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

Photo: National Theatre
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I hate musicals. Apart from Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Follies – oh, wait

Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling.

I always thought I hated musicals. Showy, flamboyant, and minutely choreographed, they seemed to be the antithesis of the minimalist indie scene I grew up in, where a ramshackle DIY ethos prevailed, where it wasn’t cool to be too professional, too slick, too stagey. My immersion in that world coincided with the heady days of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s triumphs in the West End – Evita in 1978, Cats in 1981 – neither of which I saw, being full of scorn for such shows.

From then on I convinced myself that musicals were not for me, conveniently forgetting my childhood love of West Side Story (for which I’d bought the piano music, bashing out “I Feel Pretty” over and over again in the privacy of the dining room, on the small upright that was wedged in behind the door).

I was also conveniently forgetting Meet Me In St Louis and A Star is Born, as well as An American in Paris, which I’d been to see with a boy I was actually in a band with – he somehow finding it possible to combine a love of The Clash with a love of Gene Kelly. And I was pretending that Saturday Night Fever wasn’t really a musical, and neither was Cabaret – because that would mean my two favourite films of all time were musicals, and I didn’t like musicals.

Maybe what I meant was stage musicals? Yes, that was probably it. They were awful. I mean, not Funny Girl obviously. When people ask “If you could go back in time, what gig would you most like to have attended?” two of my answers are: “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, and Barbra Streisand in the original 1964 Broadway production of Funny Girl.” I would, of course, also make an exception for Guys and Dolls, and South Pacific, and My Fair Lady, and… oh God, what was I talking about? I’d always loved musicals, I just stopped remembering.

Then one of our teens took me to see Les Misérables. She’d become obsessed with it, loving the show so much she then went and read the Victor Hugo book – and loving that so much, she then re-read it in the original French. I know! Never tell me today’s young people are lazy and lacking in commitment. So I went with her to see the long-running stage version with my sceptical face on, one eyebrow fully arched, and by the time of Éponine’s death and “A Little Fall of Rain” I had practically wept both raised eyebrows off my face. Call me converted. Call me reminded.

I was late to Sondheim because of those years of prejudice, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, keeping my eyes open for London productions. Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory was stunning, and Imelda Staunton in Gypsy (yes, I know he only wrote the lyrics) was a revelation. Here she is again tonight in Follies at the National Theatre, the show that is in part a homage to the era of the Ziegfeld Follies, that period between the wars that some think of as the Golden Age of Musicals.

Although, as Sondheim writes in his extraordinary book, Finishing The Hat, (which contains his lyrics plus his comments on them and on everything else): “There are others who think of the Golden Age of Musicals as the 1950s, but then every generation thinks the Golden Age was the previous one.” How I would have loved to have seen those shows in the 1970s, when they were new and startling.

They still are, of course, and this production of Follies is a delight from start to finish. A masterclass in lyrics – Sondheim’s skill in writing for older women is unmatched – it is also sumptuously beautiful, full of emotion and sardonic wit, switching between the two in the blink of an eye, in a way that appears effortless.

And I realise that what I love about musicals is their utter commitment to the audience’s pleasure. Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling, and my mascara has somehow become smudged from having something in my eye, and I have already booked tickets to go again. So sue me.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left