SixFifty

lessons from America

Life imitating art imitating life

How to prepare for Denver? That’s my challenge. In under a week I’ll be there, following the Convention from my base in the Big Tent. So I’ve watched the West Wing – the final two series all about the post-Bartlet primaries and the general election. You can see the Obama candidacy emerging first on screen, mapping the path to the White House for a political outsider with a funny name and non-white skin who proclaims a message of change and fires up the young people and Democrat activists.

Then I watched the entire run of Commander-in-Chief. A Hillary-vehicle, some cynically said, as it offers us a world with a credible liberal woman as the first female occupant of the White House. The series ends as battle lines are drawn for an election run, so we never know what happens next. Intriguingly, the show not only sympathetically features a black chief-of-staff, but also has him about to take up the post of Vice President. A case of hedging bets before the primary season perhaps?

Now, I’m at the Edinburgh Festival. Along with happily sampling the usual comedy, musical and theatrical fare – and some fantastic live African music – I’m trying to discern if there’s an American election undercurrent around. In past years (this is my 4th Festival in a row) I’ve managed to pick up and follow a theme: one year it was blogging and diaries; another it was constitutional reform (you gotta believe it). I am on the hunt to see if US electoral politics is on the menu. And I don’t just mean anti-Bush rants / jokes. I’m looking for Obama and McCain gags, “Si si peude” chants and November references.

Leafing through the fringe guide, there weren’t nearly as many obvious references to election year as I imagined. Only two shows have it in their titles: Jeff Kreisler ‘08 (an American comedian’s stand-up show taking aim at contemporary political and pop culture); and ‘Tina C – Tick my box‘ (a spoof about a country & western singer running for president). Both have ads in the guide which depict electoral images, like ballot papers or campaign posters.

There were another two shows that focused on politics and elections stateside: ‘The Americans’ (a sketch show from a trio of Comedy Central actors depicting the nation as a once proud family on the verge of collapse); and ‘Queen of Wyoming’ (a musical about the protagonist’s father running for Governor of a Midwestern State). ‘Attack of the Soccer Mums’ sounds like it could be an account of the 1996 election, or even a Obama horror story, with women rising up to support Hillary Clinton, but is no such thing; instead being about over-competitive parents. Another that flatters to deceive in its name is ‘Jaik Campbell – The audacity of hopelessness’ – but full marks to the riff on Obama‘s book title. I wonder how many people here actually get that joke though?

I did however manage to dig up one show that Obama would be proud of. ‘Word-up’ is billed as an insight into the hip-hop generation, dealing with the post-segregation world and the fall out from global economics. That sounds more like the spirit of change.

Two long-running Festival favourites that draw heavily on the elections are ‘News Revue‘ (the satirical look back at the year) whose finale features Bush, Condeleeza, Clinton and Obama in a Bat out of Hell pastiche; and ’Political Animal’, a revolving group of comedians talking and joking about politics nightly.

The legacy of Bush‘s ‘War on Terror’ is perhaps the one issue that has captured the passion and imagination of artists. The Patriot Act (a serious play); ‘The Axis of Awesome’; Jesus: the Guantanamo years; Eco-friendly Jihad all draw inspiration in their titles – if not always their content – from that rich artistic vein.

Iraq may be a lot less prominent that in previous years, but Bush’s chief ally – our very own former PM – still attracts an audience; with two shows about him (Tony of Arabia / Tony! The Blair Musical). He is on a par with Mugabe, who also gets two shows about him: ‘I am Mugabe’ and ‘Requiem to Robert Mugabe’. Compare that to Gordon Brown or John McCain: neither get to be the subject of shows. Neither may get to win an election either.

And so the November election. ‘The Americans’ ends with Obama in the ascendant, but possibly about to be denied victory by someone fixing the election for the Republicans. Only time will tell whether life imitates art in this respect.

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August 24, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, lessons from America, the world wants obama | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The American reality is currently only a dream for us

A copy of ‘America goes to the polls – a report on voter turnout in the 2008 Presidential Primary’ from a US voter engagement org has just landed in my inbox and I couldn’t wait til tomorrow to share some of the highlights with you.

1) More than one in four of all eligible voters participated in a primary or caucus. This is a rate not seen since 1972, when the voting age was lowered to 18.

2) Voter participation in Democratic primaries was up 112% and caucuses by 223% compared to 2004 – ie.the turnout in Democratic primaries doubled and tripled in the caucuses.

3) Youth participation rose at a faster rate than any other age group. Turnout by voters ages 18-29 went up for the third consecutive national election year (2004 and 2006).

But alongside these startling facts, there is a salient message: besides competitive elections (which are very important) or the date of the primary, a number of factors influenced voter turnout. Election Day Registration and Early Voting most likely contributed to higher turnout in many states.

“Election Day Registration (EDR): Allowing voters to register or fix their registration at the polls ensures that more voters can successfully participate. Of the states with some form of Election Day Registration, most held caucuses. The three states with primaries, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and North Carolina, had high participation. Voters in North Carolina, normally a lower turnout state, benefited from the state letting early voters to register and vote at the same time up until 3 days before the election.”

“Early Voting: Allowing voters more and better opportunities to vote early can raise turnout in contests with traditionally lower turnout, like primaries3. Four of the ten states with the highest 2008 voter turnout – Oregon, Illinois, Florida and California – have broad early voting systems in place.”

Maybe both are measures the Ministry of Justice should be more seriously considering within its Governance of Britain discussions and consultations, rather than just the tinkering round the edges that constitute its proposals on weekend voting and giveaways at polling stations.

And perhaps the main lesson to take away from the report is that:

“The 2008 election provides fresh evidence of the difference made by meaningful competition and a diverse field of candidates and the higher levels of voter mobilization and participation this engenders.”

Meaningful competition. A diverse field of candidates. Those phrases are right out of the electoral reform playbook. To continue with the sports analogy, the MoJ really should be allowing these discussions onto the field of play; rather than leaving us – and logic – shouting from the sidelines

August 24, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America | , , | Leave a comment

Two academic responses

Here are two well-considered responses to my previous post: my report and opinion on David Lammy’s speech on lessons from America.

1) Sunder Katwala – Fabian Society

Malcolm, A good analysis of the speech. My own (unofficial!) reading of this was that the critique you are looking for was implicit in what Lammy had to say about the difficulties of defining yourself negatively and the politics of managerialism and the need to connect with and mobilise broader movements. The shortcomings of micro-targetting are quite close to that.

If he was unwilling to spell it out, I felt that it had perhaps as much to do with his several times steering a bit clear of questions asking him to discuss or predict anything about the US general election battle between the parties (as opposed to the lessons of the primaries), and perhaps feeling the question fell into that category. He was somewhat scrupulous in noting that he had to observe the formalities of government neutrality about the race. (He was rather imaginative in finding quite so many ways to make his argument about lessons from Obama AND McCain, although his personal support for Obama is hardly a secret and was pretty clear despite his observing the letter of the diplomatic code).

On the other hand, I think he wanted to place the emphasis on changing the culture of our politics: I guess that he may perhaps be sceptical as to whether and how far institutional reform necessarily brings about a cultural shift. So you will have to try to work on him to make the link – but he’s clearly opening up a debate that we need about the culture of our politics.

2) Nick Anstead -doctoral student, Royal Holloway University

Malcolm, many thanks for name checking my comment. In the seminar, I was really responding to a point made by a previous speaker, which seemed to be implying that what is happening in the US in 2008 is analagous to Labour’s 1997 successes in the UK. I don’t think it is. The British events fit into the classic single election cycle, personality driven upsurge. Furthermore, it only partially and briefly offset a long term trend – reflected in both declining partisanship and membership. In the contrast, the 2008 seems to be part of a much more significant civic upsurge in the US.
But I have to confess that I think you are wrong about David Lammy – for my money, he entirely gets the key elements of this issue, what is driving it and offers good ideas on how to harness it. I also think your focus on the fifty-state strategy is actually misplaced. I would volunteer a number of reasons as to why.
Firstly, I am yet to be convinced that it is more than a rhetorical device. There certainly seems to be precious little data out there which proves a big shift in the spending priorities among Democrats. The DNC took on a some field activists and sent them off across the country, and then flagged it as a big triumph for 50-statism, but I’ve not seen any data which indicates changes in the bulk of their election expenditure has been shifting. Furthermore, the DNC accounts for a tiny proportion of Democratic expenditure – the Democratic Senatorial and Congressional Campaign Committees, as well as (obviously) campaigns, are huge spenders. I have recently been doing some interviews for research purposes with activists and professionals who have managed campaigns at the congressional level, and they assure me that the single most important factor in deciding whether you win is if you manage to gain support from the DNC or the DCCC. In order to get this support, candidates have to show viability in the early stages of the campaign (they do this through both opinion polls and fundraising). If you get party support, you are in a strong position, if you don’t you are fatally weak. So there is clearly still massive targetting of resources going on.
Obama’s campaign has also (I think mistakenly) linked with the fifty-state strategy. There are two reasons for this. Firstly due to how he won the primary competition. While Obama’s geographic coalition was broad, what he actually ran was a small state strategy, using big wins in small states to offset small loses in large states. Make not mistakes: Obama’s primary strategy was wholly about winning the nomination, and he took what was essentially the only route open to him. Secondly, there is a belief that Obama might reshape the general election map and bring more states into play. Possibly – it is really too early to say yet. He is certainly looking at a large playing field. But let’s also keep things in perspective. Obama’s campaign have just taken out it first ad buy, which encompasses twelve states, not fifty (rather than the normal six). In part this is because he can afford to, and in part it is because he looks weak in some traditional swingers (i.e. Florida) and needs to bring other states (North Carolina and Virginia) into play. I also suspect the field will contract as we move towards November.
But let’s assume that the fifty-state strategy does amount to a significant change. Should it be something that British parties seek to emulate? I’m still not sure. I think you make the mistake of assuming that the fifty-state strategy is causing change and re-engaging activists. Might it not equally be argued that it is a sypmtom of other changes that are occurring? The Democratic Party is in the ascenency, its fundraising is good (although interestingly the DNC is the exception to this rule – their fundraising is actually relatively poor at the moment), the GOP and President Bush are very unpopular, and the US is on the verge of recession. If strategy is generated by circumstances, then we have a problem. The Democrats are in a huge position of strength, and have a groundswell of support with which to work with. With the best will in the world, Labour is not. That, necesserily, has impacts on the strategies a party is able to adopt. Labour’s finances alone would seem to be a very high barrier to funnelling resources into seats which are, in the short term, unwinnable.
And finally, I also think that comparing states with constituencies is a flawed analogy. The obvious difference is size. A more appropriate analogy in this sense is the congressional district – and there is no way that either the Democrats or the GOP are active in every Congressional Distict. But more importantly, states, unlike any political sub-unit in the UK (even the devolved assemblies) are stupendiously self-contained and powerful – they control taxes, gun legislation, the death penalty and other huge issues. They are not just unitary political prizes, but contain multiple centres of power and genuine internal political competition. For this reason, they also have their own party systems. It might even be argued that the Democratic Party isn’t one party but fifty stuck together. This changes the behaviour of voters too, who have are culturally comfortable with “ticket splitting” – that is voting for different parties for different offices. This creates a level of flexability in the system which almost always makes some form of state level competition a worthwhile activity. In contrast, in the UK, our political discourse is so focused on the unitary authority of Westminster, people almost always use their vote, in any election, to make a point about national politics. There is little scope for regional, much less constituency parties, to run independent campaigns. Without this, it is hard to imagine a fifty-state style strategy working. Whereas Vermont and Texas Democrats, for example, are able to offer a radically different plaform to appeal to their respective constituencies, it is very hard to imagine who Labour would balance the competing political ideals of the North East and South East.
This isn’t to suggest that active parties aren’t a good thing. Far from it. But I can’t help feeling that any attempt to impose an alien political strategy, derived in very different circumstances would be a mistake. And more than that, I think it might actually engender exactly the wrong ideas about campaigning at a crucial moment. Any kind of central dictate (we will campaign everywhere and distribute resources accordingly) builds the idea that campaigning is something that comes from Washington / London. I would much rather see an organic growth in campaigning, fuelled by grassroots activism and decision making. I might be active at the next general election, but you can get your life I will get on a train and go to a marginal constituency to work. People will vote with their feet and we should trust them to do so. What Labour should be doing is opening up its institutions and lowering barrier to participation, and then trusting supporters to decide how resources are distributed.

August 24, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy, lessons from America | , , , , | Leave a comment

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 | , , , | Leave a comment