Alex Massie

The Political Consultancy Racket

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As mentioned, one of the things we talked about during the House of Comments podcast was what, if anything, British pols can learn from the Obama campaign. The answer: much less than the press might have you think. Sure, there's puff piece after puff piece about how both parties are snapping up Obama "advisors" in order to give the impression that they're the Next Big Thing themselves. This Sunday Times piece was neither the first nor, alas, the last of such nonsenses.

This is not America, people. If you needed reminding that this is the case, consider the fact that ConservativeHome is trying to raise £1,000 online today. That's right, £1000 to support the Tory candidate in Sutton & Cheam. A worthwhile endeavour I'm sure, but let's not be getting too carried away here. We're not talking about a Ron Paul moneybomb here. Paul, you'll recall, raised more than $4m online in a single day. And, if memory serves, as long ago as 2000 John McCain raised the best part of a million dollars online in a day. So the environment is rather different.

Preposterously, we're now invited to believe that the idea of using party activists to recruit other voters is some kind of radical innovation. Ditto telephoning voters. From the tone of the coverage you might think no-one had run a campaign or won an election before Barack Obama appeared on the scene. But in 2004 the Rove-Bush strategy was designed to squeeze as many votes from the consrvative base as possible and this was, to some considerable extent anyway, organised around and through church congregations. Not exclusively so, but there was a heavy emphasis on this kind of "face to face" contact.

And if the Obama campaign is credited with revolutionising political campaigns let's at least remember that it learnt from the successes and failures of Howard Dean's improbable rise to prominence and equally sudden eclipse in 2004-2005. Obama's campaign was, in some respects, built upon the lessons of Dean's rise and fall.

Then again, the notion of asking people to tell their friends about the election can only be thought a novel notion by journalists and political consultants. Of course the former have a terrible weakness for the latter. Because journalists like - or are addicted to - the horse race aspect of any election campaign, we're temperamentally predisposed to be fascinated by behind the scenes accounts of what the contenders are doing in training and inherently susceptible to the notion that there's always a new and secret technique or taining method that will deliver victory and send everyone home happy and wealthy. Alas, there really isn't.

At least not really. Elections are won by candidates and by fundamentals not by spin doctors, strategists and political gurus. Sure, running a competent campaign is generally considered a good idea but it's only in the aftermath once the wounded have been stabbed that everyone decides that the victors were super-geniuses who never put a foot wrong. But it wasn't like that at the time. There were plenty of occasions in which it seemed as though the Obama campaign might be blundering - either by being too passive or, we were also told, by being too bold (eg, the Jeremiah Wright Speech).

But because Obama won everything he and his team is now touched with gold and everyone forgets that events in the past were once in the future and could easily have gone another way. What if Hillary had skipped Iowa? Or what if Iowa had been a primary not a caucus state? Everything might have been different.

Anyway, it wasn't David Plouffe and David Axelrod who won Obama the election though their advice and planning was obviously important. It was Obama himself, aided by a set of highly unusual circumstances that made 2008 unusually propotious for a candidate of his style, background and beliefs wot won it.

So, sure, some campaign tactics and strategegy matters but the people "advising" Labour and the Tories had next to nothing to do with the result in America except in as much as marketing-bred developments in the fields of Voter ID and motivation can be transferred across the Atlantic. But that's really about it.

Not that this will prevent the political consultants making a packet from their racket. And most of it is a racket.

Remember Labour's slogan in 2005? Forward not Back. Brilliant! Mark Penn made a lot of money from that. And Obama's slogan? Change We Can Believe In. Brilliant! See what they did there? They said that if voters didn't much like the way things were going with the Republicans in charge they should vote for the Democratic candidate who offered not merely change but real change. Meanwhile, it seems as though the expensive advice Gordon Brown is receivingfrom his American helpers amounts to: try and convince people that you're an actual human being.

Again, because the consultants and the "strategists" have reason to puff their importance and because the newspapers have pages to fill there will always be a market for this sort of stuff but that doesn't mean much of it matters very much. It's snake-oil really and most of it has very little to do with the stuff that actually wins elections. A bad campaign might help you lose; running a good one is no kind of guarantee that you'll win.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePolitics