Exclusive: how Labour could lose

Steve Morganplayed a senior role in the Al Gore presidential campaign. He has now written an urgent

The 2000 US presidential election took place against a backdrop of domestic comfort, as America, on the whole, was at peace with itself. The country was experiencing economic growth at a rate unknown in living memory. US troops were not involved in any major global conflicts and most voters thought Clinton was doing a good job as president.

Today, the US finds itself split down the middle, both philosophically and demographically, in a way no one could have predicted. This division was not a by-product of the election. It was the result of a calculated Republican strategy to win back the White House. How it was done bodes ill for us here in the UK. If the Conservatives have learnt from the Bush campaign and repeat those tactics here, even with limited success, it could cost Labour a substantial number of seats in the coming general election.

The Republicans have shown that, with the right strategy, you can overcome any economic success and the so-called "feel-good factor" generated by the incumbent governing party. And you can do much more: you can propel to the highest office in the world a right-wing political lightweight with dubious administrative skills and a past vulnerable to media scrutiny.

The Bush team knew that to fight the election on the economy would be to court disaster. Its aim, therefore, was to win the moral heart of the country.

The Bush camp never tried to deny the success of the economy. On the contrary, it argued that this success was nothing to do with the government. The hard-working American people had generated the wealth, it said, and "big government" was repressing even greater wealth. Bush was the man who would free Americans from the "shackles of Washington" and, through his tax-cutting programme, allow people to do even better in the future.

There were many in the Gore camp who believed that the electorate should be reminded constantly of how well the Democrats had performed. Others feared that the shadow of Clinton could cost votes in "Middle America". It was therefore decided that the party should not focus too much on the successes of the immediate past. This was a tactical error by the Democrats, but other mistakes contributed more profoundly to Gore's defeat.

First, the contradictions between the campaign's philosophy and its operational tactics sent conflicting messages. In August, at the Democratic Convention, Gore delivered a left-of-centre speech of a kind that had not been heard by the party for more than 20 years. He established clear water between what he stood for and Bush's policies. But the post-convention tactics did not reflect the differences. The Democrats' campaign was politically and tactically timid; by the second live debate, it was difficult for the voters to tell who was on the left and who on the right.

The Bush camp played this lack of clarity for all it was worth. It addressed major policy issues in a way that did not fundamentally disagree with the Gore objectives, but offered a different way of achieving them. It worked. Towards the end of the campaign, polls showed that the electorate did not see a great difference between the candidates on most major economic issues.

Second, the Democrats did not fully understand the prime objective of their opponents' campaign: to divide the electorate along moral, cultural and geographical lines. Analysts told Bush that rural, less affluent and Christian voters increasingly distrusted the government. They felt it was stepping on their religious beliefs and was increasingly out of touch with their views on crime, abortion and guns. In contrast, more affluent urban voters who had done well out of the Clinton years were becoming increasingly tolerant and progressive. Their concerns were about the growth of Christian conservatism and its encroachment upon their lives.

The Republican strategy, therefore, was to project an image of compassionate conservatism and inclusiveness. Bush's photocalls always included children, women, blacks and Hispanics, in an attempt to reassure the urban population, while showing moral leadership and strength of character to those whose votes he needed to win.

The first line of attack was a character assassination of Gore. Bush painted the vice-president as a member of the "Washington elite" whose honesty was questionable and who would say anything to get elected. Much airtime was used in the last three weeks of the campaign to get this message across. At every public meeting attended by Bush, it was hammered home: "You can't trust Gore!" The polls showed that the tactic worked.

Having tarnished Gore as a "liar" and a "big government insider", the Bush camp set out to convince a significant part of the electorate that the country was divided and morally bankrupt and that their man was the only person who could be trusted to save it. Bush's election rallies became more like evangelical gatherings, as he promised that he was ready to "heal the nation" and bring "honesty and integrity" to the White House.

We know who was and who was not won over by this approach:

  • 60 per cent of rural and small-town voters backed Bush.
  • Just over 70 per cent of city dwellers voted for Gore.
  • The suburbs split equally between the two candidates.
  • Only 25 per cent of all American counties voted for Gore.
  • Bush won the rural West, South and Midwest.
  • Gore won the industrialised North-East and the West Coast.
  • A USA Today/CNN exit poll highlighted the cultural and moral differences between supporters. Bush voters:

  • Go to church more than once a week.
  • Feel that the president should be more of a moral leader than a good government manager.
  • Oppose stricter gun laws.
  • Value honesty most in a candidate, followed by leadership and likeability.
  • What is truly remarkable about the Republicans' election performance is not that they successfully encouraged cultural polarisation on morals, character and integrity, but that they did it with George W Bush as their candidate. Here was a man who managed to avoid serving in Vietnam; who admits that, up to the age of 40, he had lived a "misspent youth"; who, ten days before the election, was forced to admit to a criminal record for drink-driving; who refused to deny that similar blots on his character could come out.

    The Republican campaign showed it is possible to persuade people that the economy is a self-guiding ship whose captain makes very little difference to the direction it takes. It showed that, in times of economic prosperity, a large section of the electorate, possibly a majority, can have its attention turned towards issues not related to the economy when deciding who should run the country.

    Labour faces two big questions: Can we expect a version of the Republican campaign to emerge here? And could it work?

    There is no doubt that the Conservatives carefully watched the development of the Republican strategy. And we have already seen certain Republican-style tactics in our own political debates, particularly on how the economy is managed. Gordon Brown addressed this in his speech to the Labour Party conference last year when he wondered how come, if economic success was an accident, it was an accident that never happened under the Conservatives.

    We have already heard attacks on the Prime Minister's character and questions about whether his word can be trusted. We can expect much more. It is a fairly safe bet that Republican strategists are now crossing the Atlantic to give further guidance to the Conservatives.

    There is also a danger for Labour if it fails to grasp how "the message" is being delivered. Modern techniques, and the freedom they offer, are increasingly overtaking traditional methods of communication. Thankfully, we don't have the same advertising freedoms on television and radio as the US has. But our parties can use the techniques the Americans have developed for direct, one-to-one communication, such as mailshots and the telephone. In the primaries and the presidential election, the internet was the foremost tool for direct contact with the electorate. Campaign messages were posted on campaign websites before they were released anywhere else, and e-mail was used in abundance. There were 50 million e-mails in the final days of the campaign, 40 million mailshots and 30 million telephone calls. And on the eve of the poll, despite some of the best security that money can buy, the Democrats' central computer system was mysteriously shut down. Fortunately, they had a back-up system that became fully functional within six hours. Disaster was avoided, but only just.

    Whether conditions in the UK are ripe for a British version of the Republican strategy is a more complex issue. We, too, have economic success. Labour is ahead in the polls by between ten and 15 points (Gore was ahead by 12 points in September). However, there are issues that could fuel a level of discontent that will not be soothed by economic success. The trains, floods, another fuel crisis - all have the potential to explode in the government's face.

    But perhaps the most potent issue, and one that could help a Conservative version of the Republican strategy, is the Countryside Alliance campaign against fox-hunting. One of the greatest dangers facing Labour as we plan for a second term is the increasing perception that there is a chasm - as in America - between town and country; between traditional British values and multicultural/multireligious city development; between tolerance of other nationalities and "Little England". The Conservatives will play this card for all it's worth, in the way the Bush camp did.

    It may be difficult today to see William Hague as the healer of a troubled nation, but then it was difficult to see Bush in that role in the spring of last year. It is not hard to see Hague wrapping himself in the Union Jack in an attempt to "preserve British values".

    Consistency of message - "we're defending the American way of life" - was the main strength of the Bush campaign in its later stages. The Democrats' message became fragmented - the environment in Washington State, farming in Iowa, pensions in Florida, all under the umbrella of a public investment programme that failed to excite the electorate.

    John Major suffered a similar fate in 1997. In the eyes of the nation, sleaze in the ranks of government became more important than what could be argued was a reasonably good economy. The Conservatives will not make the same mistake again. We will need to address ourselves to their campaign message in a way that our American colleagues failed to do.

    Steve Morgan is a director of Morgan Allen Moore, a public affairs consultancy. He worked for Labour at Millbank during the 1997 election campaign and took charge of foreign media in Gore's campaign

    This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose