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

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?