Barack Obama talks with David Axelrod during the NCAA college basketball game between Georgetown and Duke in Washington on 30 January 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Axelrod's appointment shows Labour is planning a radical campaign

The man who masterminded Obama's two election victories embodies daring politics.

David Axelrod's alliance with Ed Miliband is the perfect match of message and messenger. Labour gains a comms guru with soundbite skill and strategic insight whilst Axelrod has the chance to work once again for a candidate who embodies his own political beliefs.

Because Axelrod was in many ways the radical of Obama's inner circle. He was the cause of much of the heartburn amongst hedgefund managers with his "Main Street, not just Wall Street" messaging. The appointment is a clear signal of Ed Miliband's intent to double down on the "cost-of-living-crisis" message and of the importance of themes like "building the economy from the middle out" - words spoken as often by Miliband's consigliere Stewart Wood as Axelrod himself.

But in a broader sense, it gives us a clearer idea of Labour strategy: a big offer with a strong, clear message for more then just middle class Labour loyalists and Lib Dem converts. Axelrod himself well understands the importance of raising turnout amongst blue collar voters to ensure success in key battlegrounds. And he knows the importance of ensuring the seamless integration of messaging, policy and organisation to deliver the required win number of votes in each battleground seat.

This is a clarity of objective that has been somewhat lost amidst the recent tumults besetting Labour's high command. In this, he reflects Miliband's own desire for a clear strategy to deliver a big election campaign complete with radical manifesto, ambitious target seat list and embrace of both new tactics and new personnel.

For Labour, in contrast to the Tories' one big name Jim Messina hire, has developed a network of Obama veterans. From Matthew McGregor in the digital team to Axelrod's own deputy Stephanie Cutter and her work last Christmas with the party. Combined with the recent confirmation of Obama mentor Arnie Graf's imminent return, Labour's efforts to organise for 2015 have taken a big step forward. For as the Fabian Society has detailed, Labour is setting the pace in integrating Obama best practice into its operations.

The party has been in discussions with Obama analytics chief and Axelrod ally Dan Wagner over the last year about what it would take to bring his cutting-edge voter targeting techniques to British voters. Such a move would be further proof of Miliband's commitment to a truly world class campaign team.

David Axelrod embodies strategic brilliance and daring, radical politics. His appointment today will give Labour campaigners hope that the party may yet embrace the kind of big movement politics that would win Miliband a majority.

Marcus Roberts is the deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society and the author of Labour's Next Majority: The 40% strategy and editor of Organise! Labour's campaigning revolution

Marcus Roberts is an executive project director at YouGov. 

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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times