Sean Kemp

Westminster’s obsession with US politics is both embarrassing and foolish

Westminster's obsession with US politics is both embarrassing and foolish
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Can you sense it? That thrill in the air? The feeling that suddenly the Labour campaign is just somehow more exciting? Yes, that’s right, David Axelrod is back in the country. Try to control yourselves.

The Guardian recently revealed that 26 April was the date that The Axe was landing back in the UK. And not a moment too soon, as some in the Labour party have started to question what Obama’s former adviser has been doing for his reported £300,000 apart from the odd conference call. The idea that the election was a fight between the American and Lynton Crosby - who, whatever you think about him, clearly eats, breathes and sleeps this election - now seems rather quaint.

This is all a far cry from the excitement that greeted the news of Axelrod’s appointment, when various breathless pieces were written about what he would bring to Miliband’s campaign. All of that has died down a bit, although occasionally Axelrod does get credit for a neat line (and not so neat ones: ‘happy warrior’ is a phrase previously used by the Obama camp for example).

Why the obsession with Axelrod? There’s the reflected glory of Obama obviously and the media loves tales of journalists successfully moving into politics. But more than anything else he has one big advantage: he’s American.

Westminster is obsessed with American politics to an almost embarrassing extent. Presidential elections in particular are the spectator sport of choice for political geeks; plenty of people who have only just woken up to what’s been going on in Scotland could bore for England about the obscure runners and riders in various primary races.

And it’s not just actual US politics that sends some people weak at the knees; the West Wing still gets quoted bizarrely often by supposedly serious people to justify decisions. The programme’s ‘Let Bartlet Be Bartlet’ line has been adapted to say Let Gordon Be Gordon, Let Cameron Be Cameron, Let Miliband Be Miliband, Let Clegg be Clegg and even Let Ming Be Ming. And that’s before we even get onto the time Tony Blair’s actual Chief of Staff requested a meeting with the man who played President Bartlet’s fictional Chief of Staff.

Does any of this matter beyond being a bit embarrassing? I think it does, because it’s symptomatic of a broader, almost wilful desire by people who should know better to misunderstand and misrepresent what really matters in politics. Campaigns aren’t simply won or lost by the neat soundbite or the barnstorming speech. It’s the random impressions accumulated over years combined with an effective long-term campaign strategy that count. Whether the PM suddenly starts shouting a bit to show ‘passion’ in the last week of his campaign is utterly irrelevant. Ironically one of the best accounts of all this comes from another Obama campaign staffer. David Plouffe, arguably a more significant figure than Axelrod in Obama’s 2008 victory, sets it all out in his book The Audacity To Win.

But all that long-term stuff is boring, so we carry on acting as if Americans have some magical ingredient that can transform everything in a week, and fawn absurdly over the likes of Nate Silver for doing what plenty of political scientists over here also do. The really big difference between British and US politics is simple - money. Without all that cash the advice of US experts is remarkably similar to that of anyone else who has worked in politics. Maybe if we want people to start taking British politics a bit more seriously it’s time we did the same ourselves and stopped being so obsequious to anyone who comes over here with an American accent.

Sean Kemp is a former Liberal Democrat special adviser in Downing Street