Shhh! Don’t tell the Tories, but politics has changed!

Settle back and relax with a nice warm beverage as I’m going to tell you a story. Back in the mid-1980s when I was an eager young man with a passion for politics, the Liberal Party of Canada sent me to an intensive training conference for campaign management. The keynote speaker and designer of the workshop material was a large man who spoke with a folksy drawl named Matt Reese. Reese had been an organiser for both John and Robert Kennedy in West Virginia and had gone on to form a consultancy firm that managed Senate and gubernatorial campaigns across the US. I remember most vividly one anecdote he told, as follows:

“When I came out of the war, my wife and I settled into a little town and started a family. One day, a fella from the Democratic Party came knockin’ at our door and he introduced hisself and said, ‘Mister Reese, there’s gonna be a bond issue in the next election. We wanna build a nice new school just up the road from you that your kids can go to.’ And I thought, well that’d be a darn nice thing, havin’ my kids walk to school instead of takin’ a bus. So I told him, ‘That’s a fine idea. You got my vote.’

“Few years later, same fella came back to our door and this time he said, ‘Mister Reese, there’s another bond issue comin’ up. We wanna build a brand new high school right next to that there elementary school you so kindly voted for.’ And I said, ‘That’s a fine idea too,so you got my vote.’

“Couple more years go by, and same fella’s at the door, and he says, ‘Mister Reese, we need your support again. We need to elect a State representative who will put more money into the University of West Virginia so your kids can get a top-notch education right here at home.’ And I liked that idea, so did my wife, and we said ‘You got our votes.’

“Well sir, a few more years pass. Our children were grown, been educated, left home and started their own families. And back to our door comes this same fella from the Democrats. He was kinda old now, but he rapped on our door with his cane and when I opened it he said, “Good mornin’ Mister Reese. You remember that elementary school you voted for all those years ago? Well, it’s gettin’ kinda shabby so we’d like you to support another bond issue to replace it.’ And I thought for a second or two until I said to him, ‘Educate your own damn kids’ and shut the door.”

All politics are local. Back in those days when any road to the future seemed to end in Elysium, we thought we had politics and political campaigns all figured out. There was a clever, clever formula for success that we would use because we were clever, clever people. Identify your base – the people very likely to vote alongside your interests – and largely ignore them. Identify the committed opposition – the people who would never vote alongside your interests – and definitely ignore them. Let sleeping dogs lie, as it were. Lastly, everyone not contained in one of those two groups, those were the people who were worth courting.

The key word then was targeting. I remember attending a campaign meeting during an election that brought together clever, clever people from several ridings (aka constituencies) and one of them mentioned he was putting together a targeted public opinion poll. At the merest mention of the word ‘target’, organizers dashed across the room like pigeons attracted by a dropped bag of bread crumbs in a piazza. ‘Target? Target? What kind of target? Who are you targeting? What’s your breakdowns? Gender? Economic? Caw! Caw! Flap flap flap. Target!’

And that, as you know if you have been paying any sort of close attention, has been the shape of campaigns for over thirty years both in North America and here in the UK. (The same is likely true for other Western democracies, however I only speak or write to that of which I am sure.) If we use the classic left-right, socialist-capitalist terminology, ignore both the far left and far right wings of the population and appeal only to the mushy, persuadable middle for within that 5-15 per cent of the population were the votes that make swingometers sway.

The great experts of course were the Americans. And so it was when Bill Clinton had achieved his great upset win over the incumbent President George H.W. Bush in 1992, his pollsters Mark Penn and Stan Greenberg were stuffed into the thin tube of the Concorde (pause for a nostalgia moment) and sent to assist Tony Blair in his basement to rooftop renovations, the remodeling of the Labour Party into New Labour. Not to rush the ending for any amnesiacs reading this essay, but that worked out pretty well, for Blair anyway if not so much Iraq.

Onwards we went, poll poll poll, focus group focus group focus group, slogan slogan slogan. The late, great media scholar Marshall McLuhan said that ‘the medium is the message’; we clever, clever people had re-interpreted that as ‘the message is the middle’ as in class.

Of course, all this cleverness fed straight into the never-sated appetite of neoliberalism. One could easily fill a large university library with the political theories behind all this, however we don’t want to be here all day so allow me to quickly summarize and move on. The neoliberal, corporate, famous 1 per cent needs an optimistic middle class because that is who buys things the corporate class sells; everything from inflated mortgages to new mobile phones with only a whisker of improvements over last year’s ‘obsolete’ model, to £15 fidget spinners. Therefore, keep telling the middle class that Things Are Getting Better! As to the poor, well, riots in the street are bad for business so their message was that they would soon rise to the middle class. Behold Elysium! We have a lovely terrace there with your name on it! Hercules himself never saw nor smelled so much bullshit even when he was knee deep in the Augean Stables.

The great shell game of the corporate class all fell apart in 2008 with the hedge fund crash, taking the Republicans in the US and an exhausted Labour Party in the UK down with it in short order. When Labour attempted to revitalize itself in 2015, who did it bring in? David Axelrod, the master campaigner who had been the strategist behind Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. I shall be writing an extensive article on Obama in a few weeks, within a review of the recently published Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama so I shall keep my remarks on that subject brief here. Obama was the ultimate Blairite – talk left, govern right, the words never matched his government’s practice. (If you’re still a fan of Obama, please hold your fire on the comment board until I have made my full argument.)

Axelrod and the other clever, clever people behind the Miliband campaign of 2015 applied the targeting wisdom to the Party’s manifesto and messaging. Not to be cruel about it, for I quite like the man’s real ideas and policies, but they turned the formerly Red Ed into Magenta Miliband, a mix of red and blue. Labour ran as a kinder, gentler Conservative Party but guess what? The electorate when faced with a choice between the real Tories and pretend Tories went with the original model. In some ways, that was for the same reason that sales of Coca-Cola are greater than generic house brand brown fizzy drinks; it’s all about the brand. However, what 2016 and 2017 have taught us is that the electorate itself has changed and with it so has campaigning.

Eventually neoliberalism was going to eat itself alive. The transfer of government revenue from services to corporate interests in the form of tax, tariff and procurement policies was going to have a street level impact. Coming back to the Matt Reese story with which I began this essay, the schools were starting to crumble. One might not care so much about that if one does not have children, but the decay was and is not isolated to the schools. Police, fire, the NHS, rail service – everywhere one looked, things were no longer working as well as they either used to or as well as successive governments had promised they soon would. Elysium was closed for repairs.

I do not know if Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour campaign of 2017 consciously focused their manifesto and message to take advantage of this general dis-ease among the public, or (as I suspect) Corbyn has had a consistent message for his entire political life and just had to wait for the times to catch up to him. Regardless of purpose, the return to ‘all politics are local’ is the replacement for all that clever, clever targeting and division of the electorate.

One cannot say that there are no more demographics. There are still definite divisions within the overall electorate, particularly in terms of age divisions. However, and this is the vital point in all this, the left-right, socialist-capitalist horizontal spectrum can be binned. It’s as demised as a Monty Python parrot. The electorate is now divided vertically. As my late father Don O’Hearn, a political columnist for thirty years used to put it, ‘It’s them what has against them what hasn’t.’ (Well, he used to say that; his written prose was much more eloquent.) Much like Corbyn, I think the times have finally caught up to the old boy’s insight.

The Tories, if they have realized this at all, realized it too late. Theresa May and her (now fired) staff and advisors ran on the old left-right, neoliberal paradigm of slogans and expertise. They are doomed. As to our friends in the US, I suspect that the Democrats are equally doomed even though Trump and the Republicans are doing their level best in incompetence and cruelty to fall across the railway tracks, requiring the progressives to just shovel some coal into the boiler of the 6:10 from Yuma and drive over them.

But no. In the five special elections held since Trump’s inauguration the Democrats are 0-5. Admittedly, the margins of defeat are narrowing, but I do not feel encouraged by how they are being defeated. There is still the nineties era focus on ‘triangulation’ that Bill Clinton mastered: not even so much talking left, as talking more of the same policies, but implemented better. That simply will not work any more.

In conclusion, I cannot help but note that in a supremely ironic twist, a ‘son of Concorde’ is expected to begin trans-Atlantic supersonic flights beginning in 2018. I expect that there will once more be political advisors winging their way to help their cousins win. This time though, it won’t be clever, clever Democrats coming to save the mother country; it will be the youth of Momentum and the Corbynistas arriving to make that brave new world … brave again.

Be seeing you.

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