Post-conference and with a new leader, Labour has a chance to start building. But it must seize the opportunity, bring together what has already been achieved and learn from choices made by others.
Back in 2008 when the Young Fabians came back from Ohio, having played our part in getting Barack Obama elected as President of the United States of America, our hopes were high that the same scale of political engagement we had seen in the US could be generated in the UK. Through outlets like the Young Fabians events, Progress-organised CLP meetings and on blogs like Labourlist, we actively sought to spread the word about what we had seen and what could be achieved.
Whilst some were encouraged by our thoughts and sort to integrate them into their own campaigns, many simply said “That just doesn’t work here”.
Post-leadership election there is one, very important lesson that the Obama campaign can teach us and which will work here. Once the dust had settled on Obama’s 50-state strategy, what was left was an enviable list of 13 million supporters, millions of volunteers, a network of interconnected grassroots structures and one goal: to keep them engaged. It was from that base that Organising for America (OFA) was born, led by Mitch Stewart and David Plouffe, and housed within the DNC. What they set out to achieve is incredible and the role the OFA now plays in Democratic politics is worth reading in its own right.
Just 29 days away from the US mid-terms, OFA has allowed Democrats and Obama supporters to phone voters, attend meetings, donate and take part in an offline/ online community campaign in a way that has built on the 2008 foundations. Even more importantly, it has helped Democrats speak out and above a hostile media to educate the electorate.
Post-leadership election our movement needs its own version of Organising for America, something that brings together all the best from the leadership campaigns and connects it with the best the Party has to offer. There are positive signs this is already happening. Ed Miliband has already stated that he wants the work of his brother’s ‘Movement for Change’ to continue. But there is no single silver bullet that will deliver the type of movement and grassroots organisation we need.
What has been lacking so far has been an entity with space to innovate and build, something that can bridge the progress in social media and blogging that has been seen over recent years with the disciplined offline, face-to-face, campaigning that saved so many seats at the last election. By linking both we can begin to politically educate people with an alternative to the cynical, anti-politics, media that currently drowns out everything else.
Finally we need a recognisable face that is responsible for delivering the overall strategy. From lowly door-knockers to regional organisers, everyone should know about the plan in which they are playing their part. At the last election Douglas Alexander was critical in explaining the ‘word of mouth’ approach that worked so well. Whilst some might have been dubious of gimmicks, Douglas’ visibility instilled confidence, just as David Plouffe’s regular strategy updates in the US have encouraged activists to go the extra mile. The visible face at the front of our campaigning machine would encourage people to take ownership.
The main issue will be to start early. All too often political campaigns in the UK have been about the short-term – getting out your vote – rather than the long-term challenge of building a cohesive and growing base of political will. So if we’re now all political optimists, then I think we need to start organising like optimists too.