Saturday 26 April 2014

Labour and David Axelrod

LabourList's Mark Ferguson concludes his piece on last week's appointment of Obama spinner David Axelrod to Labour's election team as a "big deal". But is it, really? I hope it is. After all Axelrod doesn't come cheap - an unstated six figure fee has done the rounds. Will his impact on the party carry more weight than say five or six extra full time Labour organisers working marginal constituencies?

I can't help but feel sceptical about these big beast hires from overseas, regardless of who they work for. The Tories have imported Lynton Crosby from Australia to run vicious right-wing attacks - and yet they only appear to recover lost polling ground when they shut up and don't say anything objectionable. They have also paid silly money for the Obama grassroots specialist Jim Messina. As I noted last summer, this is dumb when the Tory grassroots are suffering severe dieback. So what does Axelrod bring to my party the collective wisdom of this country's labour movement could not provide?

Axelrod is certainly an experienced political strategist. He's won more than he's lost, and once specialised in making black Democrat candidates more, how shall we say, "white-friendly". He also has experience with pushing cost of living issues as political hot buttons. He was able to help the Ontario Liberal Party to win in 2002 doing just that, and is credited with prioritising similar themes in Obama's two campaigns. The other feather in his nest is overseeing the Obama '08 internet operation. He established a rudimentary social media platform bringing together personal blogs, forums and, crucially, the opportunity for activists to interact. This proved especially successful for fundraising. Millions were drawn from micro donations of a dollar here, five dollars there. With a cash-strapped Labour party that has made cost-of-living and combating inequality the centrepiece of its "offer", you can see where there might be some fit. Yet the point remains, is there no one else who has a similar level of expertise? The answer to that is yes, there is. Labour doesn't need Axelrod, he will not bring something "game-changing" to the table. And neither will Crosby and Messina for the Tories. If this is the case, then why have the respective leaderships splurged on very expensive consultants?

The first is a perceived lack of capacity on the part of party organisations. With memberships in long-term decline and experienced activists increasingly thin on the ground, political consultants market themselves as innovators in the kinds of work parties used to do as a matter of routine. Piggy backed onto this is a default distrust by party elites of their members. In Labour's case since Blair and the Tories since Dave, the members are regarded as too left and too right to be broadly representative of those respective constituencies. Member-led policy formation opportunities have long been circumscribed, and so members' input into political strategy is not valued. MPs, wonks, and consultants from overseas have a better feel for what's going on in the "real" population, so the thinking goes.

The second is a cultural thing. I've never seen the appeal myself, but high ups in all the Westminster parties have the serious hots for American politics. The USA's two outright parties of capital - one destructively bingeing on its lunatic fringe, and the other being marginally more rightwing than our own Liberal Democrats - do, sadly, command the political imaginations of too many inside the Westminster bubble and not a few activists outside it. Perhaps it says a great deal about how clapped out our mainstream politics are. Anyway, the fact is they do. Labour and Conservative figures strive for special relationships with senior Democrats and Republicans. For some it's ideological. For others it's technological, as if the technique and strategies the two parties deploy are at the very cutting edge of modern campaigning. Which they are. Whether it's ideas or technics, there is a certain glamour attached to hanging round with people who, in turn, hung around with some really powerful people. It's a bit like getting Lady Gaga on The X Factor.

Third, and inseparably bound up with glamour are the morale boosts these consultants bring. Both the Tories and Labour leaderships revel in the Obama magic American consultants sprinkle, and within the recursive world turning about the Westminster/media axis it shows they mean business. They're tooled up. They've brought out the big guns. As politicians generally go weak-kneed for technocrats and managerial solutions, consultant CVs of the Axelrod/Messina type allow them to indulge this predisposition in the most uncertain game of all. It can make our leaderships feel more confident now that expertise is on their side. And they can sell a message to the activists too, that they're in it to win it. For instance, a few Labour hearts would have been gladdened by Axelrod's video message to members. Conversely, securing one alchemical maester's services can depress the other team. For instance, some - naturally unnamed - Labour figures apparently panicked when the Tories announced Messina's hire last year. Likewise, especially those Conservatives beholden to the aura of American politics, some on the government benches would have found themselves in a gloom.

Axelrod's appointment is part arms race, part morale boost, part psychological warfare. It will be difficult to quantify his impact win or lose in 2015 but I suspect the money would have been better spent on those faceless organisers. I hope I turn out to be wrong.

No comments: