Space and Power – An Analysis of Labour’s War Room for the UK General Election

A couple of weeks ago, floor plan and seating arrangements of the 250 people running the General Election campaign for the Labour party were revealed in the Guardian. The article outlined teams and their tasks, where they all sat and how the war room operated on a day-to-day basis. It is a fascinating account of life inside a campaign machinery and offers glimpses behind the scenes of what we see on our TV screens, news reports and the general coverage of the General Election every day. Featuring an office, its spatial layout and the way it works is also close to my research interests – so my colleague Sam, an avid Guardian reader, pointed me towards the article and inspired this blog post to analyse the layout further and see what it tells us about space and power.

So let’s look at the overall picture of who sits where first. Below is the image as printed in the Guardian. Ed Milliband occupies the corner office in the top right of the plan whenever he is not on the road. Closest to him are strategy staff, the general secretary, communications and PR (labelled ‘policy and attack’), while the ones furthest away from Milliband are those responsible for the Labour manifesto and those deciding which constituencies to target in the field.

Seating plan of the Labour war room as shown in the Guardian

Seating plan of the Labour war room as shown in the Guardian

So what is the significance of a war room? Essentially it forms a crucial element of making politics in the 21st century. The speed of information flow and decision making in times of social media and ubiquitous internet access has increased to a degree that it requires instant and intelligent responses. A lot has been written about Barack Obama’s campaigning and how he won his elections through an army of volunteers, engagement with social media and intensive data analytics. But what is interesting in all of this is how the age of the internet and data analysis leads to a renewed appreciation of physical space in the shape of a traditional office, or the so called war room. Far from the cries of the ‘Death of Distance’, physical space is experiencing a renaissance and the Guardian even goes as far as to claim that this may decide the election:

“The fate of the party may lie in this open-plan room. Such war rooms, made famous by the US Democrats in the 1990s, are essentially about information mobility. They have been described as ‘catalysts for decision-making’. The aim is to get information to the people who need it in real time and by having the decision-makers all in one place to make sure the strategic decisions turn into reality in both the campaign ‘ground war’ and ‘air war’.”

Let’s look at some research on offices and how they shape social outcomes. First of all, proximity is an important currency in office life – we end up talking to our immediate office neighbours a lot more than to those slightly further away. My research has shown that those we talk to every day are on average just 18-22 metres away from us. From this point of view the war room highlights who is most important in the campaigning due to their proximity to Ed Milliband: strategy staff, the general secretary and the communications team.

However, what is also important is visibility and strategic locations in the whole office configuration. Who is able to see who is around? Who is best placed to overhear the latest snippets of information? Who has the shortest walking distances to everyone else? And who in contrast gets peace and quiet to concentrate, to think, to mull over the details, to reflect on the best next move? Those types of questions can be answered with a spatial analysis of the layout. Using the research method of Space Syntax, which analyses visibility relationships and traces shortest lines of sight from any location in the open-plan office to all other locations, we can see which places are of strategic importance as the ‘hot spots’ and hive of activity (shown in warm colours such as red, orange and yellow) and which places are naturally rather quiet (shown in cool colours such as green, turquoise and blue). The image below shows the Labour war room in a Space Syntax Visibility Graph Analysis.

Space Syntax analysis of the Labour war room with strategic teams marked

Space Syntax analysis of the Labour war room with strategic teams marked

This draws a slightly different, but even more interesting picture of power relations and strategic usage of space. Right at the heart of the office space – in the two areas show in red – are the general secretary and interestingly the digital team. Welcome to the era of the internet, where controlling Twitter gets the same importance as the general secretary. It is stunning how well thought through the office seems to be organised. Whether that is a strategic move or intuitively decided, it is spot on. In the most secluded location, we find the Director of Field Operations, and again that seems a clever move, since the decision-making on which constituencies to focus on probably doesn’t change hourly, so the relative segregation of this part of the campaign operations makes sense to allow for reflection, detailed analytics and we gathering intelligence. What also becomes clear in this syntactical view of the war room is the role of Ed Milliband. He is not at the centre of the back-of-house strategising. He doesn’t need to be the first one to know every detail and to grasp every bit of information floating around. His location is one of relative segregation, yet in very close proximity to the hive of activities (just one step away), so he can either choose to get involved or stay out of the buzz. It therefore is a position of power, also reflected in the fact that he occupies a corner office, which is a well known status symbol that represents prestige, power and control. However, it is also a slightly outdated model of a hierarchical world, where the leader is a lone wolf, resides above everyone else and is not part of the network of knowledge flow out there.

So will this war room help Labour win the General Election 2015? It certainly seems well organised with teams in the right locations, capitalising on the effects of proximity, visibility, face-to-face interaction, ease of information flow and creating a strong and cohesive community working towards the same goal. Is that enough to tip the atmosphere in the electorate? I don’t know (but then of course I haven’t seen how other parties organise their campaign teams – oh how I’d love to analyse Nicola Sturgeon’s office…). In the meantime, maybe my colleagues in CASA and their geographical poll prediction analysis will give further answers. And in less than a week we will all know more.

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