Sultans of Spin?

Britain’s main parties have gone abroad for spin-doctoring talent – we profile the high-priced imports below.

They’ve been called the ‘Sultans of Spin’, ‘mercenary’, and even alpha dogs.  They come with a hefty price tag that no doubt makes hard-pressed constituency organisers wonder quite why they’re working so hard. They are the foreign operatives who were called in by Britain’s leading political parties to provide a little magic before the election.

They are American David Axelrod for the Labour Party, American Jim Messina and Australian Lynton Crosby for the Conservative Party, and South African Ryan Coetzee for the Liberal Democrats.

Lynton Crosby: Conservatives

The Australian makes the most headlines of any of these – described as ‘an Australian Rottweiler’ or the ‘Lizard of Oz’, Crosby came from the Australian Liberal Party. He was a late addition to Michael Howard’s failed campaign in 2005, but steered Boris Johnson to two Mayoral victories in 2008 and 2012, in Labour-leaning London. Crosby has set a clear Conservative strategy: emphasise economic competence and attack Ed Miliband. He has established a grid of government policy announcements, and every week since January has been assigned a theme covering core messages on the budget deficit, the economy, immigration, and welfare.  Everything else is ‘barnacles on the boat’ and thus ruthlessly scrubbed out. The Tory dossier for Conservative candidates, which mentioned Miliband 99 times (‘Vote UKIP, get Miliband’, ‘Vote Green, get Miliband’, ‘Vote SNP, Get Miliband’, etc.) and Cameron 10 times, has Crosby’s fingerprints everywhere.

Jim Messina: Conservatives

Messina is the only strategist to cross the aisle, from the centre-left American Democrats to the centre-right British Conservatives in 2013. He crafted a strategy of major social media outreach for Obama in 2012, alongside careful identification of voters to contact directly – it paid off through higher turnout in key constituencies. It’s not clear if the Tories are having quite the same success in developing their ground game, despite their costly social media bill.

David Axelrod: Labour

The Chicago operative has probably the greatest political prize against his name of any of the four individuals written about here, due to his role in the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections as Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist. Known as the ‘Axe’, he helped his man paint John McCain as a third Bush term, and Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch elitist. Axelrod was hired in April last year, to help Labour portray David Cameron as the out-of-touch elitist, and Miliband as in-touch with ordinary people.

Labour has hammered David Cameron for ‘standing up for the wrong people’, particularly over tax avoidance, and has targeted the hedge funds to raise money for the NHS. Some Labour MPs, however, think that Axelrod’s personal contribution is minimal, dubbing him ‘the invisible man’. We may also see the limits of his influence in Labour’s new emphasis on fiscal responsibly, attacking the Tories for an unfunded pledge on the NHS and pushing a tougher Ed Miliband.

Ryan Coetzee: Liberal Democrats

Coetzee’s political achievement is impressive, although he probably has the lowest profile. He helped get the Democratic Alliance, a centre-left party in South Africa, win 16.6% of the vote in 2009, up from 1.73% in 1994. Also, in 2009, his DA won provincial elections in the Western Cape, the first non-African National Congress party to do so. Coetzee led on the Lib Dems’ key campaign message of a ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ – reflecting the party’s belief that the goal of a fairer society depends on the ability to bring about a stronger economy.  Although this may seem uncontroversial to outsiders, achieving message discipline was no mean feat for a party whose activists are more motivated more by electoral reform and the environment.  With the Lib Dems now in defensive mode given their poor national polling, Coetzee’s experience of fighting tough ground wars in South Africa is coming in handy.

Bang for buck?

It’s all very well having high profile international strategies, but are the parties listening to their mercenaries?

While the two Obama strategists seem to have had relatively little impact on the campaign, both Coetzee and Crosby are close to the party leaders and very influential in these last days of the campaign.  But with the election outcome so uncertain, whether they are here to stay beyond May probably depends in part on who wins. Jim Messina is said to be fond of quoting Mike Tyson’s observation that ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.’ We’ll see who is left standing in a few weeks’ time.