So far as can be discerned, David Axelrod, the Labour Party’s new campaign adviser, is well suited to the task. He is an obviously highly intelligent political obsessive who seems to have done an excellent job for Barack Obama, most notably in seeing off Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008 and in securing a tricky re-election for the President in 2012.
He appears to possess the calm demeanour and sense of humour that will be needed as tensions mount in the run-up to next year’s general election. Provided some of the powerful personalities at the top of Labour can bring themselves to work together in the common good – socialism in action, one might say – Mr Axelrod will prove a fine asset, and worth every penny of his coyly described “six-figure salary”. Mobilising the potential of the web is said to be Mr Axelrod’s speciality; we look forward to witnessing the promised display of digital sorcery.
As with his counterparts in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, the appointment does, however, speak to a certain lack of self-confidence, and for similar reasons. For Labour and the Tories, these moves are born of a frustration that neither party seems able to break through to the magic 40 per cent support level, either in the polls or real elections, and has been unable to do so for some time. What would have been a disappointing vote share in the era of Wilson and Heath, and would be acceptable to Thatcher or Blair, is now unattainable for their successors. At or above 40 per cent Ed Miliband or David Cameron could be confident of governing with a stable parliamentary majority, not having to faff around with the Liberal Democrats, and claim some simulacrum of popular support.
For a decade now, nothing has seemed able to convince the British electorate to fall back in love with the two main parties. Both are viewed as uniformly corrupt, broadly incompetent in economic management, out of touch and lacking in conviction. Hence the global search for a magical solution from the new cadre of globe-trotting political alchemists.
In that context, the Labour Party should not expect too much of its new guru. It will be difficult to persuade the British public that Ed Miliband isn’t a nerdy career politician who came from a relatively fortunate background straight into politics and has had few setbacks in his life – because it is true. That Ed Balls was at the scene when the British economy crashed (or “touched bumpers”, in Mr Balls’s favoured euphemism) is also undeniable. That Labour MPs have been done for fiddling expenses is also painfully obvious. Mr Obama was a much more saleable proposition than today’s only semi-rehabilitated Labour Party. If it is any consolation for them, they should notice that the Tory Merlin, Lynton Crosby, has found the British public resistant to his spells.
Importing political techniques and experts to the UK is nothing new, though there seems to be more of it nowadays. Yet there have been no examples of them delivering transformative change. That is down much more to policies and leadership. Mr Axelrod should tell his new employers as much.