Where is the British Obama?

Earlier this month I 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.

Cross-posted from Liberal Democrat Voice

Equalities: my keynote conference speech

Here’s my keynote speech to the Liberal Democrat Bournemouth conference:

My fellow Liberal Democrats – what a moment in world history for equality.

When we were last here in Bournemouth, the Presidential Campaign in the US was drawing to a close. I don’t know about you, but I can still hardly believe it. Who would have thought it possible … there is now a black man who is president of the United States of America.

The message of hope and optimism, and the potential for change could not be clearer. On that historic day when he made his inauguration speech, the words of our own party constitution kept repeating through my mind: “That no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

So conference let’s today be ambitious as Liberal Democrats.

Let’s agree right here and right now that anything is possible whether by small practical steps or by great leaps of inspired Obama-like faith.

Because if a black kid in America can rise above the noise, the prejudice and the class divides to become the President of the United States – then anything is possible.

But as all Liberal Democrats know, and as President Obama himself said, idle aspiration alone is not enough. On Monday morning I went to Moordown St John’s Primary School – here in Bournemouth – with Trevor Phillips from the Equality Commission.

Now the children had been asked to draw pictures of politicians – needless to say – the pictures were almost all male and almost all pale – just like the House of Commons! These children captured Parliament perfectly with the skills of the best sketch writers.

One comment on one drawing said: ‘I have drawn a man because I think that men can stand up and talk better to a crowd than a woman can’. Another had written: ‘I have chosen a male MP because I have never seen a woman MP’. He has now! And I’ve had a word with him.

That’s the power of the role model, the power to challenge our preconceptions and to bring hope alive.

In my constituency I see kindness and cruelty; fierce intelligence and shocking ignorance; the struggles and successes; the love; the bitterness and the bias that make up the sum of all our experience.

But in small corners of that experience I have seen a shift.

Children for whom the halls of Harvard Law School, or for that matter Oxford or Cambridge, have seemed no closer than the moon can see the possibility.

This new generation pregnant with that possibility should not – cannot be let down.

And for many, far too many, President Obama’s triumph remains as irrelevant as the more distant figures in our history books.

That’s why we need action – the practical steps – because education and opportunity are the ways to blast away the old order.

The Liberal Democrats offer the bold approach to tackling inequality. Our pupil premium delivers a life-changing opportunity at school by injecting funds where they are most needed. Our name blank job application policy will open doors previously closed for that young boy – or girl – when they come out of education and apply for a job.

Name blank job applications is a simple idea. Just as we give a number for children to write on their exam papers so there can be no bias in the marking – so job applicants can use their National Insurance number. It costs nothing – and by removing the name from job application forms – we remove from that very first sift the unconscious prejudice that sadly can lurk in all of us. And I am proud of our party passing this on Saturday.

Now, you probably already know that 80% of MPs in the House of Commons are male. Lord knows – I’ve mentioned it often enough!

Even more shockingly, of the FTSE100 companies 88% of the directors are male. That’s right – take the 100 biggest listed companies in Britain, and you’ll find only one in ten directors, here in 2009 – are female.

Do we really think that if we trawled through to find the best people for the job of running our top companies, we’d find nearly nine in ten are male? Or if we hunted out the very best people to be our MPs, that eight in ten would be male?

Friends, I want to set you a task today.

I want you all to conduct some detailed research. Extensive research. Perhaps at the Highcliff Hotel. Perhaps this lunchtime – perhaps in the bar – perhaps at a fringe.

I suggest that you look at all the representatives there and you ask yourselves this simple question: if you hunt out the best people to be MPs – will 4 out of every 5 of them end up being men?

I think not.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love men. I’ve consulted with them – consorted with them – and even – on occasion – cavorted with them. But they are not the only answer – nor necessarily the right answer – and they are certainly not the right answer 88 times out of every 100.

I sometimes wonder if we really understand the scale of the inequality that women suffer financially?

The Equal Pay Act was sparked by the gender pay gap. For every pound that men were paid at the Ford Dagenham car plant the women earned only 85 pence. So on June 7th 1968 the women went on strike – and when they were joined by the women and men of the Ford car plant in Liverpool the company caved in and the Equal Pay act was spawned.

But the law has not been effective. And at the high end of the pay spectrum – it’s no different.

We see the highest paid female director of a FTSE 100 company took home £3.8m last year – but it is a figure dwarfed by the highest paid man – who took home £36.8m – almost ten times as much.

In case you are in any doubt – I think pay levels like that are insane and obscene.

But the issue is – from the highest earners to the lowest earners – women get the raw deal. It is as tragic as it is shameful that these gaps remain 40 years after the Equal Pay Act.

And it happens – and can happen – because that differential is hidden from public or indeed, the employees’ gaze.

Liberal Democrats would introduce mandatory pay audits. We would expose a company’s overall pattern of pay – not individual salaries – but enough information to show quite clearly where the pay gap lies.

That would put power into the hands of an individual to see for themselves whether they were being discriminated against – enabling them to take forward a case of discrimination -b e that man, woman, someone from an ethnic minority or a person with disabilities.

When it comes to pay, everyone is entitled to greater transparency.

And there are wider inequalities we must tackle.

A primary school child in an inner city constituency is not judged by the content of his or her character or the passion of his ambition. He is judged by the invisible barriers he or she will face because of both the colour of his skin but also his class and family income.

Poverty reinforces class barriers. That’s why in difficult times for the taxpayer Liberal Democrats make our priorities clear.

We will cut taxes for those who are on middle and low incomes – so that no one pays a penny on income tax on the first 10 thousand pounds they earn.

And then there’s religion. In recent years, sadly the spectre of religious discrimination has arisen again. A party born of revulsion at the treatment of Catholics and Non-conformists stands four square behind all those who seek to practice their faith.

9/11 and the subsequent Iraq war has fostered increasing ignorance and prejudice – on all sides. And it deepens apace – as we saw with the fascist demonstrations against the Harrow Mosque on the anniversary of 9/11.

And there has been so much damage done to the image of Muslims with the reporting of news from overseas and here, where so-called Islamic terrorists often feature – but when those fighting the terrorists, or the victims of terrorism, are also Muslim – this often goes unmentioned.

The drip-drip effect of linking the word ‘Muslim’ and the word ‘terrorism’ – but not linking “victim” and “Muslim” in the same way – is pernicious.

And at the same time we have seen a rising tide of attacks on Jewish people too.

It is better to confront and address these challenges before we are at real risk from violent internecine strife or the hideous bile of the far right – especially as there is no doubt that with an economic downturn the far right will be looking to turn the screw on peoples’ fears.

Liberal Democrats believe in cohesion – not separation.

Friends, there is not enough time to talk in one brief speech about all the inequalities that exist today. I would love to have the time to tell you exactly what I think of BBC’s sacking of Arlene Phillips from Strictly.

What on earth are we doing when we throw someone of Ms Phillips experience – one of the world’s foremost choreographers – on the scrap heap in favour of someone young and pretty? No offence to Alesha and I’m sorry she had such a rough ride on her first outing. It’s not her fault – it’s the BBC bosses.

What message do we send out – other that we don’t value what is important but we pay homage to the fleeting, the superficial and the desperate quest for youth?

We believe there should be no mandatory retirement age – something Labour refuses to support.

And I’d love to have time to talk about the severe prejudice encountered by our young people and the many barriers that remain for those with disabilities, I’d like to talk about caste discrimination, and gender identity issues.

So – let’s not kid ourselves that there isn’t discrimination out there – whether it is on the basis of gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, age or disability.

Discrimination is still rife. After hundreds of years of fighting against it.

But what I do have a moment for – is to persuade you, to continue your fight against prejudice, to use your powers in local authorities and devolved bodies throughout the land to use your powers as the great campaigners that I know you are. To fight and continue to fight until issues of equality no longer need to be on the agenda.

We are called on, as a party, by our history to fulfill our creed and fight for equal rights.

This is not the politics of single issues that should remain in the province of women, or minority groups.
It is a cause to which all those who hold a liberal world view are drawn.

In facing the scale of that challenge – and the urgency of that need – we have to persuade people that doing nothing is letting entrenched discrimination win.

I want to turn on its head the way we approach campaigning on this issue – I want to reframe the debate – so that we don’t just present issues in a way that appeals to those who already agree – like us – but which takes the argument to those who don’t.

Tackling discrimination helps all of us.

Because when a company discriminates in its choice of senior staff – and ends up predominantly male – it’s not just the woman who gets overlooked for promotion who loses out – it’s all those who lose their jobs, men and women because the management of the company itself is not up to scratch.

Tackling discrimination helps all of us.

Because when the police carry out stop and search on black and ethnic minorities. Searches which are out of all proportion to the numbers in the population and crime figures – it isn’t just those who are stopped who lose out, it’s all of us who lose out – from the police wasting time on the innocent rather than catching the guilty.

Tackling discrimination helps all of us.

Because when so many schools assume that information about children of separated parents should be given to their mothers – it isn’t just the fathers who lose out, it’s all of us who lose out from the damage to our next generation.

Whoever the discrimination is against – even when it is against the less talked about groups such as men – no I hadn’t forgotten you – we all suffer.

On many of these issues there is progress.

Not that long ago it was against the law to be openly gay. Now it is against the law to refuse to register a civil partnership

Conference, this is a call to arms. For each and every generation has the opportunity to shape our society and our communities. In this year, an election year, we accept that challenge.

Liberal Democrats are different – we are the real alternative to failed red-blue/blue-red stale old politics. Liberal Democrats are straight talking – we are prepared to stand up for what is right for people – not what is popular with the tabloids.

Liberal Democrats are ambitious – for change – for every woman who is underpaid, for every child who is denied life opportunities, for every person who suffers the insult and injury of discrimination.

The battle lines are drawn at our childrens’ feet.

Against us – those who can live with – racial hatred, gender discrimination, and homophobia. Those who point fingers but don’t point out solutions. And those who just can’t be bothered.

Ladies and gentlemen: be bold, be brave, be active. History will judge us on our action and our purpose.

The Liberal Democrat purpose is to set our nation free.

The future of the party's campaigning

Yesterday I gave a speech at a fringe meeting organised by Liberal Democrat Voice looking at the future of the party’s campaigning now our campaigns guru, Chris Rennard, has stepped down:

Well – it is hard to imagine campaigning after Chris Rennard as he has been such a major force and eminence – nee God – in our trajectory upward – and in my own trajectory upward

And we would be insane if we were to throw the baby out with the successful bathwater. So campaigning after Rennard is about using what was best and successful from those years and improving on that.

And it’s about moving forward to take that same benefit by capitalising on new tools available to us through the internet and new techniques for quote Obama ‘building the machine’.

Looking back – the number of votes I won in 2001 didn’t matter that much. What mattered, in terms of my mega win in 2005, was the number of deliverers, supporters, helpers, blue envelope writers, members, donors and email addresses I had gained.

As the Obama campaign proved – it’s building the machine that counts. And it’s about progress on the campaigns and it’s about the things that matter to local people – that really counts.

In Hornsey & Wood Green in 8 years – from when I started to when I won – we went from 150 members to over 400 members – and more importantly – my supporters and members now number around 2000. And we went from 0% delivery network to 85% delivery network. And of course – from no emails to around 7000 emails.

Those are the stats that deliver winning seats.

But wherever you are on the trajectory from black hole to held seat – the same is true.

So we must build machine – it is so often the case that we meet someone who displays an interest – however vague – in the Liberal Democrats and so we do one of two, no three things – we ask them to join, to deliver leaflets and to be on the executive – and if they’re really lucky – it’s because we can’t find anyway to be the local party secretary.

No – campaigning has got to be different, less using people as fodder – both those who might be active and those who might vote for us.

We have to be inclusive, make tasks fun, remember politics has a point but for many its light and social and we have to not be so dogmatic about how people would be involved.

An example – I met a guy at the Highgate drinks for deliverers evening – another good example of valuing people and making it fun. And one of the blokes there that I was talking to about funding said he’d like to get involved by helping as a fund-raiser.

So – I could have said can you come to the next exec. But what I said is that is fantastic – I’ll deal with the formalities and we’ll get together for a chat about how to take this forward. Thank you – you are a star!
He’d had been Labour before, I’d phoned him about delivery and having just retired from the City and wanting to lose weight he said he would deliver his road.
Now he is offering to fund raise for us. I don’t care if he’s a member. I don’t care if he was Labour – I care that he wants to help.

We will, for the foreseeable future, still be sticking what we do on a piece of paper and shoving it through peoples’ doors. But – campaigns need to be real and need to progress. People need to believe and to see progress.

I can give you two examples – both six or seven year campaigns – one for a new bus route and one to reopen the Muswell Hill Police front counter. Both started by residents whom I joined to help.

And over those six years – I built up the address lists snail and e – but I did things. I advanced the cause and campaign and fed back the next action to each person in the campaign – and over the years the numbers increased and both these campaigns delivered a few months before the election.

So I would say the lesson there is that campaigning has to be real and has to deliver progress.

My heart withers at the thought sometimes – when we start a different campaign for something new every couple of months – as if being seen to be against or for something is enough.

Because to campaign for something that is really important locally takes years and effort and constancy.
Keep the faith on a campaign – move it forward – and whatever level of success you have achieved in the cause – you will have a built a huge and real relationship with local people.

On our leaflets – it is probably the instant message from our bar charts that is the most significant of messages. So –bar charts will continue to be an important part of campaigning – that graphic is vital.

However – they are only one part of the message because if what the bar chart is telling people is not backed by the reality of local peoples’ experience of the party – we look like charlatans. Substance is important.

And that brings me onto emails. It is undoubtedly one of the most powerful communication and campaigning tools of our day. As I said – I have collected around 7000 emails and it takes years to collect – but well worth it – as overnight and for free I can reach around one quarter of my constituents.

But I am very careful how I use those emails and what I send out.

Yes – a fabulous tool – but again it is about using it to bring people into contact, engagement, and activism and voting for us. It is not a tool for hectoring and lecturing and hoping the people will come or for sending out meaningless party messages.

But on emails and using them – every single local party should be doing this as routinely as it tries to collect voter ID.

And we are coming to an interesting time, where as Chair of the Technology Advisory Board one of my missions is to help everyone collect and use their emails for genuine campaigning and contact purposes.

The leadership has observed, as have we all – that Obama used email very heavily.

Those of us here, activists, may well already receive Nick Clegg’s emails. And rightly the leadership now wants to make better use of our local email lists – with proper opt ins of course. There has to be a protocol about how often and who uses such a centralised list.

We know that Obama’s reach and the outlets for his message were an incredibly important part of his campaign.

So the challenge is – collect emails and use emails.

And of course – the use of twitter, YouTube and social networking is still in its infancy – but growing and developing as we widen our potential for campaigning on the internet.

There are some great examples of the best uses at the blogging awards tomorrow night – fantastic campaigns.

No politician going into the future can afford not to build an email list.

So – campaigning after Rennard – will be about building on that legacy – a system of campaigning that has given us a route into people’s lives and homes when the political system and the media coverage have kept us out.

Because in the end – it’s all about communicating with people – and drawing them in. It always was – and it always will be.

One new President, one expenses u-turn

Now you see it – now you don’t. Clearly Gordon Brown saw the writing on the wall in regard of the Freedom of Information vote on MP’s expenses. At PMQs he refused to back down – then after PMQs he backed down.

It’s bad enough that the economy is in meltdown – but at such times we are disappointed to find that we have not got a serious man for serious times – we have a rudderless boat!

Still – Labour would have lost the vote. I wish the vote had gone ahead and they had lost – ‘cos would have taught them a lesson. However – given the outcome is the right one – I forgive.

But I really wanted to write something about Obama. I know – everyone has. Every column inch by every writer / journalist etc in the country has more than said it – but the spirit moves me. I thought the fluffing of the lines was just fine. If Obama had clutched his head and said ‘oh my god – what a terrible thing to happen’ it would have been a bit of a gaff but Barack’s talent is knowing just what to do and being unfazed – he grinned. Grinning was the absolute right thing to do!

And it’s his temperament that I admire so much together with his intellect, timbre of voice and use of vocabulary. When I watched the whole speech live I didn’t pick up all the rich phrases at the time – in fact if I had a criticism it would be that there was nothing but rich phrases and well-crafted sentiments. But when I heard parts later on radio and broadcast news – they were all brilliant. How clever is that? ‘Cos effectively that meant whatever part was used by the media – it would make complete sense and convey his message – hope and change etc.

Charisma oozing and charm and talent personified – off he goes to ‘remake America’ and we all wish him well with what lies ahead. Seems to me that what has been revealed about all of us watching is our needy desire to believe and hope for a better future. I’m just glad that we still can believe in change and the better nature and aspiration of man to overcome adversity and triumph! We’ll see. I cry in happy movies too…

Why an army of small donors isn't all good news

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceMy latest column for the Ham & High is about the US Presidential election:

I shall go to the ball! I have been invited (along with hundreds of others) to the American Embassy for Presidential election night. Obama versus McCain – what a roller-coaster ride and political battle of the first order that has been – and maybe still is as McCain marginally closes the gap opened up by Obama in the last couple of weeks.

To be frank – I was a Hillary supporter – and I have my doubts about some of the policies Obama has pushed, such as the possibility of unilateral US military intervention in Pakistan. But compared with McCain – Obama is vastly preferable.

What has really surprised me though is the relative poor quality of the Presidential debates. I’ve watched them and been disappointed each time as both Obama and McCain failed to really deliver. I can’t say that they particularly articulated a vision which appealed to me – but then I am not an American.

I understand the desire for change Obama in particular is trying to tap in to – anyone must be better than George W Bush! Deep in my waters I fear an appeal based too heavily on being new and young – maybe to do with sub-conscious memories of T Blair. But more optimistically – maybe he really is the business. I just hope he wins!

Much of the coverage has been about the sites of both campaigns – and Obama’s in particular – putting together huge networks of supporters for their campaigns. Of course – with a population six times ours, the numbers are bound to be huge by our standards!

I think there is also a very big question mark about whether the ranks of small donors is really the good thing it is normally painted as. Certainly – lots of small donors is better than a few big donors, but the US has for decades had pretty tight limits on the maximum size of donations. And as for the small donors – my reading of events is that in the US people tend to give money rather than time to campaigns, whilst in the UK it is more a matter of giving time than money.

Reading accounts of people helping with door knocking and leaflet drops in the US, I think many UK political activists can only look on with envy at the relatively short lists of doors and short delivery runs compared with what is usual over here.

And given the choice – I’d rather have a political system that makes use of people’s time than money, as that makes for a healthier democracy. Of course you need both – but we shouldn’t be blind to the drawbacks of a system that is so heavily based on building up lists of donors – and then spending the money on advertising – rather than time on the streets communicating with the public. This isn’t just a theoretical issue – because going through Parliament is another round of proposed changes to how politics and political finance is regulated.

The first steps of the debate in Parliament has spun around and around as the Tories slag off the union’s financial support for Labour and Labour slag off the Michael Ashcroft money that is buying Tories marginal seats.

No wonder the British people have such a poor view of us politicians – as our spokesperson, David Howarth said eloquently to both Labour and Tory benches: stop such narrow, internal navel gazing and petty point-scoring for a moment’s media coverage as either the unions or Ashcroft is reviled. Just think what this looks like to the people out there. It is everything they think and hate about us – carrying on the narrow political battle when the crisis of confidence in democracy is raging to the point where people have no faith in politicians or even democracy any longer.

We Liberal Democrats voted against the Bill at second reading because it doesn’t deal with the cancer that eats away at the body politic. There are bits of the Bill that are OK – that improve little bits of the funding process – but it is just tinkering. If we want the people to once more have confidence in politics, politicians and democracy – then Labour have missed this enormous opportunity to restore public confidence in democracy.

The role of fathers

That’s the topic of my latest piece for the Highgate Flier and Muswell Hill Handbook:

It’s all sorts of dads we should be thinking about – not just black ones!

I refer to both Barack Obama and David Cameron’s recently zooming in on the world of fatherless black children. Now yes – there is a disproportionately high number of black families being brought up essentially by the mother – but it’s also an issue in white communities.

I’ve been a single mother myself since my children were 7 and 12. And two things that used to annoy the whatsit out of me when they were at school were firstly that each year parents got a class list (with contact details of all the class parents) and despite informing the school many, many times that we were separated – it was always (only) my address and number on the list – the school itself was acting as if to exclude separated fathers. Secondly – the school tended to send notes home with the child about parents evenings, plays etc. And again – that means they all came to me – and more generally, as it is usually the mother that children live with, to the mothers. So again – the school was acting in a way that excluded separated fathers rather than bringing them in and encouraging their involvement

Being obviously extremely civilised – I would tell my ex the details from the notes and we would often go together to the parents evenings and so on. But if you’re not so lucky in how things work out, the school should be there encouraging the involvement of both parents.

The school should have an obligation to contact both parents about all school activities. Clearly if the situation is hostile – there may be issues – but at least both parents would be informed (so long as the parent and their whereabouts are known).

This has improved a bit in recent years – with email and some good practise where it is the norm to list and contact both parents regardless of status or hostilities – but not nearly enough.

I continue to believe that given it has been shown that a kid’s reading ability, particularly boys, improves beyond measure in correlation to how much reading they do with their dad – it’s time for pro-actively engaging fathers more.

I’m sure lots of you reading this (fathers) are engaged and equally involved with your kids – but this is about improving a situation where there is need.

In America, they have been implementing a scheme (or various schemes) called any variation on ‘Dads and Doughnuts’. Now whilst here we might prefer something other than doughnuts – the idea is a good one that can travel: the school invites Dads in to do things with their kids without the mums. Sometimes this is reading with a breakfast (great for Dads who go to work early) or evening events or parents’ nights for Dads only.

Dads have been left out in the cold for too long. We are seeing the consequences of their absence – but it’s not something we need simply complain about. We can, and should, act.

New Hampshire score: polls 0, public 1

Hillary pulls it off! I thought she might lose New Hampshire. Well – so did the polls. But that’s what makes politics so exciting – for all the polling predictions and pundit pontification, in the end – it’s the public who get their say.

I came across a conversation last night in Central Lobby (in Parliament) between three men – all from ethnic minorities. Two were for Clinton and one for Obama. The conversation was interesting in that there clearly was a feeling (not hugely strong – but enough to make this discussion happen) about being black and not supporting Obama because they were Clinton fans. In the end, for these two, supporting the candidate they thought would make the better President of the United States won out over supporting a black candidate because of the good that too would do. In the end, we will really have made it when it’s not even an issue for discussion. Equality really has a long way still to go.

A postscript about Iowa: those scenes of hundreds of people turning up to squeeze into venues to do politics for several hours were really impressive, but once the immediate impact of those pictures fade I’m left with the more sobering thought that for all the effort, money, hype, enthusiasm and choice of different candidates – turnout in the Democrat caucuses was only a bit over 10%. And that was with turnout at record high levels! So – although as I said, the public do get the final say in politics, it’s a good reminder of how much work there is to do on both sides of the Atlantic to persuade people that say is real and worthwhile.

What do you think when you see Barack Obama on the TV?

I’ve expressed my doubts about Barack Obama previously, but – whether or not it helps propel him to victory in the Democrat selection contest – his victory in the Iowa caucuses (an overwhelmingly white state) comes with huge symbolic resonance in a country where race relations are so often strained and racial divides are so often so very stark.

This post seems to capture the raw emotion of what his victory meant to many American blacks – it’s a bit long, but well worth reading to the end – especially for its account of what went through the author’s mind whilst watching Obama speak on TV.

Barack Obama: George W Bush Mark 2?

I’ve always been slightly sceptical of (now) Democrat Presidential candidate Barack Obama since his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. It was delivered brilliantly – and there’s no doubt his style and content wowed many, many people – but 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.

So it did worry me a bit how – if he ended up US President – he would really look at the rest of the world. Now I’m worried even more – because he’s arguing the case for unilateral military action – in this case saying the possibility of bombing Pakistan without any discussion with Pakistan, the UN or anyone else would be OK.

Sounds like he’s getting very close to a George W Bush Mark 2 foreign policy!