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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.