Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Stealing the devil’s tunes

Labour needs to follow the organisation and professionalism of the Republican campaign, if not the politics, says Mark Glover and Jamie O’Hara

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Every four years the Institute of Politics (IOP) in the John F Kennedy School of Harvard University stage a campaign managers’ conference, where those involved in running the election campaigns of the various presidential candidates share their thoughts on how the campaign went, what they did on a day by day basis and how they responded to their competitors. Interestingly, they share some of their secrets from the campaign war rooms.

Names such as Carville, Bloomberg, Stephanopoulus, Rove and Matalin have appeared in the past and disclosed their secrets. This time it was the turn of the Bush and Kerry teams to open their treasure chest of campaign gems. The feted mastermind of the campaign, President Bush’s adviser Karl Rove, decided on this occasion not to attend but many of his team did. Details of what takes place are often not for widespread public consumption, although eventually the IOP publishes a record of the contributions. However, we can let you in on two of the main points from this year’s conference which could illuminate our own forthcoming election.

First, it has become clear the Democrats under-estimated the professionalism of the Republican campaign machine. It was so thorough that Karl Rove had access to details of potential voter turnout in every district in marginal states that they targeted. Data was assiduously collated and the Republicans were able to target bodies to the areas of greatest need. This meant that the beneficiaries of the increases in turnout, which traditionally were expected to be the Democrats, turned out to be the more organised rightwing vote. This led to a situation, which meant the election was called incorrectly by many commentators and pollsters relying on historical precedent.

This effort was not matched by the Democrats, who, although having access to the unions which can provide massive support in terms of people, ran a disparate campaign which lacked strong leadership. It is worth remembering how late the Clinton team were brought on board to bolster the centre. Some mused this, to some extent, reflected the candidate.

Second, as well as the excellence of the organisation, the Republicans benefited from a much more professional campaign than their opponents. Bush remained very ‘on message’ and honed his stump style to great effect, while it took Kerry considerable time to find a persona which he found comfortable and effective. Bush’s homely style was reinforced by well targeted advertising which focused on a few mainly moral issues, which drove up his numbers and ensured his opponent remained on the back foot. The focus on moral issues was particularly effective in stimulating core Republicans to the poll, whilst not energising the Democratic vote. The Republicans were also good at making the election a wartime-campaign, which their insider polling had shown would ensure a victory for Bush. The Democrats’ economic agenda rarely raised its head and when it did was easily knocked off course by the dominance of the Republican agenda.

The final conclusion from the conference is very depressing in that there was little indication as to how the Democrats could resurrect their party and challenge for the next presidential election. Whereas Clinton built up the Democrat Leadership Council, there now seems to be a vacuum at the centre of the party with members uncertain whether to return to the centre or to energise the membership by adopting the more left wing, activist-led approach of Howard Dean.

In a nutshell, organisation and professionalism were the two main drivers of success for the Republicans. Added to Karl Rove’s ruthless pursuit of success and lack of sympathy for his opponents, it now seems surprising that there was such doubt about the outcome of the election. From these findings, what lessons can be drawn upon for the British election and, more importantly, for the Labour party?

The Labour party has a very strong centre, which, in terms of professionalism, is streets ahead of any of the other parties. But where we fear the party may become unstuck is in the organisation of troops on the ground. Our experience of being Labour party activists for over ten years is that the party has been very poor at involving ordinary members in campaigning and giving members a sense of ownership of their party. Some say the reason may be activists discomfort to the New Labour project, others believe it more to be a lack of delegation to the regions by HQ.

The concept of all year round campaigning seems to be an anathema to many MPs who turn up six months before an election to fight a strong campaign but yet have spent little time hitting the streets with their local ward members and local councillors in the years following the last election. The gaping disjoint between the leadership and the membership, not in policy terms but in their differing beliefs on how decisions are made, is an issue that, if Labour is elected for a third term will need to be addressed early in the new parliament. Party members will only allow direction from the centre for so long. In addition, it is important that local members are valued more, are involved increasingly in selecting their executive, including ‘one member one vote’ for constituency elections, and, importantly, are able to participate in producing local campaign literature as well as distributing it.

If Labour does reinvigorate its activist-bace, as the Republicans have done so effectively in the US, there is no reason why it cannot go on and win a third, fourth and possibly even a fifth term and consign the Conservatives to the shelves as a nationalistic party with limited appeal. 

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Mark Glover and Jamie O'Hara

Mark Glover and Jamie O'Hara work for Media Strategy

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