Britain How to win elections
Baracking the voters
British parties want to emulate the American master
At ten o’clock, recalls a Labour Party staffer, the sweep began. From neighbourhoods across America, information rippled up a telephone chain. By 10.25am on election day, Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago knew exactly where its troops were and how many ballots had been cast in each precinct. Activists were promptly redeployed. The same thing happened at 2pm and again at 4pm. The visitor was left wide-eyed, and inspired: “It can work in Britain, too.”
Astonishing as it may seem, the 2015 British general-election campaign has begun. The Conservative Party’s campaign headquarters sports a countdown clock informing staffers how many seconds remain before polls open. Like Labour and the Liberal Democrats, it has a list of target seats. And all three parties are keen to learn from the great American vote-wrangler.
The campaign model they so admire rests on three foundations: a large and disciplined field operation, a good system for managing data and plenty of cash. British political parties used to boast formidable field machines, but they have slipped. Even Labour, which boasts most boots on the ground, has a membership of under 200,000. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are finding that coalition government is glyphosate to the grassroots.
With traditional parties shrinking, Britain’s politicos talk of the Obama model as a solution. The art of community organising—convening energetic groups of activists around local issues—is all the rage. Honed by Mr Obama in the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in 1980s Chicago, it inspired his decentralised campaign machine. Labour has flown in Arnie Graf, a former IAF director, to overhaul its structures. The Conservatives have established a residential training academy for campaign managers. The Liberal Democrats want to defend seats they hold by running almost purely local campaigns.
This is easier said than done. Britain’s politicians tend to keep activists on a tight leash—and have little cash with which to recruit and train professional organisers. Matthew McGregor, a Briton who was part of Mr Obama’s digital communications team, says building the Organising for America network took a “will to invest” that is mostly absent from Westminster politics. Time to select candidates and build local movements is running out, adds Paul Goodman, a Tory commentator. “Having cups of tea with people is very important,” he explains.
If the campaigners are the limbs of the Obama model, a good data system is the brain. It enables campaign supremos to target tailored messages at precisely the right voters. Of the British parties, the Liberal Democrats are farthest ahead technologically. In 2011 they bought the snazzy Voter Activation Network used by the Obama campaign, which enables users to generate finely customised lists of voter contact details. Sadly, the party has little raw information—and too few canvassers with which to obtain it. The other parties are hurriedly upgrading their systems.
The Conservatives enjoy the healthiest balance-sheet, although it is footling by American presidential standards. According to the Electoral Commission, the party has out-fundraised Labour in three of the past four quarters. Its debts are much smaller and its finances less reliant on unpredictable trade union bosses. This makes it easier to invest in staff and technology: the Tories have already recruited three waves of campaign managers for 2015.
Along with the other parties, the Tories are concerned at their over-reliance on the (admittedly deep) well of donations from wealthy folk and institutions. Politicians are therefore looking covetously at Mr Obama’s extensive network. In the 2012 campaign, the president drew on a much broader pool of 4m small donors. Mr McGregor insists that, with time, an equivalent British donor base of up to 1m is eminently achievable; others scoff at that.
As they rush to emulate American methods, British party operatives acknowledge a fundamental difference. In America, the personality of the top candidate infuses the campaign. It is used to energise supporters, court donations and unite a sprawling operation. In Britain the same tech-savvy, decentralised structures are being used quite differently: to win over an electorate that loathes national politicians. The Liberal Democrats plan to fight “75 by-elections” precisely because their role in the coalition—personified by Nick Clegg—is so unpopular. Even David Cameron, the most appealing of the three main party leaders, has been conspicuously absent from recent Tory election literature. Whereas presidential candidates must insert national politics into voters’ lives, Westminster’s unloved politicians benefit from keeping the two separate.