Monday 18 August 2008

Incoming TXT: VP 4 ‘08

The much publicized (here, here and here for details. Here’s the original email) decision by the Obama campaign to announce the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee via an open email and text message list isn’t simply about public relations. It is both smart politics and wholly in-keeping with the message that Obama has been working to sell to the electorate since the middle of last year.

For all the optimistic talk of hope and change, Obama’s campaign has embraced one of the most aggressive data mining strategies ever attempted in any form of politics anywhere. He is certainly the most effective practitioner of this form of politics the Democratic Party have ever had, and is really competing in an arena traditionally dominated by Republicans. Unsurprisingly, the Obama campaign is continuing to work along these lines, dangling the carrot of inside information on the campaign (in this case immediate notification of the VP pick) in return for your personal details – your email, your mobile number. When you have millions of them, these details become priceless, as they allow candidates to construct a relationship with activists and voters that in previous election cycles would have been impossible.

But this move isn’t just about data. It is also about continuing a narrative which the Obama campaign has skillfully created over the past 18 months. They have cleverly linked their candidate with modernity and the blowing away of the old order. In this case, the announcement of the Vice Presidential message will by-pass both senior Democrats and the mainstream media, and go out to those on the list. In that sense, it is nicely coupled with Obama’s decision to give his acceptance speech not to the Democratic convention, but to an open audience in a sports arena in Denver. He is of the people, not of the establishment.  

What can Labour learn from these activities? Just over a year ago, Labour announced the results of its Leadership and Deputy Leadership contest at a special conference with all due accompanying pageantry. When viewed historically, a good case can be made that such arrangements developed in order to provide a linkage with wider society – independent labour expressing its preferences through its delegated representatives. However, while such arrangements would not have looked out of place in 1907, now, with the development of far more effective mechanisms of communication, they appear anachronistic and exclusionary.

Although it would be my preference, if the idea of Labour announcing its next leader and deputy leader (whenever that occurs) exclusively by using open text message and email list is a little too radical, then at the very least the two approaches should function in tandem, so as an announcement of national significance has a national presence, reaching outside the special conference and not relying on 24 hours news channels for dissemination. 

I’m actually off to the US on Tuesday, and will be visiting Washington and Boston, where I will be attending the American Political Science Association Annual conference. I will do my best to blog any interesting ideas I hear about or occur to me while I’m there. 

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