Opinion: Where is the British Obama?

Earlier this month Lynne Featherstone gave the Heather Larkin Annual Lecture in Yate:

I am really pleased to be here tonight – yes it is a long trek here and back but worth it to pay tribute to Steve Webb. Steve is a great MP, a great campaigner, a great innovator on the internet – and a great intellectual force. The fact that we often agree on policy may have something to do with that!

But one of the highlights of Parliament is listening to thoughtful and powerful speeches from which you learn and which help shape your own views. Steve’s speeches are just that – with the bonus of at times being very funny. That combination of intellectual rigour and humour has earned him respect on all sides in Parliament.

So – I was delighted when he invited me here to give the Heather Larkin Annual Lecture.

It is tragic when a local activist dies – and I remember the sadness of my own first election victory, remembering how one of our stalwart activists through the years hadn’t quite lived to see our first election victory. I think what you have done – by having this annual lecture and using the proceeds to pay for a young person to go to Conference each year – celebrates Heather Larkin’s life and work as a teacher and Lib Dem councillor and activist in the most appropriate way. It’s lovely.

And in a way – it is the opportunities that knock on your door and the experiences that you have – that open eyes and hearts to the possibility of what we can do with our lives. There were many people on Obama’s journey – who lent a helping hand or opened a door to this young black man. Perhaps the young person who will benefit from this evening by going to conference for the first time will find an unexpected stirring in them.

So – where is the British Obama? Good question! But which Obama are we talking about?

For that is the secret of Obama. He isn’t one thing. He is multi-faceted. Multi-talented. Multi-racial. Charismatic beyond belief – and not bad looking either!

Through his two books – Dreams of my Father and the Audacity to Hope – we get a rare and well–written glimpse of the man who is now the most powerful on earth.

A black man – well half-black –succeeding in a country to which we often believe ourselves to be superior in terms of integration and erroneously less guilty than America of our culpability in slavery. Their sin took place at home, our sin took place on the high seas and in overseas plantations.

An intellectual – in a reality show dominated, dumbed-down world where intellect has its popular appeal – is not top of the list of requirements for political success – yet Obama’s intellect is key to his approach and climb.

Family man – a seemingly genuinely loving husband and father – but not a saint.

A committed Christian – but not of the ram it down your throat variety – and of Muslim parents who attended a Catholic school.

Charismatic – well that helps whatever you are going for. Long-time readers of my blog may recall my scepticism of the speech that made his national – and international – name in 2004. As I wrote then, “to me – a non-American – there was something very insular, even insulting, in his claim that – after recounting how he came from a poor immigrant family that came together from across the world – ‘that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible’. Nonsense – there are examples of similar moving, amazing stories from many, many other countries.”

But it showed his ability to conjure a potent mix of rhetoric, hopes, dreams and myths into a powerful message. A message delivered with a voice and a half. For it is not only what Obama says – but it is the voice with which he says it. I have no doubt – ask me to give one of his speeches and it would be as much of a let down as me singing one of Madonna’s songs – there’s much more to it than just getting the words right!

But perhaps most relevant for us tonight – he is an ambitious man who understands the power of campaigning and how to do it to the max. (Or perhaps I should say was – because his campaigning touch seems to have faltered since winning the election – a warning lesson for us all!).

As a candidate though he was superb at spreading the word, channelling support, generating enthusiasm – and turning it in to action, donations and votes.

So when we ask the question “Where is the British Obama?” there are really two questions: can a non-white make it to Prime Minister? And can a UK politician generate that level of interest in and enthusiasm for the electoral process?

Taking that first question first – Britain has a very different political system from the US. Our Prime Minister is not chosen by the people directly. Party candidates are chosen by the parties, not the public. And – although this is changing – the key marginal seats at general election time have been so overwhelmingly white that non-white voters have had a much muted electoral impact.

So to be a British Obama – you have to be involved in politics, to work your way up and to make people look beyond traditional electoral battlegrounds. Predicting the future when it comes to party leaders is tough – not many would have bet on the only female PM – so far! – being a Conservative.

Open primaries, which the Tories have introduced as pilots, would perhaps open up the possibility of an Obama who can appeal beyond party limits – but you still have to get through the selections for those primaries.

As for our own party, we have the additional burden that for us success so often only comes on the back of repeated local work by someone who firms establishes themselves as local – which further curtails the field of people with chances of getting elected.

But if we look this white election after election, we will simply look like a political party that advocates what others should do – but that we don’t do it ourselves.

There is a lot of work going on to encourage a more diverse set of members to join and go forward – but the feed through is slow. With a fair wind we won’t be left as an all white parliamentary party after the next election – but there is no certainty that will happen. And whether or not it does, we have to find a way to crack the problem of so many of our ethnic minority candidates standing just the once in a constituency. Of course thepolitical barriers could come tumbling down if we were to change the electoral system altogether. The advent of Single Transferrable Vote would, at a stroke, change the composition of candidates in all parties.

That wasn’t an issue Obama had to worry about! One part of his achievement is one though that we should worry about too.

Obama wasn’t just some poor black kid. Obama not only had bright parents keenly ambitious for him – but he himself was exceptionally clever.

Obama’s election showed how education can transform life chances and not only that – it is where the inspiration – the audacity to hope – springs from. Obama got a scholarship to an exclusive prep school, went to private college and then to a private Ivy League University. He went to Harvard Law school – and in this institution his dreams of high office began to form.

There isn’t time tonight to delve into the education policies of the Liberal Democrats that might offer more journeys out of poverty – poverty of finance and poverty of ambition. There isn’t time to examine the part our woeful lack of social mobility plays in keeping people in their place – but remember, if you are born poor now you are more likely to die poor than you were 30 years ago. Inequality is growing – not diminishing. Obama has shown how important giving those life chances are to people – and who knows what marvels may lie untapped unless we do.

Key to turning Obama’s vision and aspiration into actual political success and power was his success at campaigning – the like of which we have never seen.

Now, LibDems are good campaigners. I’m here because I am a campaigner who overturned a 26,000+ Labour lead – and with a Tory in-between. And Steve Webb is here because he is a campaigner extraordinaire.

But there are plenty lessons about campaigning that we can learn from Obama and use them locally here.

The national message and the candidate are clearly very important – but they are beyond our immediate control. There is plenty though that is under our immediate local control and influence. Things we can go away and do something about. Personally. Tomorrow. Each one of you. Each day. Regardless of what is being said or done nationally.

We need to talk about the issues that are at the forefront of peoples’ minds – and we need to reflect their values in how we try to persuade them of our liberal beliefs.

Look at Sarah Palin – well perhaps not! – but her brief success was all about the politics of identity – sharing the values of voters and understanding their concerns.

Compare her folksy language with our local councillor world of strategies, streetscenes, fiscal challenges, benchmarking, step change in capacity building.

Get my point? Obviously – the fact she was a complete idiot with value system right of Attila the Hun was eventually too much of a problem to overcome. But the very fact that for a brief while even she was so popular demonstrates the power of the politics of identity. The public want politicians who can understand them, relate to them, are like them – not out of touch politicians from on high.

On then to the mechanics of campaigning – what can we learn from Obama of those? Some are familiar:

1. Recruit helpers.
2. Raise money.
3. Win support.

Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But let me ask for a show of hands: how many people have delivered 500 leaflets or more in the last year? And how many of you have have recruited 5 members/deliverers or more in the last year?

OK – my point is about building the team, building the machine. We often spend so much time trying to do everything ourselves that we spend hardly any time on recruiting new people, building up the organisation.

Obama’s approach was to build the machine from way out before the election. And build and build and build.

Often we would rather deliver leaflets until the cows come home than knock on someone’s door and ask them to become a member or join the party.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Where I hail from in little old Hornsey & Wood Green in 8 years membership went from 150 to 400; the delivery network from 0% to 85% coverage.

I’m probably teaching my grandma to suck eggs in this constituency but it is the key. And whist Steve has a majority that I can only dream of – you know you can never have too big a majority. And you can never have too big a campaign organisation.

A Liberal Democrat activist who went to help in Obama’s campaign said:

Every supporter was asked to volunteer.

Every volunteer was asked to recruit more volunteers.

Even when there were more volunteers than we knew what to do with, we recruited more.

But imagine what would happen if I were to ring one of you up tomorrow and say, “I’ve just joined the party. Have you got anything I can do to help tomorrow morning?” Almost certainly the answer would be – actually no, not got anything you can go and do right now. Might have some leaflets for you at some point in the future – and if you’re lucky we’ll ask them to deliver you somewhere near where you live. There may even be an event in a few weeks. But unless I strike it very lucky – the answer to “Can you give me something to do right now?” is “No. Come back later.”

If I’m lucky, the person I talk to will dress it up in all sorts of nice language and keep in touch – but at heart we are often structured and organised on the basis that we don’t catch initial waves of enthusiasm for people.

Obama’s campaign was very good at avoiding this. There were always stocks of leaflets ready to go. There were always phone operations to join in. And there were regular events for people to come, meet and mingle.

They were also sociable events – not campaigning in the form of “go away and do something on your own” but campaigning that brings people together, adds fun to the process and builds up camaraderie. People joined a joint enterprise of like-minded people.

People were given a wide range of different actions they could take – not just leaflets or canvassing, but letters to the press, petition flyers to neighbours, commenting online and so on. That breadth of activities – all planned with the question “how do we get more people involved?” in mind – is something we should emulate.

And, boy, were people trained. Trained and trained and trained. Our party is pretty good at training some key groups – such as constituency organisers – but very few local parties do training for their bedrock members.

The Obama campaign though had a very intensive training program, from 5 minutes for anyone walking through the door through to weekend camps – training the equivalent of our deliverers and ward organisers, not just those higher up the organisational chain.

One particular part of the campaign organisation that was steadily built up over a long period of time was the data: the email lists, records of voting intention and so on. Although we often think of the internet as a fast moving arena, in fact success more usually lies with the tortoise rather than the hare – the tortoise who builds up lists and data persistently over time, that is.

Email is a fantastic tool for getting out messages quickly and cheaply. But to do that really well, you have to have spent the time collecting peoples’ emails and getting their permission to use them.

And when you have the email addresses – you have to actually use them and send out messages!

Some statistics from Obama’s campaign to illustrate the point:

  • 10.3 million email addresses
  • 1.2 billion emails sent out
  • 7,000 different messages

I think that makes the point about the potential for email – though one other statistic sheds important light on the issue of fundraising.

Blue State Digital (the people who did Obama’s emails) estimate that for a 9 month US campaign, they’d expect typically to raise on average in total between £3.50 and £5.00 per email address on any opt-in list. That is a pretty low figure – the huge sums come from having huge lists – which takes us back to the importance of accumulating data.

We can’t do everything Obama did – especially as some figures put together by the party’s previous Head of Innovation, Mark Pack, illustrate the scale of finance he had. The Obama campaign spent four times the total Liberal / SDP / Lib Dem spend in all the general elections since 1945 put together. That’s a lot of money!

But there is much we can – and should – do:

  • Recruit members and helpers
  • Give people fun things to do – immediately
  • Train, train, train
  • Make campaigning more than leafleting
  • Collect – and keep – data
  • Use technology – especially text messaging which was one of Obama’s big areas of success

Don’t unthinkingly believe all the hype – and don’t think you have to be able to copy everything. But do believe in your own power to make things happen.

Obama’s success and trajectory may seem a far away tale of brilliance, removed from our own lives. But break it down into the details – and there is much you can do, right here, each and every day.

So where is the British Obama? I hope we will see the candidate Obama one day soon. But the campaigning Obama – look around you. Any and all of you can be the Obama in your own area.

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This entry was posted in LDVUSA and Op-eds.


  • Simon Titley 27th Sep '09 - 12:28pm

    Do we really want a “British Obama” in the form of some Messianic leader? Liberals should always be wary of the ‘great man’ theory of politics.

    British politics certainly lacks leadership but – as the MPs expenses scandal revealed – the problem is not the absence of a Messiah but the unwillingness of politicians to nail their colours to the mast.

    Mick Hume got it right in two pieces on Spiked in May:

    “MPs today are not gangsters. But they are not great leaders either. Many of them are pretty useless jobsworths. Statesmen of standing have survived far more dangerous scandals because people still believed in them and what they stood for. By contrast, the authority of today’s politicians can be destroyed by a scandal over the petty cash, because in the absence of any great cause or fight for the Good Society, many can see them only as parasites and placemen.” (http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/6654/)

    “Whatever happened to the old saying ‘Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man’? Our hour of need certainly seems to have arrived – indeed we appear to have been frozen in it through these past months of capitalist crisis. Yet the Man, Woman or party who might have a clue how to lead us out of it is still notable by their absence.” Hume added an important caveat: “Not leadership in the shape of some ‘strong man’, but a political vision of where we want to be heading and how we might try to get there.” (http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/6636/)

    So yes, we need leadership – but in the form of moral authority that comes from political vision and causes worth fighting for, not the two extremes Lynne posits: a Messiah figure and a raft of local campaign tactics.

  • Lynne,

    We heard a lot last week at your conference about MP’s expenses but nothing about peers expenses,can you please advise if Lord Rennard has repaid the taxpayer the £ 41,000 he claimed for a second home as reported in the press earlier this year.
    I am sure that you agree that transparency for all Lib Dem parliamentarians is important,particularly when they are in very senior positions.

  • Herbert Brown 27th Sep '09 - 8:38pm

    “… can you please advise if Lord Rennard has repaid the taxpayer the £ 41,000 he claimed for a second home as reported in the press earlier this year.”

    I think it’s safe to assume he hasn’t, as the party has decided there are no grounds for believing that any rules have been broken.

    On the other hand, as far as I know the House of Lords authorities are still in the process of investigating the allegations, so there’s still a chance some action may be taken.

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