Tuesday 4 November 2008

What can British politics learn from Obama?

[This post was originally published at Liberal Conspiracy]


Internet guru recently Tim O’Reilly published a blog entry titled Why I Support Barack Obama. In 2004, O’Reilly coined the phrase web 2.0 to describe the new forms of content creation and organization occurring on sites like YouTube, Wikipedia and eBay (if you are still a bit hazy about the web 2.0 concept, this video may help).

O’Reilly pointed to the way Obama had run his election campaign, especially online. He argued this proved that the Senator would be a President comfortable in the information age.

We should hope so. The web is changing pretty much every aspect of our lives – how we access information, how we shop, even how we interact with our friends and loved ones. It is certainly changing how American politics works.

This is most obvious in political fundraising. Obama has achieved unprecedented fundraising success, raising more than $600 million, largely through online donations. But the web also made Obama successful in more traditional, community-based forms of politics. Using the web, Obama was able to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers to work in key swing states. in North Carolina, not won by a Democrat since 1976, he has 17,000 volunteers and 40 field offices. In Virginia, in the Republican column since 1964, Obama had enough volunteers to canvas more than a quarter of a million houses in one weekend. How was this success achieved?

The Obama campaign team (unlike the Clinton campaign) were not control freaks. They let their supporters self-organize, so activists could recruit more volunteers and donors from their communities. Rather than just being lackies for paid political hacks, volunteers could be promoted through the campaign structure and end up managing teams of people. The Obama team even allowed their supporters to use the campaign’s website to criticize the candidate and his political issues. In simple terms, supporters were treated as grown ups, rather than a commodity.

By controlling a bit less and enabling a bit more, the Obama team were able to build a much more powerful political organization, able to harness the creativity and enthusiasm of millions of Americans.

In the early days of the Internet, people linked the new technology as libertarian. But that is wrong. The Internet is heralding a new form of collectivism. If we think of virtually everything remarkable that happens online – whether it is the Obama campaign or an amateur YouTube video getting millions of hits, it works because people are interacting, collaborating and exchanging information.

Can British parties harness this powerful new organizing tool? In a Fabian free thinking paper that I have co-authored with Will Straw, we explore the possible lessons from the Obama campaign for Labour. But the challenges are huge. It certainly means that parties have to change fundamentally. For the past twenty-five years, Labour’s organizing ideology has stressed central control and professionalism at the expense of grassroots participation. Even dissenters from this position, such as Save the Labour Party, have tended to advocate a very institutionalized model of “resolutionary socialism”, and are seemingly obsessed with the power of an annual conference.

Both of these approaches stifle new collectivism, which works best in an open, organic and fluid environment. If they are really serious about learning the lessons of the Obama campaign, Labour must break out of this old debate, and instead look for new ways to open up its institutions, encourage participation and, above all, trust citizens enough to give them a genuine stake in the party and its campaigns. That really would be a revolutionary change.

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