David Axelrod speaks to reporters after the presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Axelrod has his work cut out with Labour

Cameron won't repeat Romney's gaffes and enjoys the advantage of incumbency.

1. Cameron won't repeat Romney's gaffes

Mitt Romney was pilloried throughout the 2012 presidential campaign for his multiple gaffes. In 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times opposing the Obama administration's plan to bail out the American auto industry. In the article, Romney argued that a "managed bankruptcy" could benefit General Motors, Ford and Chrysler because it would "permit the companies to shed excess labour, pension and real estate costs." Romney did not suggest the Detroit auto industry be liquidated, and he called the industry "vital to our national interest." But the striking headline ("Let Detroit Go Bankrupt") - with its implication that Romney was willing to see the American auto industry disappear - dogged Romney throughout the 2012 campaign.

Likewis,  his comment at a private fundraising dinner in Florida that "the Democrats have 47 per cent of the vote" (the implication being let's not go after their supporters) were taken out of context. But the Obama team, led by Axelrod, created a series of attack ads that severely damaged Romney's credibility. Cameron is not prone to making such mistakes, which will give Labour and their new superstar adviser less material to work with.

2.  The Conservatives are united. For now.

The 2012 primaries to select the Republican candidate to stand against Obama were vicious. Romney was the frontrunner for the majority of the campaign, fighting off challenges from a number of prominent Republicans including, Newt Gingrich. Romney never managed to win over the right of the party, who saw him as an East Coast liberal who had introduced "Romneycare" in his home state of Massachusetts - a similar universal healthcare model to "Obamacare", opposed by the majority of conservatives. A lot of mud was thrown, not least at Romney's tax affairs, and even towards the end of the campaign, many prominent Republicans were still looking for alternative candidates. Eventually the GOP fell in behind Romney, but the damage done during those primaries made Team Obama's job a lot easier.

Conversely, the Conservative Party has, for the most part, been loyal to Cameron. There have been some high profile rebellions, notably over the 2012 Budget, House of Lords reform and the gay marriage. Axelrod will hope that Tory backbenchers break rank and call for closer cooperation with Ukip if their party finishes third in the European elections. This could lead to a split among the right that Labour would look to exploit. But unlike the Republicans, Cameron's party are behind him. For now.
 
3. The coalition has helped the poorest

Raising the National Minimum Wage, lifting the poorest out of tax by increasing the personal allowance, freezing fuel duty and introducing the pupil premium are all policies that the Conservatives can point to as evidence that their party is on the side of those on low to middle incomes. Indeed, the decision to prioritise a rise in the personal allowance over a cut to the 40p tax rate (heavily championed by leading voices on the backbenches) was a brave one.

Whereas Axelrod and Team Obama were able to paint Romney as a "flip flop" on a range of policy issues, Cameron is the incumbent and has achieved a great deal in this Parliament, especially given the fiscal constraints he and his government have been faced with. It will be a lot more difficult for Labour to depict Conservative policies as being in favour of the wealthy, although they will undoubtedly lead on Cameron's decision to cut the top rate of income tax. Expect the attacks to be of a more personal nature - more about the backgrounds of cabinet ministers than their record in office. This approach could of course backfire - opinion polls clearly show that the public believes Miliband to be as much a part of the political elite as Cameron and Clegg.
 
4. Miliband isn't Obama

Actually the two men share a common trait. Both Miliband and Obama are policy wonks, who rose to the top of their parties as underdogs. They are both more at home on a think-tank stage than in a televised debate. The difference between the two, however, is glaringly obvious. Obama campaigned for change with an incredible skill that few people could match - the ability to mesmerise a crowd through words. Having served under the last Labour government, which is, rightly or wrongly, still blamed by much of the public for ruining the economy, Miliband does not have the platform to campaign along the same lines.

He also lacks Obama's charisma. With the possible exception of Bill Clinton, Obama is the most gifted political orator of recent times. Miliband is undoubtedly an intelligent man. But he finds it hard to break down ideas into "retail friendly" soundbites. In an era of TV debates, 24-hour media and Twitter, this presents Labour with a huge problem.

Axelrod is one of the best political strategists around. If anyone can turn the current Labour Party into a formidable election fighting machine he can. But he's got his work cut out, that's for sure.

Nick Faith is Director of Communications at Policy Exchange

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times