Why Labour is going to pay the “British Nate Silver” almost as handsomely as Ukip did

General elections are now won far less by ideas than by algorithms

Matthew Norman
Tuesday 11 November 2014 19:06 GMT
The Labour Party is heading for defeat
The Labour Party is heading for defeat (Getty)

The time has come to lay one overquoted political cliché on the pyre of disproved electoral verities, douse it with choicest paraffin, and strike the Swan Vesta. We have heard it a million times before, and we’ll hear it lethargically trotted out a few hundred more in the months ahead. But no amount of sledgehammer repetition can save the New York Democrat Mario Cuomo’s time-dishonoured saw that “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose” from a status as a festering pile of outdated cobblers.

These days you campaign for a general election in science – or rather a medley of sciences which includes applied mathematics, statistics and a heavy dash of social psychology. On the one hand, there being nothing overtly Byronic about our politicians, this is probably just as well. Between them, the leaders of the four main parties would struggle to compose a third-rate Pam Ayres pastiche.

On the other hand, there is something undeniably gloomsome about the hastening descent of electoral politics since the Berlin Wall fell from a war of grand ideologies into a series of tiny pitched battles for incremental advantage in a weeny number of marginal seats. As so often with British public life, it’s the smallness that gets you.

Still, as Cuomo’s fellow Italian-American Tony Soprano would put it, “whaddya gonna do?” It is what it is, this gruelling, filthy old business of gaining power – and what it is today is about cynically and clinically micro-targeting messages at that minuscule portion of the electorate whom those seeking their support see fit to treat much as Dr Pavlov treated his dogs.

To this end, Labour has made what it apparently regards as its most pivotal appointment since David Axelrod, the Obama guru whose hugely expensive consultancy has worked such wonders for the national image of the party and its leader. That said, the ecstatic fanfare with which Labour high command announced the snaffling of The Axe (election supremo Douglas Alexander sounded disturbingly close to orgasm when he celebrated the news on the Today programme) has not greeted the hiring of a certain Ian Warren. Far from it, Labour has thus far refused to confirm that this number cruncher has been hired at all, on the compelling ground (see Wee Dougie Alexander, above) that “we never comment on staffing matters”.

Mr Warren is described in reports not only as the “British Nate Silver” – the American polling stats genius who became the globe’s leading nerd icon by predicting how 49 of the 50 states would vote in 2008, and getting all 50 right in 2012 – but also as a “betting expert”. Since he advises the bookies on how to price their political markets, this is the case. But it would be misleading to portray him as the political world’s very own John McCririck. If only he were. The sight of a madman in a deerstalker wandering through Rochester and Strood waving his arms and spouting incomprehensible tic tac, screaming “Ladbrokes go double carpet on Mark Reckless taking it for Ukip… that’s 1-33 Reckless, 25-1 the field”, and furiously berating the idiot waving to his mum in the background, would be a delight.

Alas, Mr Warren, to whom Ukip paid a fortune for advice before coming within a few hundred votes of snatching Heywood and Middleton from Labour recently, is a less vibrant character. We may imagine him hunched over his computer at his Bolton home into the early hours, minutely analysing the underlying influences behind voting intentions in small areas of marginal constituencies. Such information might very well be crucial in a general election as delicately balanced as next May’s. It would allow Labour candidates to design their messaging according to whether the inhabitants of one ward or another are more concerned about immigration than stagnant wage inflation, or energy pricing than the NHS. It would enable individual canvassers to modify the party’s most passionate and inviolable beliefs according to whether the threat in this street or that avenue comes from the Tories, Ukip, the Greens or even, who knows, the Liberal Democrats.

If I misrepresent Mr Warren’s work, my sincere apologies. I wanted to research it more deeply, God’s honest I did guv’nor and no mistake, but his election data blog mysteriously vanished from the internet a few days before his hiring became public. The data he was happy to make freely available has suddenly become priceless, which may explain why Labour is willing to pay him almost as handsomely as Ukip.

It should go without saying that there is nothing sinister about that work. Like boxing, its kissing cousin in the arena of combat sport, democratic politics has always been a mixture of art and science. Yet there is something plainly melancholic about the growing supremacy of the science over the art, and about the prospect of a general election being won (or lost least badly; its odds-on at 4-6, as Mr Warren would tell you, that neither party will win a majority) far less by ideas than by algorithms. And I can’t help feeling it would be poetic justice if this appointment pans out about as well as Axelrod’s, if only because with this approaching campaign, that will be as close to any kind of poetry as we are likely to get.

Jews, blacks and gays in the Ku Klux Klan? Don’t hold your breath

Rebranding a movement is a slow, torturous process. With a product you need only change the name, because who cares if what they’re eating is a Snickers or a Marathon? When a political movement has a deeply embedded negative image it’s not so easy.

So, the best of luck to John Abarr of Montana in his quest to reposition the Ku Klux Klan as an inclusive, tolerant rainbow coalition. His new KKK chapter, the Rocky Mountain Knights, welcomes all colours, religions and sexual preferences, so long as they are prepared to wear the white robe and hood.

“White supremacy is the old Klan,” explains this reformed white supremacist, who hopes to hold a peace summit with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

If Mr Abarr is distressed to find himself attacked by KKK traditionalists for keeping and thus besmirching the old name, he is reminded that these things take time. During a previous image-softening exercise about 15 years ago, I rang an Alabama number to speak to the knight responsible. “I’m calling about your drive to make the KKK more inclusive,” I said. “Aha,” said the voice, “what can I do for y’all?” “I seek permission to start a Jewish chapter here in England. With the Star of David on the hood. And a flaming Menorah instead of the cross. Hello? Hello??” Click, brrr.

Rebranding of this type is always a Snickers, never a sprint.

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