The political obsession with data-crunching digital gurus lacks imagination and ambition

Will appointing campaign strategist Jim Messina make a radical difference to the Conservatives' election chances? Probably not - the old-fashioned art of voter persuasion is on the wane.

The recruitment of Jim Messina, the US Democratic party campaign strategist, to work for the Conservatives has been reported as a medium-sized earthquake in Westminster. Only in mid-summer do backroom appointments (and in this case part-time, remote-working-from-Washington appointments) register so high on the journalistic seismograph. No doubt that is why the story came out when it did.

I would hazard a guess that a very senior Tory with intimate knowledge of his party’s election plans handed the Messina scoop to Newsnight, deliberately piping out some campaign mood-music to give the impression that the Tories are on the march. Just as important, it provokes chatter about the comparative un-readiness of Labour’s own election campaign team. Ed Miliband has yet to name the person who will coordinate his party’s 2015 bid for power. Plenty of Labour people would have loved to be able to boast of hiring someone of the calibre of Messina – someone with a record of delivering big victories and, better still, with the imprimatur of Barack Obama. The US President remains the object of fawning fandom among many British politicos.  

It is far too early to say whether Messina can help steer the Tories to a parliamentary majority. Campaign officials can only ever be as good as the candidates they help promote. The fundamentals of the 2015 race haven’t really changed. One thing I do find interesting, however, is what the cult of the A-List strategist says about the nature of political competition. An essential part of Messina’s craft – the skill set around which his reputation is built – is the exploitation of masses of data. One crucial way he helped Obama was by finding and logging as many people as possible with any kind of Democratic inclination and making sure they were contacted, cultivated and steered towards a ballot paper.

Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ other big money campaign appointment, may not rely so heavily on technology but his underlying strategic technique is similar. It is all about expanding and energising the pool of predisposed believers. Crosby’s approach is to make absolutely sure that people who vaguely agree with the Tories on core issues – the economy, crime, immigration – are afraid enough of Labour to act on polling day.

There is nothing new about making sure a party’s base is locked in before going after swing voters. But it seems that, with richer data sets showing where sympathetic prejudices might be found, the balance of effort shifts towards mobilisation by fear; away from conviction. Parties seem more interested in mining every last drop of their existing support than in reaching out to voters on the other side.

Up to a point that might be a rational use of resources. It is easier to provoke a prejudice than it is to change a mind. People will select facts that match their opinions rather than allow new facts to alter their view. The spread of social media has probably amplified this problem, as people eagerly reinforce each other's beliefs in tribal enclaves. It sometimes feels as if Twitter and Facebook are vast experiments in what behavioural psychologists call confirmation bias.

It is also notable how few front line politicians in Britain have a record of really changing minds. The standard route to the upper echelons of a party is to secure a safe seat with the help of a grand patron. Leadership elections are competitive but the need to prove credentials to the party faithful is not always a great preparation for winning the hearts of non-aligned voters. More often it is an impediment. David Cameron and Ed Miliband both spend more energy managing the question of their respective Tory and Labour authenticity than they do picking up new converts.

It is almost impossible to now imagine a shift in allegiance by 2015 equivalent in scale to those achieved by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Inevitably there will be a swing, but there won’t be anything that feels like a mass conversion. The current obsession with data-crunchers, digital gurus and hired strategic guns feels like a surrender of imagination and ambition. It is as if the object of the exercise is now fishing around behind the sofa for misplaced voters with friendly biases because leaving the house and inspiring a whole new set of voters, reversing hostile biases, is just too hard. I suspect we will hear a lot in the next 18 months about the new science of winning campaigns while seeing ever less of the old-fashioned art of persuasion. 

Jim Messina speaking at last year's Democratic National Convention in the US. Photo: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.