On Wednesday, the Democrats elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to be their candidate for Congress in the New York district of Queens and the Bronx. A former hospitality worker and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the 28 year-old ran on a platform that wouldn’t sound out of place in a UK General Election — free healthcare and university education for all. Shelly Asquith, a Labour Party activist and columnist for the blog LabourList, this morning commented on the parallels between Ocasio and the current leadership of the Party.
Proximity to the establishment and big money won’t wash, and people are calling out for candidates that cannot be accused of “you’re all the same”.
This was certainly the case in Ocasio’s campaign. She distanced herself from what comedian and former advisor to erstwhile Labour Party leader Ed Miliband Ayesha Hazarika calls the “male, pale and stale” status quo of politics by directly challenging current Congressman Joseph Crowley, whose campaign was funded by Google and Morgan Stanley, among others.
For me, though, Ocasio’s campaign highlighted what all great people-powered movements should capitalise on — a message of inspiration, delivered well.
Tom Lillywhite, CEO of digital engagement agency Wilder Digital, wrote in January that the success of Labour’s 2017 General Election social media campaign came from “the credibility, passion and voice of our supporters”. Ocasio’s campaign delivered the same thing. Beautiful graphics with a powerful, dual-language message proved extremely popular because they conveyed a clear message — hope.
Created by graphic designer Maria Arenas, the branding for Ocasio’s campaign is simultaneously inspirational and shareable. Combining great photography with a defined style makes your campaign look professional; uniting simplicity with a positive message proves your campaign is credible.
In a similar way, Labour’s 2017 General Election slogan, “For the Many, Not the Few”, gave us the perfect platform to deliver a message of hope. It is a uniquely powerful statement of purpose for a political party, and lends itself to the grassroots, people-focused campaign that Labour organises around so well.
The manifesto of the same name used what Robin Bunce called “a truly democratic font” — Avenir — which is both pleasantly readable and, in its bold form, ideally suited to strong statements.
Between the sordid brashness of the blatantly commercial, and the austere geometric minimalism of the kunsthalle, Avenir is a truly democratic font. In fact, it was designed by the same font maestro who came up with NHS font. Consequently, it says “trust me”, in the well-modulated, if chronically overworked tones of an experienced GP.
Its similarity to Open Sans, a free font available from Google, gave rise to thousands of copy-cat designs across social media. People inspired by the Labour campaign could become armchair activists, doing their bit to aid the political party’s electoral chances by spreading its message in their own way, while retaining a semblance of congruence with the main campaign. Lillywhite suggests this created a “de-centralised campaign where the power of people as content creators and content sharers was absolutely key.”
So, if Labour’s digital campaign was so successful, what can Labour and the Left learn from Ocasio’s campaign? There’s no doubt, as Asquith notes, the campaign borrowed from Labour, even offering a similar slogan.
However, a quick look at Labour’s website following the General Election shows the Party have now invested in a modern font called Lota Grotesque (“grotesque” refers to a specific type of sans serif font — there’s a great write-up of the nuanced definition here). The font is warm and welcoming but, to be blunt, bloody expensive. No armchair activist is going to swap the free Open Sans for a font that costs £200, even if it does bring their designs closer to the official campaign material Labour produces. By comparison, Ocasio’s website uses the open-source font Metropolis, created by designer Chris Simpson.
It’s vital that, in a people-powered movement, the people are also empowered to support it. In the modern age of digital campaigning, the ability to recreate graphics that convince your followers to buy into a message of hope is fast becoming a cornerstone of how the Left interact and engage politically on social media. There is currently severe distrust of the political class, and messages from your friends that sell you a vision of change are a powerful, positive result of the democratisation of design. Labour must ensure it provides paths to enable its supporters, not stifle them.
Ocasio’s campaign delivered on this promise with simple branding that advised followers in their copy-cat creations. Sure, Maria Arenas and her work is genius, but it is the campaign — in design and in form — that is of the people, by the people, and for the people that will truly allow the Left to succeed in Britain and across the world in the future.