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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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