SixFifty

lessons from America

Lammy’s lessons from America

David Lammy, Labour MP and Minister, gave us his ‘Lessons from America’ at a special Fabian Society event. Lammy’s full speech is here.

His thesis: its the way we do politics that has to change – very much agree with that. His conclusion: that there is still time for Labour to build up a popular movement (which New Labour never was), to gain momentum back and to change the culture of the party and our policy-making to be more responsive and inclusive.

However, despite very good observations about what has worked and is different in the US (see my notes of his speech below) he either couldn’t being himself to express just how Labour could repeat some of these great strategies, or in fact really just doesn’t get it at all.

Paul Hilder and Nick Anstead both pointed out that while you can build up movements quickly it sure helps to have the right culture, tactics, organisation and behaviours in place. These things don’t happen overnight.

As Nick pointed out, what we are seeing in the US is phenomenal but hasn’t come from nothing. The metrics on participation and donations was already well up in 2004 and trending that way beforehand. Compare that to the UK where the Blair-inspired Labour membership increase was a mere blip on the long historic trend of party membership decline. [read Nick’s great analysis of the Democrat Primaries here].

Then it came to my question to Lammy. “What does he think of the 50 State strategy? And how could it be applied to the UK? They didn’t start with the strategy a year ago but have been building since 2003/4 and Howard Dean. The Democratic National Committee has been spending millions of dollars on supporting local activity and organising, on building the base on the ground, rather than on central party / national campaigning and initiatives. Activists are empowered and energised. Ordinary voters have responded too, as they feel that their voice is being heard and they are being taken seriously, no matter where they live.” I would have liked to have added “when are we going to have a 650 seat strategy here?”

Lammy’s answer was disappointing to say the least. He had to be promoted to address the question and then didn’t seem to understand either the 50 State strategy or its purpose, let alone how it could translate here. There seemed to be a real unwillingness to accept any of that decentralisation of campaigning and messaging, of pouring resources in locally rather than spending it centrally, of fighting for council seats even in areas with no short-medium term prospect of a Labour MP, or of giving the impression that everyone’s votes count that has so made an impact in the US.

Its a shame, as I think he is ahead of the game and thinking in much else of his analysis on the US elections. Maybe as the months go past he will connect the final dots on this one.

[below the fold] Here’s where’s he’s up to then (my notes of his speech:

There were unique factors in US: charismatic personalities; back-stories of Obama and McCain; symbolism of first woman / first African-American; of gender versus race equality; and the galvanising factor of a deeply unpopular President.

However, there were new ways of doing politics that are applicable to the UK and that we can learn from:

1) who does politics

Obama and McCain both are running as outside the political establishment, and against Washington. A reaction against political language and methods of 1990s / inside the Beltway tactics. Promising to change politics.

–> There is a reaction in the UK against the political class, not the upper class. Commons has always been host to a wide range of people from different backgrounds and professions. But in the past decade Westminster has created its own industry of think tanks, public affairs companies, special advisors and the like. Parliament is now suffering blind spots and from homogeneity and group-think. People struggle to find connections now with their MPs / Parliament. Instead people are channelling their political energy to where they feel listened to: either single-issue campaigns, or extremist parties and groups. We need to lower barriers to involvement; give political parties powers to create mechanisms for promoting diversity; more ways of getting voices heard; more directly elected mayors and youth mayors; greater accountability and Parliament “open, inclusive and representative of the public as a whole”.

2) political strategy & policy

Messages and methods of the 1990s are now out-of-date, out-of-touch with what people want, and unpopular. Obama and McCain have taken bigger risks on policies. They have turned away from the politics of calculation and triangulation. They are defining themselves against the challenges they face rather than the old dividing lines and closing down of debates.

–> to define and communicate what we are for and our vision going forward, rather than bland managerialism and bullet points. To remove the fear we have of public conversation and debate.

3) political movements

Nearly 1.5 million people have given to the Obama campaign. 47% of his funding has come from donations of $200 or less. Commitment of resources into grassroots organisation and mobilising young people. Connecting activists to each other and allowing them the freedom to campaign, debate and interact on their own terms and messages. Low floors and high ceilings has been the strategy of the Obama campaign. Lack of reliance on formal structures. Encouraging people to take ownership of campaign.

–> Need to get the feel again of permanent activism and being and sustaining a movement. Tapping into the progressive energy of NGOs and 20-somethings.

First published on MMVC blog 1 July 2008

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June 23, 2008

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August 24, 2008 - Posted by | 50 State strategy, lessons from America | , , ,

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