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

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser