Thursday 30 October 2008

Learning to let go

Political parties are a bit like Dr Who – periodically they need to regenerate in order stay fresh and remain successful. Labour’s history clearly proves this. The party of 1923 was very different to the party of 1945, which had radically altered by 1966. 1997 heralded yet another incarnation of Labour.

Why do parties keep evolving? Parties have to work within the social, institutional and technological circumstances they find themselves in. Each of these versions of Labour was an effective vehicle for political competition at the time they were created. However, when taken out of the appropriate context, parties become weak and anachronistic. The question that Labour’s leaders and supporters should be asking now is what forms of political organization will come next?

“New Labour” can best be understood as a response to the chaos inside the party in the early 1980s. Modernizers developed methods to centralize control into their hands and relied on a high degree of professionalization. Measured in terms of electoral success, this approach was wildly successful. But it had its downside too. Aside from a brief surge between 1994 and 1997, membership continued to decline (it should be noted however that this decline predates Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It was part of a much longer term trend that can be traced back to 1950). Perhaps more significantly, “New Labour” created a culture where activist-driven grassroots politics looked increasingly out of place. As a result, politicians became more distant from ordinary citizens.

Can this situation be reversed? Many Labour activists seem to hope for a return to 1950 (or possible 1983). Such approaches though are essentially conservative. When Labour was created in 1900, its founders did not develop the party’s institutions by looking backwards. Instead, the models they chose were radical and unprecedented. Labour would do well to remember this today.

If we are looking for possible solutions as to how Labour might organize itself in the future, we could do a lot worse than looking across the Atlantic at the Obama campaign. In Yes We Can: how the lessons from America should change British politics, Will Straw and I explore what our parties can learn from the Obama campaign.

It is important to make one point right away. British parties will never be able to replicate the scale and the fervor that the Illinois senator has generated. That is a uniquely American phenomenon, a product of the US’s culture and political institutions. However, there are still vital lessons to be learned.

The great achievement of the Obama campaign was to couple effective campaigning with a vibrant grassroots activist community. His team did this by decentralizing control of the campaign, allowing supporters to self-organize and making barriers to participation as low as possible. This happened both in real world communities and people’s online networks. In the latter case, the campaign’s website and in particular the MyBO social networking tool proved to be vital. Here activists could sign-up for the campaign, indicate what they were willing to do to support Obama, organize their own fundraising events and join groups of like-minded or locally situated activists. In short, the Obama campaign was plugging itself into people’s real lives – their families, friends and communities. Supporters could also use the Obama website as a publishing platform, writing their own blog entries.

While this model of organizing has proved to be hugely successful in the US, it is easy to imagine that British parties, culturally conditioned by the success of “New Labour”  would find it hard to cede this amount of control to their supporters. But this is the most important lesson they must learn: it is not only OK to let go, but absolutely vital.

Ironically, parties need activists like never before. The 1990’s model of national media focused political campaigning is now becoming less and less effective, offering hugely diminishing returns with every passing year. Citizens have so many different conduits to gather information from – 24 hour ruling news, 500 channels on their TV, digital radio, not to mention the Internet. You can’t spin that. The only way to reach voters is through their social networks. The Obama team knew this and the sooner Labour figures it out, the better.

British politicians tend to look across the Atlantic for electoral inspiration. However, it is very easy to misinterpret what is happening. The 2008 American contest does not offer Labour any quick fixes or easy answers for the next general election. Instead it throws down a huge challenge: change your culture and change the way you do things. Only by doing this can Labour be made ready for twenty first century politics.


Robert Alcock said...

I phrase this more of a question than a comment: surely the level of grassroots devolution we can see with the Obama campaign is confined more to the business of campaigning than actual control over Democratic policy platforms?

There seems to me a danger that once the election is over - and hopefully Obama is in the White House - there will be a serious ebbing of political engagement. When I studied aspects of US politics at BA level (admittedly quite briefly and a while ago) I recalled very weak structures for substantive participation outside of campaign times, particularly for those not wishing to stand for public office. That is relative to CLPs, Conservative Associations over here - despite the downward trend in participation since the 1950s peak.

Good news at Martin Bright's New Statesman blog - Labour Party membership has actually had a minor shot in the arm since Conference, with something like 1,000 comrades a month returning
to the fold...

Nick Anstead said...

Hi Robert,

Thanks for an excellent contribution. Your argument cuts to the heart of the difference between British and American parties. The former have (at least theoretically) a formalised structure of policy making among the membership, the latter do not. However, I would argue it is a mistake to claim that political activists in the US have no influence over policy. Indeed, I think it is quite possible to claim their electoral focus gives them a greater say - they have a huge carrot and stick to influence their party's leaders, because they find it much easier to oust them.

That said, I agree with you that one of the big questions post-election (if he wins...) will be how Obama's organisation will behave. I suspect you may find them taking a much more active role in non-electoral politics, acting as a powerful pressure group, either for or against the president.

I have actually fleshed some of these ideas out in a paper on internal party democracy in the US. If you are interested, feel free to contact me ( and I will send it on to you.