If you’ve come across this blog entry while searching Google for Damian McBride I suggest you take a look at this from Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy or this from Tom Harris MP – they delve more into the depths of the McBride issue than I do. If you want analysis of UK online campaigning then read on…
Wire Tangle - CC / Flickr
Wire Tangle - CC / Flickr

Barack Obama. Oh isn’t he wonderful! Well, yes, he is as far as I am concerned. It still makes me smile each and every time I see him on TV, happy as I am that, not only is George Bush no longer President, but that’s he’s an interesting and optimistic person capable of making great speeches.

But I am completely and utterly sick of British commentators citing Barack Obama’s online campaign and how wonderful that was. The latest example is a post today on LabourList by Gabe Trodd who reckons a Blogspot blog and a committee is going to help matters. Yet that doesn’t quite match this from the LME newsletter a couple of months back:

Well, website fundraising was not well known in America either a  decade ago, so it is perhaps worth trying. Indeed, Labour candidates  for Yorkshire in next year’s European elections already have a  fundraising function through PayPal on their website www.labour4yorkshire.eu

Then there’s Will Straw popping up here, there, and, everywhere expounding on how Labour better learn the lessons of Obama.

Get a grip folks. Even the Atheist Bus Campaign probably raised more than UK political parties ever have online! There’s some way to go.

There are a few things that have to happen before any decent online campaign can develop in the UK, and indeed anywhere else in Europe. Until some of these happen stop drawing parallels with Obama.

  1. Find some politicians ready to take risks. Obama was nowhere in the primary race, had to take risks, and doing things online was one way. Segolène Royal’s Désirs d’Avenir was a bit interesting in France for the same reason. Where are the UK politicians willing to take risks online?
  2. You need to have a decent and positive message to motivate activists – why should they want to be part, to feel part of your campaign? There’s scant little optimism anywhere in British politics at the moment; that has to change before you can motivate people either online or offline. This message starts from the very top and Damian McBride style individuals are never going to generate a positive buzz around politics.
  3. Command and control of party messages has to be abandoned to a certain extent, and debate about policy has to be conducted within the party, within organisations and think tanks, and also online. UK parties need to abandon some of their attachment to brand at the very least. There are ways to contribute to party politics that do not only entail delivering thousands of interminably boring leaflets.

These are all matters of politics, leadership, ideology, party political dynamics and communication. None are remotely linked to technology. Blue State Digital may have done a good job for Obama, but they had the right circumstances in which to work. Until British politics – and Labour in particular – can look at some of the fundamentals then there will be scant little progress.

And please, please, stop citing Obama. It’s doing a great man a disservice.


  1. Nice article,
    @whoever don’t get get jon’s comment wrong, there are very good points to learn from Obama

  2. whoever

    Jon, aren’t you just annoyed that you’re not getting the attention and the credit which you feel you deserve?

  3. Hi Jon, thanks for the comment – and will happily admit that my research pre-disposes me to looking at the US-UK scene more than others (although new projects this summer will mean that I am going to be doing a bit more work on Europe!).

    Best, Nick

    P.S. Great blog, btw.

  4. Thanks for the comments Nick – don’t get me wrong there are very good points to learn from Obama, just as there are good points to learn for Labour from all kinds of sites and campaigns. Plus I am tired of people over using the arguments – maybe it was a bit churlish of my to cite all of the Straw (+ Anstead) articles.

  5. Hi Jon,

    Just discovered your post, so sorry this comment is a couple of days late. A bit harsh I feel – although I suppose I have a vested interest in this… :-).

    For me, the Obama campaign is interesting because it opens a window – only partially, I might add – on new forms of political and social organisation that we are starting to see emerging. These are radically decentralized in comparison with previously existing types of institutions (what has been termed “low systemness”). If we are able to use the example of Obama as an illustrative example to explain these concepts to people, then I am all for it.

    To take your general points in turn:

    – Politicians are risk adverse both online and offline (on this, read the work of the superb American scholar Jenny Stromer-Galley, who also has a chapter in our book). So when you ask “why will our politicians not take risks?”, my response is because the institutions do not incentivise them to do so. In the US, the primary system creates a highly competative and unpredictable environment perfect for catalysing innovation (This leads to questions of institutional design. In other words, how do we recreate political institutions that are foster innovation? I would add that, to discuss this, we need to go beyond the scope of The Change We Need and look at questions of civic, rather than party, institutional design – but that is another research project for another day!).

    – Real optimism in politics has to come from the bottom and not the top. As Ben Brandzel argues “The Obama movement” was actually the product of many years hard work and galvanisation by organisers and ordinary Americans. For many of those years, they had no Obama to gather around. Labour’s recent mistake was to take a top-down approach to online campaigning. With this understanding, the real role of parties turns into providing platforms for activism, not trying to “astroturf” it.

    – Completely agree with your final point (on command and control, and particiption), and we offer some quite detailed justification for it in our conclusion.

    – Finally on the point of fundraising. I have written on the regulatory differents between the two countries and why we should not expect a replication of “money-bomb fundraising”. But focusing wholly on figures, I think, that misunderstands some of the lessons from the US. This goes back to a big debate in literature on campaign finance in the UK. Two schools of thought exist – first, that people donate money as a form of political activism, and second that they donate it in lieu of political activism. The second school has been highly dominant in recent decades, especially during and after the New Labour years, when many new members just gave their subs and then did nothing else. So the dominant view became that donations were akin to passive participation. But Obama (and other US campaigns) have proved this is not necessarily the case. Through data management, they skillfully construct a relationship with supporters, gradually raising the expectations of their participation and making them shareholders in the campaign. When they donate, they are buying a stake in the outcome of the election. To adopt that approach, even if the resultant amounts were relatively small, would be a big shift in the way we do things.

    Best, Nick

  6. Spot on Jon – particularly the bit about ABC raising more money than the parties themselves. I think that is probably a better model for the parties than the Obama campaign in many ways…

  7. scooter

    Sorry for misspelling barroso…

  8. scooter

    The British LP has made a deal with EU conservatives that they support Baroso and they will support Blair as EU president. It’s not about choice for EU citizens. It’s old style foreign policy deals… Thank you Labour
    Just read between the lines in the papers and you’ll know.

  9. I am anxiously waiting for one inspiring message from Labour ahead of the European elections: Who is their candidate to head the European Commission for the next five years?

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