Believer: My Forty Years in Politics by David Axelrod, book review: Miliband's great hope

David Axelrod's memoir reveals how he engineered Obama's election wins. His attempt to do the same for the Labour leader is proving more of a challenge, says Steve Richards
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The Independent Culture

David Axelrod has written a gripping account of his career during which he worked closely with some of the political superstars in the US. His memoir is of obvious interest to those who follow politics in the US as he opens the curtain a little and reveals what key figures from Obama to Clinton are like at moments of highly charged drama.

But in the UK Axelrod's insights have acquired an additional significance. There was considerable excitement in parts of the shadow cabinet last summer when he agreed to advise Ed Miliband. The most excited was Miliband himself, a leader suffering from abysmal personal ratings and aching for some of President Obama's election winning appeal. Axelrod had been Obama's star adviser. Could he turn Miliband into a vote winner?

The answer is implicit as Axelrod describes his intense relationships with senior Democrats across the decades. In contrast he is a distant adviser to Miliband, so distant he is rarely in the UK. Unsurprisingly Miliband does not get a look in as part of Axelrod's vivid story of winning elections in the US. In UK interviews Axelrod has awkwardly played down invitations from mischievous British interviewers to compare Obama and Miliband, stressing diplomatically that Obama had the dream life story on which to base an election campaign. He did not state the obvious, that Miliband's life story, the son of a north London Marxist academic, was more of a challenge.

In citing the importance of Obama's "life story" Axelrod highlights inadvertently one of the many differences between UK elections and those in which he played a pivotal role. In the US the individual candidate is often the sole "story". Nothing else matters very much. Evidently this is not the case in UK elections. Miliband's ratings are terrible but he still has a chance of being the next prime minister. Cameron's "life story" is largely absent from the projection of the Conservatives' strategic thinking. There will be no mention of Eton, or the Bullingdon Club, or much about what Cameron did before he became leader of his party as he seeks to win an overall majority for the first time.

The context in which the forthcoming British election is being fought is also unrecognisably different to US campaigns. Axelrod is used to being at the heart of titanic duels between two heavyweight candidates. In the UK, although there are only two potential prime ministers, Miliband is navigating his way through a foggy battle being contested by at least six parties. How does he respond to the rise of the SNP in Scotland or the Greens in parts of England? There is nothing in Axelrod's experiences in the US that equip him to give an answer.

More fundamentally Miliband would never have been chosen as a presidential candidate in the US. He lacks the street fighting skills and is not an Obama-like communicator. Miliband is the product of the UK's distinct party based system. In the UK leaders are elected who reflect the broad views of their party when the contest is held. In 2010 Miliband's views chimed with those of a party struggling to come to terms with the ambiguities of the New Labour era. Obama and Clinton became presidential candidates partly because they were already charismatic superstars.

For all of these deep differences there are genuine connections between the US presidential adviser and the aspirant prime minister. Axelrod's memoir shows that he is a political addict with a faith in politics as a benevolent force. Axelrod was hooked on politics from the age of five when he witnessed a spell binding speech from John F Kennedy during in the 1960 presidential contest. Miliband acquired a similar addiction at around the same precociously young age. The shared belief in the nobility of the vocation places them both firmly on the progressive wing. Evidently they are committed to the notion that government can make a difference as the modern Conservative and Republican parties move further to the right in their ideological disdain for the state.

But like his few equivalents in the UK Axelrod is not as interested in ideology as he is in winning campaigns, how to get messages across to the electorate, how to project themes and personalities. Famously he was the author of Obama's simple, devastatingly effective slogan "Yes we can", three words that combine a sense of sunny optimism with a resolute determination to deliver practical change. Although there is much that does not translate to the current shapeless political drama in the UK Axelrod outlines the essence of his campaigning approach in a way that has universal application: understand fully the arguments that could be made for and against you, test them in polling, deploy the two or three that are most meaningful and will have the greatest impact on target voters and then weave the arguments into a larger, authentic narrative. In the end campaigns are always a choice. Why should a voter choose candidate A over candidate B? The winning campaign is the one that dictates the terms of that choice by defining what the race is all about.

Miliband has yet to weave his arguments into a wider narrative, nor has he defined the nature of the choice between him and Cameron in a way that resonates. What is he paying Axelrod for when the Axelrod protocol is not being applied?

A former journalist, Axelrod knows how to grip the reader, aware that politics is the equivalent of a thriller in which no one is sure what will happen next. To take one example of many: he writes of Obama planning for a new life towards the end of his first term, wrongly assuming he would lose the election. If Obama felt nervy imagine how Miliband must feel when he reads the tantalising UK polls. Axelrod conveys the raw, nerve-wracking excitement of political battles. He is of limited use to Miliband as the Labour leader heads towards an election that will make or end his political career.