Last week there was a flurry of interest among the commentariat after the recruitment by the Conservatives of an American, Jim Messina, to join the Australian, Lynton Crosby who is already providing them with strategic campaign advice. In the Financial Times on 6 August, Janan Ganesh was dismissive of what he called “jet-setting political consultants” who reputedly believe “that that a foreign country is just like another swing state”:
The first law of politics is that almost nothing matters. Voters barely notice, much less are they moved by, the events, speeches, tactics, campaigns or even strategies that are ultimately aimed at them. Elections are largely determined by a few fundamentals: the economy, the political cycle, the basic appeal of the party leaders. The role of human agency is not trivial, but it is rarely decisive either.
… As good as he is, Mr Crosby is not behind the Tories’ recent run of form. He is not yet physically present very much and will not work full-time for the party until much closer to the 2015 election. The economic recovery has changed politics more than any conscious act of strategy.
… For all his psephological rigour, Mr Messina will not make an enormous difference either. His client, Mr Obama, was re-elected because he was up against a maladroit rival – Mitt Romney, who employed feted and costly strategists of his own – at a time of gently improving economic conditions.
… the really important events of this parliament were April 25 2013, when the official statisticians revealed Britain had avoided another recession; and September 25 2010, when Labour elected Mr Miliband. Next to these moments, the recruitment of Mr Crosby and Mr Messina are neither here nor there.Perhaps Ganesh, who seems to have lashed himself to the mast of the sinking ship of print journalism, is wondering whether he should have opted for another calling. Anne McElvoy, public policy editor of The Economist, writing in The Times the following day, was much less sceptical, but she has met Crosby:
Mr Crosby cannot change the fundamentals of the 2015 vote. He cannot make Mr Cameron sound less plummy nor make the economy grow any faster. Yet he is already providing a clearer framing to the contest. This is what able strategists do best and why Labour, stuffed full of chaps who think a sojourn studying political science on the US East Coast is an intro to street-fighting politics, is rightly worried about the Lynton effect.
I remember my first journalistic date when he was busy master-minding Boris Johnson’s 2008 campaign. The venue was reassuringly expensive (I hope Dave can muster a decent wine budget). “I can’t think why I’m here,” was his encouraging opening gambit. He could see no point in the commentariat, he explained, considering us a distraction from the real business of targeting outer parts of London where the liberal intelligentsia did not dominate conversation.
The bluff exterior conceals one of the sharpest political brains for hire. Mainly the talent is a simple but effective one. It lies in telling politicians when to shut up and what to emphasise.
… I dare say Mr Crosby won’t be an easy prospect to live with if, like Mr Osborne and others in Camp Cameron, you have ideas of your own about how election campaigns should be run, but so far his basic recipe, “Get the barnacles off the boat”, looks sound. Goodbye to gay marriage, wind farms and the happiness index. A few core subjects such as the economy, welfare and education will be used to ram home contrasts with Labour and ask who has the more compelling answers to the big national questions. Team Miliband, meanwhile, should put as much effort into finding a strategist capable of crossing swords with Mr Crosby as it does into affecting outrage about him.All I know about election strategists is what I glean from the media, people like these two pundits. Crosby seems to have the sort of forceful nature needed to keep large egos in line. But, as McElvoy points out, there are other big personalities around with their own ideas and who won’t like being told what to do. And what happens when Messina, having mastered the UK postcode system, Skypes from Washington with yet another view?
Messina’s speciality is supposed to lie in social media and voter targeting. One can’t help wondering how transferable his skills will prove. US Presidential politics is a two-stage process. Firstly, red and blue fight among themselves to choose their candidates, then red and blue fight it out in the swing states which determine the outcome of the Electoral College. The voters overall seem to split somewhere between 45/55 and 49/51, but it’s where those votes are cast that matters. In the UK, by contrast, it’s the outcomes in about 100 or so marginal constituencies (in over 600) that determine which party governs. But the UK no longer has an essentially red/blue two-party system, the rise of the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists keeping the maximum share of the vote accessible by the two main parties below 40%. The next election may see UKIP becoming a significant fourth element, complicating things further. Working out which barnacles to scrape off and which to keep becomes a multi-dimensional problem, particularly for the Tories who have to fight on two fronts, to their left or right depending on the particular marginal involved.
It will be fascinating to see how hiring this high-priced help works out for the Tories – in so far as we get told about it by the media. And, of course, as Messina is no doubt aware, the media’s structure in the UK is rather different from that in the US, being national and having the BBC as an influential component.