate the troops absolutely agree and my personal favourite part of conference is that it puts fire in my belly for the following year’s campaigning. But not sure for most troops that one, two and three would be very motivational.
    5) As a conference attendee the best part of conference is the fringe and social elements. The big set piece speeches are often actually better enjoyed at home on TV where it is easier to listen, watch and tweet!
    6, 7, 8, 9) Nothing to disagree with on these ones.
    10) Wholeheartedly agree. Let’s move the leader’s speech to the final day. We waste it buried in the middle of conference. Let’s start with it to set the narrative or finish with it to end on a high.

  • Ben Cobley

    Only No.5 of these ten recommendations involves the plebs getting to have their say. The rest is all about maximising the impact of central command and control. I’m thinking our politics in general needs to be opening up rather than closing in upon itself even further.


  • robertcp

    Why are people obsessed with learning from the USA? Turnouts in elections are even lower than in the UK.

    • Alexwilliamz

      Because they speak the same language and have some cracking TV series of course.

      • robertcp

        I agree.

  • Alexwilliamz

    11 Don’t select career politicians with dubious financial histories (see Virginia Gov election)

    • Graham Day

      You mean the guy who won?

  • Daniel Speight

    A short message to all the bag carriers, spads and apparatchiks.

    The Labour Party is not a British version of the Democrats. The Democrats are not an American version of the Labour Party.

    See simple isn’t it. It doesn’t matter how much you are dreaming of a job like someone in West Wing, and it doesn’t matter what Blair, Mandelson or Campbell led you believe when you were growing up; it’s just not going to happen. Start a new SDP if this is what you want.

    In America there is a party supported by Big Oil and a party supported by Wall Street. At the moment the one supported by Wall Street is a little more liberal while the other is more red-neck. Neither believes in social democracy. Ed Miliband can bring over a dozen Arnies and impose primaries on candidate selections, but thankfully he cannot rid Labour of its social democratic history.

    • thewash

      I think you missed the point. It is not the US Democratic Party’s message that was being promoted here but their techniques for promoting it.

      • treborc

        Yes but those techniques cost $1.5 billion with just one Obama Conferences costing $35 million to get that word over.

        It’s not about getting the word over so much as getting the people interested enough to listen or care.

  • swatnan

    As Mrs Beaton would have said … ‘ First, choose your inspirational Leader …’
    The truth is Ed Milliband is no Barack Obama.
    I’d agree that the Leaders Speech should come at the begining of Conference to set the tone, and the talking points, if its a success. If its a dud, then we could all go home on Day 2.

  • MrSauce

    It really, really helps when the opposition has presided over the largest economic crash of all time. Unfortunately for Labour, they are on the wrong side of that equation.

  • Graham Day

    The Labour Party Conference is the annual meeting of the supreme policy & decision making body of the party. The Democratic National Convention is a four yearly meeting with the purpose of nominating a presidential candidate that has already been chosen by other means.

    The are not comparable events.


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