Labour vs Obama: Joining or Participating?

Tuesday, 16th March 2010 at 9:00 UTC Leave a comment

Whilst reflecting on some of my encounters thus far since announcing my support for Labour at the next General Election, I’ve found my mind wondering back to Barack Obama’s campaign two years ago. One of the key components to the strategy he used was mobilising the grass roots of communities, rather than simply his party membership; a campaign based on Participation, rather than creating and utilising party members.The average Obama for America email went something like this: “Here’s a video of a first-time volunteer on my campaign, and you can join them in ensuring we make America a better place by donating X or doing Y”. OK, they were quite varied, but this was a common theme. It appealed as much to the engaged floating voter as it did to long standing party activists.

This is not the traditional model, the one still adopted within the Labour Party here in Britain for instance, whereby membership of the party is encouraged, and assumed to be a big part of getting people onto the doorstep. If people are keen enough to doorstep, they’re party membership material. But party membership has declined considerably over the years, and not only politics, but also society, has moved on.

I may be short on the facts here, but the reason that stands out for why Obama did so well with less money and far fewer big donors is that he utilised every emotional response except loyalty. If people are loyal, they tend to get involved without you asking. But people these days aren’t generally that interested in some kind of long term loyalty. What it doesn’t mean is that they’re less interested in playing a part in politics.

I realise what I’m writing here is probably not a message many who have dedicated every spare moment of their lives to the Labour party feel happy about; Jonny Come-latelys may be worth celebrating, but even I know there’s a sense of “we’ve struggled all this time and you showed up, and now everyone’s being really nice to you when we slaved away”. But for better or worse, the world does appear to have changed, and new ways of engaging the population are required. Experience tells me that, whilst some people aren’t terribly pro-active about it, people feel more a part of something because they’ve contributed to it than because they’ve paid money or received a membership card.

Its exciting to see new ideas like Mob Monday, where the Labour Twitterati (the paid up bit) use the web and their phones to ring hundreds, and maybe soon thousands, of voters to talk about voting Labour. But I’ve also seen reference to a local party branch having a recruitment drive, and to be honest, I feel a bit weary at the thought. Membership isn’t going to count for anything on May 6th; its the ability to convince people to get on the phones and on the doorsteps, to get excited, to lend some time, and then maybe afterwards they’ll feel happy joining up.

I also sense that there’s a misunderstanding between floating voters and apathy, especially when it comes to the work of getting out and campaigning. Just because someone changes their vote according to local or general election, and just because someone is making a calculated move to support a party, doesn’t mean they’re a bad activist. If anything, they probably have enough friends who aren’t your friends to make a real difference if they’re empowered to go out and explain their position. In this age of diminishing political cliches, relationship building is a big part of movement building. Put people out on the doorstep first, then ask them to join once they feel like part of the gang.

It is a fine balance, it must be said. No membership and parties will sink completely, but setting a high threshold for becoming a front-line activist, one that the public perceives as high even if the party doesn’t, simply neglects the huge potential to re-engage society. Tricky, but not without scope for success. Also, matching-money donor drives seemed to work for Obama, perhaps they can be made to work for Labour? One thing I can say with certainty: people are more interested in participation than filling out a piece of paper and committing the rest of their lives to a cause that matters such a huge amount right here, right now.

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Entry filed under: Activism, Barack Obama, democracy, Elections, Labour Party, Participation, Politics.

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