Count ideas not the numbers

Stone the crows! What a bunch of brawling badgers!

The crows refer of course to a blue in Wisconsin, the “badger state”, where the Republican governor is in a stoush with the teachers union.

Ostensibly the argument is over employment conditions, the state is broke and Governor Scott Walker wants the teachers to pay more into their pension funds and increase their healthcare contributions.[i]

You would think this would be enough to have the teachers calling a meeting to discuss a proposal to build a barricade but given that these are hard times and their benefits are far better than private sector workers they have agreed.[ii]

But the brawl over benefits is just a means to a Republican end. Governor Walker wants to abolish collective bargaining for public sector unions on everything other than pay.

And, what a surprise it is that the apparatchiks and their allies in the Democratic Party, including President Obama, are fighting back. It is easy to understand why union leaders want to protect their power to negotiate working conditions. State and local government is the union movement’s last redoubt with 42 per cent of people on these payrolls unionised, compared to barely 7 per cent of private sector workers.

The last thing the Democrats want is even fewer unionists than there are now. The unions pay a fair whack of the bills in Democrat campaigns, from county ballots to White House races, spending $400 million in 2008.[iii]

Hmm, organised labour feeding the machine that keeps a political party running, remind you of … anywhere?

If it doesn’t here’s a hint. The ALP elders’ review of the 2010 election recommends tightening the already strong bonds between the Labor Party and the union movement with a joint party-ACTU committee created to co-ordinate campaigns.[iv]

Sure, there is the routine rhetoric in the report of encouraging debate and opening decision making to rank and file Labor members, and even outsiders. But there is buckleys chance of this ever occurring for as long as the unions who were present at the creation of the Labor Party a century back continue to see it as their parliamentary subsidiary – which is what they did in NSW when Morris Iemma had the temerity to try and represent the voters of NSW rather than public sector unions during the electricity privatisation dispute.

It is not in the nature of oligarchs to open up power to outsiders – and this applies to all political parties, not just those of the left.

But while the crows, being birds of very little brain, may be missing the point the struggle to protect union political influence strikes them as an analogue answer to a cyber space problem – one which President Obama has already solved.

The genius of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was the way it went around the fortifications of the established political order. Certainly there was a great deal of standard campaigning, endless media advertising and interviews, fund raising among wealthy friends and favour seekers and the use of union foot soldiers to get the vote out.

But the Obama machine also spoke to supporters through social media, raised money online, used the internet to get the message out and recruited its own army of volunteers who were loyal to the candidate not local machines.

As Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe records, the political pros did not get it:

Throughout the campaign, we never stopped running into people who thought we were going about things the wrong way. During the general election, on a conference call we held with labor leaders, one of Clinton’s big labor supporters, who had spent millions on her behalf in the primary derided our belief and trust in volunteers. He insisted that we needed to pay people to do things like door-knocking and phone calls and that we should rely more on local elected official organizations. [v]

We saw an old style political machine at work in Madison Wisconsin last week, when the Democrats and their union allies put 70,000 people on the streets, but solidarity among the faithful does not win community support when it looks like political insiders looking after their own interests. Certainly Wisconsin’s Walker is not running away from his confrontation with the teachers for fear the electorate is against him. [vi] And Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democrat primaries, was a win for ideas over interests.

In an age where you do not need the permanent infrastructure of a party or union to create a campaign victory will go to the best brand, as Obama and Kevin Rudd both demonstrated.

But as the foreign minister’s fate demonstrates, brands only survive if they are seen to stand for something other than a candidate’s ambition. Certainly Obama used social media to sell his message but it only worked because his brand was understood and he had a coherent message to sell.

Which is why ideas matter more than conscript armies of union members whose fees support candidates, who in return stick to the party-line.

Without a coherent brand identity, all the marketing in the world will not save candidates from hackery. But political brands that appeal to people reached through social media can liberate candidates from paymasters and power brokers in unions business and party machines.

It makes politics harder but it empowers the side with the ideas that appeal to electors.


[i] Brady Dennis and Peter Wallsten, “Obama joins Wisconsin’s budget battle” The Washington Post, February 18

[ii] Eugene Robinson, “Starving Wisconsin’s unions,” The Washington Post, February 22

[iii] Neil King jnr, “Political fight over unions escalates,” The Wall Street Journal, February 22

[iv] Troy Bramston, “ALP told to listen to party elders,” The Australian, February 24

[v] David Plouffe, The Audacity to Win: The inside story and lessons of Barack Obama’s historic victory (Viking, 2009) 181-182

[vi] “Wisconsin Gov Scott Walker won’t back down” Chicago Sun-Times February 22