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Learning the right lessons from Obama

Posted on 24 March 2009 | 8:03am

Lots of memories stirred last night as I sat on a panel to help launch the Fabian Society’s latest book, The Change We Need, on lessons Britain can learn from Barack Obama’s victory.

Memories because the venue was Millbank Tower’s media centre, scene of dozens, hundreds of briefings and press conferences in the run up to the 1997 election. It did not help that peering down on us were giant posters – don’t ask me why, but I so keep saying the real spin doctors are the journos – of Andrew Marr, Jeremy Paxman, David Frost and Trevor Kavanagh.

As I filed in with chairman David Lammy, book co-editor Will Straw, Catherine Mayer of Time Magazine and Obama online campaigner Ben Brandzel, I recalled all those times we had to get our key communicators to line up together, walk in looking like they were part of the same team, and then say vaguely the right thing.

Certainly among the many points of agreement across the panel was that the old command and control comms of the 90s was no longer applicable in the same way. Of course you still need a robust strategy, clear lines of defence and attack. But if there is one thing I take from Obama it is that he set the clear strategy at the centre, but then inspired and empowered supporters to take their own risks, and do their own thing, in how they helped promote it.

Ben Brandzel’s chapter has a terrific story of how, during the Livingstone mayoral campaign, he was urging Ken’s team to decentralise the campaign to house meetings and self-organised volunteer squads. He was told it was not really British. Yet that evening, at an event organised by a group calling itself London Citizens, all the candidates were grilled by people who had organised a coherent platform and set of questions based on 1,200 house meetings.

It is always good to get the take of an outsider and his view, and the view of a leading member of Democrats Abroad in the audience, was that British people are closer to this kind of politics than politicians or the media imagine. He predicts that when it happens, there will be an avalanche.

I hope he is right. Because mass participation in progressive campaigns is the best antidote to media cynicism.

A few more observations from last night. Yet another event to disprove the middle-aged myth that young people are not interested in politics. No sense out there of a positive appetite for the Tories. Frustration, as David Lammy acknowledged at the end, that ministers are not doing more to defend the record, take the fight to the Tories, and engage more and better in new communications.

My main point, apart from farewell to Millbank Tower, was that whilst Obama fought a brilliant new campaign, he did the basic old-fashioned stuff well too – organisation, clarity of message from the top, groundwork and so on.

PS — hilarious correction in The Guardian. ‘An article headed “Knives out at New Statesman as Alastair Campbell editing stint sparks crisis of faith” carried a sub-heading saying that the star columnist Suzanne Moore had quit the magazine. Moore was not on the staff of the New Statesman and was not a regular columnist. She had been listed as a contributing editor, an honorary position for which she was not paid. The magazine removed the names of all contributing editors from its masthead three weeks ago.’

So she fills a page in The Mail on Sunday, fee doubtless well into four figures, to say she was sacked from a magazine for which she didn’t work. Can’t wait for the correction in the Mail on Scumday. I’m sure given her self-styled claim to principled journalism, she will want to correct any false impression she and Obergruppenfuhrer Dacre may have allowed to be created.

Thanks meanwhile to cartoonist Martin Rowson for donating the original of his Dacre cartoon for a Labour Party auction. I am open to advance bids, and I will make sure the OGF is kept informed as to how his welcome efforts to help us raise funds is going.

  • Valerie

    The other thing Obama did better than his opponents was to stick to his own story. I was at the Fabians launch last night and I agreed with what you said about Labour being too defensive and thinking they have to meet media negativity half way. I think the reason you and Prescott are getting noticed on the blogosphere is because you both stick to your own stories. In your view Labour are better people with better values and policies than the others and that is the message you never stop putting out. But as you also said, people have to sound like humans not machines reading a script. Anyway, I enjoyed the event and wish you well.

  • Alan McRae

    I’d be interested to know what people thought about Obama doing a late night chat show. I felt watching it that it would have been fine for a campaign but not so right for a President. Or am I being fuddy-duddy?

  • keith

    Obama’s ‘clear strategey’ was to not say very much, make few promises and let people put their own hopes on his candidacy. Thats modern politics and its no surprise people dont like it or believe in it.

    The NS this week was quite unbelievable. The self aggrandisement of its guest editor only marginally outstripped by the mutual back slappng of the Ferguson interview. Id say pass the bucket but mine’s full already.

  • Penny Morton

    Reading some of the Tory (into which must go Suzanne Moore as a Mail on Sunday writer) reaction to the New Statesman just brings home how terrified they are of you. My husband was saying last night that it is more than half a decade since you left Number 10, but you still have this capacity to provoke the other side in a way that hardly anyone else does. I love it. Please do more of it. They’re worried about you twittering and blogging, so more of that too please.

  • Cathy

    I was at the event last night as well and found it very thought provoking.

    I sincerely believe that one of the reasons the electorate in this country has become disengaged is because of the way the UK media reports politics. Social media offers an alternative and I will be watching with interest to see how it impacts on political partipation in this country.

    As an example, this time last year, I was one of the disillusioned and despite a natural centre-left leaning, found myself asking whether I might find myself voting Tory at the next election. This all changed when I heard Gordon Brown speak at Labour Party conference. I was there on a commercial basis (I’m a lobbyist) but listening to his speech, as he listed all the amazing achievements the Labour Party had made over the last sixty years, I found myself thinking that this was the party for me. I joined up less than a week later.

    However, reading the subsequent press coverage of conference, you would have struggled to see past the ridiculous focus on the ‘no time for a novice’/Miliband nonsense. If I hadn’t actually been there, I wouldn’t have got any sense of the bigger picture that Brown conveyed so well. In the end, it was his portrayal of Labour’s core values that had me signing up – none of this came through in the media.

    This is where social media can be so powerful – it allows politicans to talk directly to the electorate without the inevitable distortion by media agendas. It also permits a two-way dialogue that natually increases participation…even being able to comment on your blog makes me feel I am taking part in the wider debate.

    Ultimately, I think the most important lesson that Labour can learn from Obama is the sense of ‘we’ that was discussed last night. On the day after his election, Obama’s twitter read: ‘We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you. Thanks’. What a powerful message.

    I think you are absolutely right when you say the British public are ready to get involved in this kind of politics. Let’s get out there and do everything we can to bring people back into the debate. I, for one, have real hope that social media will tranform the way politics is done in this country.

  • Katie

    For goodness sake get a job.

  • Alina Palimaru

    Cathy: I share your views on the importance of social media for enhanced and consequential participation in politics and policy processes. Obama used them brilliantly during the campaign and continues to do so as he seeks popular support for his administration’s policies (i.e. this past weekend former campaign supporters took to the streets, block by block, door-to-door to enlist support for the budget). As AC keeps emphasizing, the old stuff is equally important.

    Alan, the appearance on Jay Leno was fine. The claims by some that he was wasting time instead of dealing with issues are ridiculous. As Obama says, he can multi-task…and he proved it. Secondly, it was only a one-time 20 minute appearance, not a tour de force of the late night circuit. Such occasional appearances can be thought of as the modern equivalent of FDR’s fire-side chats. He made some really funny and witty jokes, interspersed with his take on the economic crisis. Give this man a break!

  • Madame Arcati

    Go on, be a devil and admit you knew Suzanne Moore wrote for the New Statesman.

  • Paul

    Dear oh dear. The Liar’s Mouthpiece is spewing more bile. Fact. Tony Blair lied to the country for years. Fact. Alastair Spamball was his contemptible mouthpiece for years.

    He is so keen to see the Mail on Sunday print a correction to some pathetic little inconsistency he has discovered. Well Mr Spamball……you owe every single person in this country an apology for lying through your teeth to all of us. And a special apology to all parents of all service personnell killed or maimed in the Gulf War would not go amiss either. Does that keep you awake at night because it should do.

    I am going to start a campaign to remove this tainted spin doctor who bullied pathetic lazy journalists to tow his prescribed line. Well done Mr Dacre (please note i have removed the unfunny link to to the German army). You were one of the few who has regularly stood up to this appalling man and guess what. He doesnt like you.

    Well get used to it Campbell. The sooner you crawl back under that stone in Burnely from whence you came, the better for all of us.
    PS I have impeccably placed sources at the New Statesman who confirm that everyone loathed you being there.
    PPS I am going to auction a beautiful clay statue of Alastair Comebell which shows him with his big head rammed up his arse so far he cant be breathing. This will fund my campaign. Bids please?

  • paul

    censorship is alive and well on the blog. How ironic is that. The papers are going to love this one

  • penny morton

    There I was saying how good you are at provoking the right and up pops Paul … isn’t it funny how these right blog types don’t like saying who they are .. it couldn’t be Paul as in Dacre could it?

  • Alina Palimaru

    Penny, excellent point about the lack of identification. I am sick and tired of verbal abuse, insults, and unsubstantiated charges from unidentified web-creeps! Hiding safely behind screen names like Har523, DreamyStone or simply Paul in this case, many delight in this free-for-all insult orgy… If you have something to say, firmly believe in it, and can back it up with evidence then stand up, identify yourself properly and advance something that transcends a mere rant!

    As for your accusations, I’ll say what I always say to schmucks like you … Move on! And while you’re at it, get over yourself!

  • Paul R

    Alina and Penny. Good evening. You have now one letter of my sirname, just to confirm that i am not the editor of The Daily Mail. A crap paper by any standards.

    I admire your vociferous lack of any defence. Calling me a schmuck and suggesting i get over myself is fine but it is a weak defence of Campbell’s main problem. He has blood all over his hands and so does Blair.

    I am not right wing or left wing. I am not motivated by politics and the unseemly desire for power which turns people like Blair and Campbell into such monsters. But I think it is perfectly clear and obvious to any rational human being that this country was lied to on a consistent basis for many months and the architect of that campaign was your hero, Mr Campbell. This isnt a “get over myself” issue. This is a “many men were killed for no reason” issue. There has never been one word of contrition or apology from any of the lying politicians marshalled by Cambell. My point is simple. He accuses all day long, demanding retractions and apologies and publishing pathetic jibes at critics of his on a public blog. But the central fact is that Campbell should have been confined to the dustbin of history for so blantantly misleading an entire nation to war. Simple as that.

  • Mark Marshall

    Something very odd about Paul publishing comments about how he has been banned from commenting on here – methinks that was his hope, the poor thing. Some people just love to be victims. Now run along dear …

  • Paul

    Dear Mark,

    Now run along where? To the tap? Where we could fill up a bucket with cold water and help Ally wash the blood off his hands.

    It is quite amazing how deep denial runs. Thousands of people killed. A project sold to the British people that has proven to be based on fiction. Alastair Cambell should have no credibility left whatsoever. He should be totally discredited.

    PS Dear Al, thanks for letting these posts occur. Much appreciated and nothing personal.

  • Tony Poole

    All very interesting comments on here. So this is my tuppence worth. I think Alastair the bloke is top drawer. Did his job well and protected Blair to the hilt. Like the man once said, “loyalty is what I’m about” As for his politics, I can see where Paul is coming from. Tony Blair promised all things to all men and the public fell for it.Iraq/WMD wasn’t the only thing that was damaging to Blair. Ecclestone? Harman? Mandelson? Blunkett? Prescott? All sleaze when TB promised whiter than white? AC and TB set us on a course directly to the shitter, then got out in time so Brown caught the flak! What a manuoevre! So don’t expect my vote anytime soon and for those who clamour “move on” To what? Another decade of this lot? No wonder the BNP are making ground….Go figure!

  • Gordon Brown-Nose

    Have to say I agree with Paul. The problem I have on the Labour blogs is that there seems to be a lot of dishing it out and yet not wanting to take it.

    It has to be said that Alistair was part of the Blair government took the country into what many people now feel was an illegal war.

    Yes, hindsight is a wonderful gift but surely we elect and pay our MP’s / government to have foresight as well. This appears to have been lacking in my opinion.

    I would agree with David Lammy and say yes Labour needs better communication – which to me involves telling us what you have done, apologising and correcting mistakes and not doing the constant name calling like Prescott with his Troll thing.

    I do think it will be an uphill if not impossible battle though as there has been so much spin and outright lies that me, an I suspect a large portion of the public, feel we cannot believe anything good that is reported.

    Examples? How about Gordon releasing knife crime figures to suit him? How about the lack of WMD’s? Prescott caught with his trousers down?

    And if you really want to get slaughtered in 2010? Carry on with the “right on” messages found in things like the LabourList and John Prescott’s preaching on the Go 4th site.

    Will wait with interest to see how long before I get called a Troll 😉

  • Alina Palimaru

    Paul R: I didn’t specifically state below that I was defending AC. I was pointing to cowards who hide behind screen names to issue hurtful remarks.

    Now moving on to defence: any facts on your “blood” statements? Unless you can go beyond your fluency in news-bites, I strongly encourage you against wasting your time. As far as I know, AC did not fabricate facts regarding Iraq. As I understand, he merely compiled the intelligence supplied to him into a document for mass consumption. Distilling highly technical data into a manageable document is not lying. In any case, any decent literature on that period should convey how difficult it is to make such decisions, amid pressure, politics, deluge of intelligence, foreign policy dilemmas etc. As AC wisely says, “politics/policy are not done in hindsight.” Also wise is a Latin anecdote saying that after a war, many of the survivors claim to be heroes, when in fact they might have survived by hiding. In this case, after the dust has settled a little bit and some things are clearer in retrospect, many will claim to have understood matters all along and that so and so person lied. Hence, my recommendation to move on. At that time AC was at the hub of things, working his guts out… and you were….?

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