Labour has been taking lessons from Obama's "ground game" campaign. Photo: Getty
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Hedge fund managers vs grassroots campaigners: who will dictate the result in 2015?

If Labour’s campaign proves substandard in ten months, the reasons will lie far deeper than hedge fund managers bankrolling the Conservatives. 

“There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” So said Mark Hanna, the American political strategist credited with creating the modern campaign, in 1898.

Labour will be hoping that Hanna is wrong. A senior Labour source told the Times last week, “The Tories will probably outspend us two or three to one from January 2015 onwards.” The Conservatives are expected to spend £19.5m, the limit of what parties are allowed to spend in the year preceding an election; Labour’s spending is likely to be nearer £8m.

The largesse of Tory supporters has led to Labour figures fearing defeat at the hands of Conservative donors. And they are right to be anxious: the spending could turn marginal seats blue.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have invested in high-profile recruits from the Obama campaign – Jim Messina for the Conservatives; David Axelrod and Matthew McGregor for Labour – as if they are trying to convince themselves that the British election will resemble that in America. It is a seductive thought, but also a delusional one: over $1bn was spent on both presidential campaigns in 2012.

If the parties know that matching such funds is an impossibility, they have sought to learn from Obama’s advantage in campaign organisation – “ground game” in politico speak. In The Gamble, the political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck find that Obama gained three-tenths of a point in counties where he had a field office, and six-tenths of a point in counties where Obama had two or more field offices. In total, they estimate that Obama gained 248,000 votes over Romney from the superiority of his field operation. An equivalent advantage in Britain would amount to 50,000 votes in marginal seats: an election-winning prize. No wonder the fixation with the Obama campaign is so great.

The volunteer-driven aspect of Obama’s campaign is particularly attractive to Labour. This owes not to idealism but to desperation: given its perilous finances, Labour has no alternative but to rely on volunteers.

At least Labour can point to a significant advantage in party membership. As of last year, it had 187,000 members to the Conservative party’s 134,000. Rather than the fool’s gold of attempting to match the Tories ad-for-ad, Labour has trained over 100 community organisers, who will be entrusted with readying the volunteer army for battle, focusing on micro issues like payday lenders in areas where these are most prolific. Bottom-up, indeed; but how it squares with paying Axelrod a hefty six-figure sum is less clear.

Labour may like to depict the election as a struggle between their volunteer army and a Tory campaigning machine with more money than sense. But the Conservatives are not eschewing mundane campaigning. The Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps secured a swing of three times the national average when he held his seat in 2010. Newark was flooded with young activists – many eager to quench a late-night thirst – during last month’s by-election, giving a glimpse of the Tories’ Team 2015 campaign. But sheer numbers on the ground seem to count in Labour’s favour: according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling, Labour has recorded swings above the national average in the most marginal seats.

So perhaps Mark Hanna was only half-right. If the first thing that matters in politics is money, the second is the quantity and quality of those campaigning. If Labour’s campaign proves substandard in ten months, the reasons will lie far deeper than hedge fund managers bankrolling the Conservatives. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear