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Forward: The change Labour still needs

Barack Obama stunned the political world with his victory in 2008, with a campaign that extended the boundaries of the possible. In field, digital, strategy and movement politics, the Obama campaign broke new ground that the Fabian Society's landmark 2009...


Barack Obama stunned the political world with his victory in 2008, with a campaign that extended the boundaries of the possible. In field, digital, strategy and movement politics, the Obama campaign broke new ground that the Fabian Society’s landmark 2009 publication ‘The Change We Need’ sought to introduce to a British audience.

The bar was set even higher for 2012. How would the President win in a time of economic uncertainty, with his popularity by no means universal? In the Fabian collection ‘Forward: The change Labour still needs’, veterans of US and UK campaigns alike demonstrate how Obama 2012 cleared this bar and the lessons these approaches hold for Labour.

Labour’s challenge in 2015 is as, if not more challenging than the one President Obama faced twelve months ago. But the answer is also profoundly simple: win its designated 106 target seats by designing campaigns custom built for the needs of each constituency.

How can Labour do this?

We need to know what we’re aiming for. As Marlon Marshall and Mark Beatty note, by beginning with the win number and then tailoring target seat strategies accordingly Labour has a model that can be reapplied 106 times over.

To do so this, the implications of Fran O’Leary’s chapter are critical. Labour must cease conceiving of the electorate as a collection of focus group generalities. The days of ‘Mondeo man’ and  ‘Worcester woman’ are over. Voter propensity modeling is urgently needed to understand voters as individuals – not soundbites. This will allow Labour volunteers to knock on the right doors and have the right conversations with the right voters.

And Labour must shape the 2015 electorate to a pattern of individual voters that provides a majority. As Frank Spring explores in his contribution, each of the 106 needs a different balance between base, new and persuadable voters. The outlines may be similar from seat to seat but the precise proportions can and should vary to suit local circumstances. Labour’s electoral coalition not is not the 8 million votes received in 2010 or the 13 million votes of 1997 but rather the 2 million or so votes the party needs in the 106 target seats. Taken even smaller this may mean that the party’s actual target pool of voters is as little as 500,000.

This has more than just numerical significance. With such a small target pool of voters the party can realistically aspire to deploy roughly the same ratio of staff and volunteers to target voters as the Obama campaign itself achieved. With this target pool, Labour can run field operations of the same scale and efficacy as this end Katherine Richards argues for: using innovations like random control experiments to test voter contact scripts and adopting the significant ‘make a plan’ volunteer tactic that helped drive up turnout.

But the ultimate lesson of the Obama campaign is that all the pieces must come together. The individual contributions in this report, and those of The Change We Need, should not be treated as an a la carte menu, with Labour picking and choosing the most palatable ideas when they suit. All the parts of the campaign must service each other.

Mary Hough’s exploration of storytelling shows how the national story of the party and the individual story of the volunteer can coincide to give more meaning to conversations with voters. Claire Hazelgrove demonstrates how to take advantage of this approach once digital is given a seat at the table next to the other campaign chiefs and Will Straw makes the case for a more aggressive use of policy as an instrument of explicitly electoral advantage.

For the Democrats even their national convention is unabashedly a spectacle for attracting votes by enthusing key demographics, a feat Olly Parker and Polly Billington challenge Labour to aspire to, if not exactly emulate.

As Kirsty McNeill and Arnie Graf cogently remind us the successes of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns are not an off-the-shelf solution for Labour. Many aspects can not be directly reapplied, and there are others where we should question whether Labour should even want to. The task for Labour is to take inspiration from these successes and develop their own route to victory in 2015.

The road ahead for Ed Miliband and Labour is daunting. But so too was the road ahead that greeted a freshman senator from Illinois. So too was the road ahead for an incumbent president, bruised from countless battles with Congress, trying to build a future for his country out of the wreckage of an economic crash.

For Labour now as for President Obama then, the old certainties and the old solutions simply won’t do. If Labour retreats to its comfort zone, content to pay little more than lip service to lessons from the other side of the Atlantic, it will lose the next election. Four years on from ‘The Change We Need’, we need this change more than ever.

‘Forward: The change Labour still needs’ is available to read online here

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