lessons from America

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

50 States not 42 days

This is a theme I’ll be returning repeatedly to over the coming months. Its about how to expand the electoral map; about how to build up the party base and win down-ticket races; about how to encourage more people to turn out to vote and be convinced that they have a stake in the political system. Its about all of those things and more.

In the American context, the 50 State strategy / campaign was first raised by Howard Dean and is now taken on by Obama, who has just promised to open up campaign offices in every single state. Now, as Markos (founder of the Daily Kos), explains:

“It doesn’t mean Obama will win 50 states, obviously. But it does mean a commitment to 1) an expanded presidential battleground, 2) long-term party building, and 3) attention to the down-ballot races that will ultimately decide whether the Obama Agenda will see the light of day. The more seats Obama’s Democratic Party can amass in the House and in the Senate, the stronger his influence and the bolder his legislation can be. In other words, this is much bigger than the presidential race, and I’m extremely encouraged that a presidential campaign has decided to take such a broad approach to these coming elections.”

Challenging this view / perceived hype, Charlie Cook, a top political analyst, responds:

“Presidential campaigns are pass-fail, and pass is defined as winning 270 electoral college votes. Ask former Vice President Al Gore about moral presidential victories. With 270 electoral votes the definition of success, “50-states” isn’t a strategy, it’s a cliché. Sure, a candidate might give some modicum of attention to all 50 states; the appearances are important. But if that candidate spends significant resources in the 20-25 states that are a lock for him or his opponent, he will look pretty foolish when his top priority states run shy on money down the final stretch.”

So there we have it, the necessity of relentlessly pursuing swing states demanded under the winner-takes-all system may well squeeze out the room for a healthier dynamic. It’ll certainly take a concerted effort to overcome the received wisdom of the standard electoral maths. And in one sense it – and maybe this is a slightly heretical point – it doesn’t matter when push comes to shove in the final stages of the race and resource decisions get made solely in favour of ensuring that “pass”. For the first stage of the strategy, and a worthy one at that, is trying to persuade people that their voice and their vote matters, and that they have a stake in the political process, no matter where they live. The appearance of trying to be competitive in as many places as possible is a good starting point for that; especially if (and this I know is far from current political reality) you can then go back to voters and explain that you will be campaigning for a change in the way the electoral college works so that there is more of an incentive for campaigning for votes everywhere right through to polling day. Interestingly, there is something brewing on that front: the campaign for a National Popular Vote.

But for the moment we have this potential scenario, which psephologist Stu Rothenberg sees as a possible byproduct of the 50 state strategy:

“Obama is likely to “waste” votes in Illinois, New York and California (winning them with large majorities), and he may gain some ground in normally Republican states — getting closer than most Democrats normally do, but not winning. If this happens, and if Obama narrowly loses one or two larger, traditionally Democratic states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, we could see an updated version of 2000, with McCain winning the White House at the same time that Obama gets more than half a million more votes.”

What this shows is that even a 50 State strategy is not sufficient to counter the negatives of a winner-takes-all election. Some form of electoral reform – proportional representation of one manifestation or another – is needed to ensure votes count whereever they are cast and the result reasonably accurately reflects how people nationwide have voted in an election for a nationwide position.

And, as closing thought: millions of wasted votes in safe seats and unwinnable ones; a ‘wrong winner’ nationally. Can’t happen here in the UK, surely? ….

NB. This post first published on the MMVC blog 11 June 2008

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