Monday, March 03, 2008

Top down and bottom up

Fraser Nelson is trying to float the idea that David Cameron is 'the British Obama'. Nice try, but, um, no. But running on 'change in Westminster' seems to be the new Cameron theme. Here's one reason why it might not work and one reason why it might:

Not work: I think that the biggest difference between Cameron and Obama (and there are many to choose from) is what they did before entering politics. Obama worked as a community organiser and then lawyer, Cameron in public relations. Obama has years of experience of mobilising people who live in low income areas, David Cameron has spent his entire life living in more affluent areas, and has pretty much only ever visited places where poor people live for the purpose of photo opportunities of one kind or another.

Obama's campaign has been built on his understanding of community organising. It's not his speeches which have given him the lead in the race for the Democrat nomination, but the fact that he has managed to get one million individual donors, and won state after state by putting his campaign's efforts into building from the bottom up and investing in having campaign offices early in every state. Even in states where he and Clinton have had roughly the same amount of support overall, his massive advantage in volunteers has meant that more of his supporters go and vote or caucus. If Clinton had paid the same attention to the importance of grassroots organising, and devoted some portion of the $33 million that she paid to her top consultants, then she would be the nominee by now.

Cameron's campaign has been built on his understanding of public relations. The Tory media operation is infinitely sharper than at any point in the last twenty years, he has prioritised 'decontaminating the Conservative brand'. It is very much a top down operation, that is what Cameron and his advisers understand and are good at. What there demonstrably is not is anything like the kind of organisation on the ground that Obama has built - local Conservative parties are overwhelmingly made up of elderly people who have been members for a while.

Work: But as all good lefties know, one way to solve a problem is to throw money at it. And this is exactly what the Tories are doing. Lord Ashcroft's money will help make sure that local Tory parties are well resourced and have full time staff to run their campaigns. Paying people to deliver leaflets is much less efficient than having volunteers who are happy to do so, and having local volunteers organising campaigning in their area has many advantages over paying full time staff to go and do so. But a lot of the same benefits of local organisation can be achieved if you are prepared to spend enough money on paying people to do the things which Obama's supporters are doing for nothing. And they aren't facing anything like Barack Obama's local organisation.

In 2005, the Tories spent more money than has ever been spent before on an election in Britain, and a lot of the money went into local parties, paying for full-time staff, paying people to leaflet and so on. If Labour had not responded by spending heavily on local organisation, then we would have lost our majority, for all that a large majority of people wanted a Labour government rather than a Tory government. And the cost of doing so has essentially bankrupted us.

It's Labour and Gordon Brown, not David Cameron, who need to emulate Obama's grassroots organisation in time for the next election.


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