The Obamas' visit to Britain has caused a stir at Britain's fanciest addresses. On Downing Street, Barack Obama boosted Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spirits by referring to Brown by his first name. Later, in Buckingham palace, Queen Elizabeth II and Michelle Obama broke protocol by embracing each other at an evening reception.
The freshman leader has expressed admiration for Brown's mastery of global finance, but it is Brown who looks on with appreciation at Obama's historic campaign. The British general election due at some point in the next year will be a tough fight, and British progressives are keen to learn everything they can from the U.S.
But there's always a danger of drawing the wrong lesson. Obama's use of technology, for example, has caused a lot of excitement across the pond. In Britain, political parties have outdated Web sites that have not been used to engage with citizens on a mass level. Meanwhile, fundraising has primarily focused on wealthy donors such as Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who recently gave a cool 1 million pounds to the Labour party.
But to focus on technology would be to misread what the Obama team did so well. At a recent conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Center for American Progress, Paul Tewes -- the mastermind of Obama's insurgency in Iowa -- warned that the Internet was no panacea: "Message and organization won the campaign; technology served it." The real lesson from the American election is cultural, not technological.
Obama's campaign was a bottom-up movement in the truest sense of the word: The grass roots preceded the candidate and provided the political space for his success. His candidacy was essentially a takeover of the Democratic Party. In some ways, this mirrored Nicolas Sarkozy's insurgency in France earlier this decade when his 2005 election as president of the Union for a Popular Movement propelled him to the national presidency and prevented Jacques Chirac from seeking a third term.
By contrast, the British system allows political parties to select their own leader. This process is frequently dominated by a narrow elite in the parliamentary party. In 2007, Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as Labour leader following the virtually unanimous consent of fellow members of parliament. This system is mirrored by Labour's own closed culture. To become a member, you must make a small, fixed monthly payment. The party's wilderness years in the 1980s, when the hard left almost made it permanently unelectable, led the leadership to assume greater control over policies, organization, and campaigning tactics.
But mass participation is not a phenomenon that is unique to the United States. Campaigns such as Make Poverty History have engaged millions of people. These successes are not coincidental. Modern American electoral campaigns share many characteristics with civil-society groups and are what political scientist Andrew Chadwick terms hybrid organizations -- part party, part movement. As yet, British parties have not made this transformation because they still have fixed and rigid institutional arrangements created in the 20th century.
The great achievement of the Obama campaign was to take this model of activism and employ it to achieve electoral success. The Obama campaign centralized its message, and little expense was spared in achieving effective branding and cultivating an image of professionalism. But, crucially, and in contrast to Labour's recent history, the Obama team decentralized many other aspects of the campaign and gave citizens a huge amount of freedom to self-organize.
The Labour Party must adopt five principles if it is to remain relevant to the lives of ordinary Britons.
First, the party should remove all barriers to participation, for example, by scrapping party membership fees and instead allowing members to set their own subscription level. This move could actually encourage greater giving by members.
Second, the party should create a cultural glasnost by enabling channels for dissent and debate. Since citizens now have the ability to comment at any time, from anywhere, on anything, political parties must develop a more open environment for discussion.
Third, the party should give supporters the tools to self-organize. Some progress has already been made here, and party members can now phone canvass from their homes by accessing the voter file online. But this could be opened up to outsiders, perhaps with the proviso that they are recommended first to avoid cranks entering phony results. Offline, local branches of the Labour Party should become much more open to non-members and other progressive groups in the local community.
Fourth, supporters should be kept better informed with e-mails and SMS alerts targeted to reflect the recipient's interests and to encourage a two-way flow of ideas.
And finally, the party should incentivize hard work and entrepreneurialism. One approach would be to move toward open primaries for candidate selection.
This transition will not be easy for British progressives. It is at odds with much of their recent history. But it is certainly necessary. It is quite possible, after all, that the evolution to the information age will rival the development of the printing press or of industrialization as an epoch-forming event. Yet, even within this change, there will still be constants. There will always be people who strive for a fairer society and those who believe that we can achieve more through common endeavor than we can alone. The question is whether the Labour Party can emulate Barack Obama and continue to be a suitable vehicle for these political beliefs in the 21st century.
The Change We Need: What Britain Can Learn from Obama's Victory, edited by Nick Anstead and Will Straw is available from www.fabians.org.uk.
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