David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – the obvious targets to blame for the disillusionment engulfing British politics. But let’s not forget the role of the Americans. Thanks to the main Westminster parties’ increasing use of technologies and personalities from Washington, the traditional British forms of electioneering have been gradually abandoned for slick, expensive techniques that have inadvertently allowed more traditional campaigners, the SNP and Ukip for example, to take the establishment by surprise.
Despite this, 2015 is set to be the most American election to date. The television debates are happening, the use of social media, voter targeting and data are all on the up while the conflict between Cameron and Miliband is brewing to be a particularly personal battle. But there are two Americans in particular who will be exerting their influence on the next election campaign.
In the Washington Post, I examine the roles of David Axelrod and Jim Messina, the ex-Obama White House staffers who are being paid six figure salaries to advise Labour and the Conservatives. They are both life long Democrats who have ended up against each other in Westminster, adding a personal rivalry to the next campaign — although both Axelrod and Messina deny there are any hard feelings.
Messina, who served as Deputy Chief of Staff during Obama’s first term, signed up to the Tories last August and has been visiting London for a handful of days every month. Using his expertise from the Obama campaigns, he has been focused on improving the party’s social media output and beefing up their ground operation and fieldwork. His expertise in analysing granular groups of voters may also prove useful for a party desperate to pull together a coalition of voters to remain in power.
Axelrod on the other hand, who was Obama’s White House Senior Adviser and long-time confidant, has only visited Labour HQ once. Instead, ‘the Axe’ has been advising Team Miliband remotely, adding his thoughts over strategic email threads and phone calls. Axelrod is known here primarily for his speechwriting and persona crafting skills, something he may also do for Miliband. Although he claims not to have been ‘deeply involved’ in Miliband’s latest conference speech, there are are some similarities in the texts between Miliband and Obama: Miliband referred to the government’s ‘you’re on your own’ policies, something Obama also referenced when launching his re-election bid in 2012.
While senior Conservatives have applauded Messina as ‘the best centre-left campaigner in the world for targeting voters,’ some in Labour feel they could do with more bang for their buck. ‘You cannot spend £300,000 on a press release. Axelrod can no longer just cash the checks and send e-mails. You need boots on the ground. After all, he doesn’t want to lose to Jim Messina, does he?’ says one strategist.
It will not have gone unnoticed in Ukip HQ that an unashamedly pro-British party is taking on the established parties who have all employed foreign consultants to navigate their election campaigns. While these sophisticated techniques may allow Labour or the Tories to edge their way into Downing Street, Ukip have been concentrating on disrupting the process with more traditional methods.
‘We are quite old fashioned, just a bunch of types who pretty well managed to canvas the whole of Rochester and Strood last weekend,’ says Gawain Towler, Ukip’s Head of Press. ‘For us, it’s about knocking on doors and public meetings. Nigel has brought that back into politics and nobody else does a meeting where anyone can go and ask about anything.’
Although replicating the tricks of American campaigns helped keep Labour in power for 13 years — Blair began the Americanisation by importing many techniques from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign — an increasingly cynical British electorate appear to be responding to the more traditional forms of messaging.
Given that no one was able to predict just how successful Ukip would be during the Clacton and Haywood and Middleton by-elections, the other parties might consider borrowing a trick or two from an influential, not-so-professional political force from British shores.