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Why Labour doesn’t need Jim Messina

Jim MessinaWe’re doomed! We’re doomed!” No, I’m not channelling Private Frazer’s ghost. But this sums up the deflated mood afflicting sections of the front bench and commentariat. Why? Because it appears the Tories are getting their act together. Some polls show a narrowing of the Labour lead, while others wipe it out altogether, or (confusingly) show Labour extending its lead. Either way, poll volatility is not something a party that has hitherto enjoyed a commanding lead should be relaxed about.

The second bit is the mileage shale gas/tobacco/private health lobbyist Lynton Crosby has made since assuming the mantle of chief Tory election strategist. Gutter politics is what this man’s about, and the Tories have proven all too happy to wade into the filth with him. Europe, scroungers, illegal immigrants – there is nothing off-limits as they seek to create a new electoral coalition around negativity, racism and benefit-bashing. And the third bit, which has had some Labour folk wincing, is the appointment of Obama strategist Jim Messina as a Tory election advisor. 

Jim who? I know, before last night he wasn’t exactly someone on the tip of the political class’s tongues (though getting anyone to admit they had never heard of him is a big ask). But nonetheless he’s something of a catch for the Tories. After all, Jim Messina is the man credited with masterminding Obama’s successful 2012 re-election campaign. He does data, maths, social media and other digital things, apparently.

Of course, being a Democrat you could be forgiven for thinking he wouldn’t touch the Conservatives with an exit poll. Certainly it’s left more than a few people disappointed – witness this petition, for instance. But I think this kind of moralism is pointless. The Democrats are not a labour party, they were not born out of a mass movement of millions of working people. It is a liberal party much like our own LibDems, though far more successful. This isn’t to say the Democratic Party have not done some progressive things from time-to-time – I’d certainly have a Democrat in the White House over a Republican any day. But they are not part of our “family”, nor should we pretend it is.

Quite why the interminably dull two-horse race of American politics exercises the commentariat’s imagination eludes me. Perhaps to ask the question this way is to answer it. But going by the hagiography draped over Jim Messina’s person from our self-appointed experts, I’m given to believe he is to psephology what Einstein was to special relativity. Working his way up from the Hobbesian nightmare that passed for politics in Montana, his record includes using cheap, cynical tricks and homophobic innuendo to win fights. The Tory party should fit him like a glove, then. But his major achievement is curating Obama’s re-election campaign. This undoubtedly was an impressive vote-winning machine, that – if you pardon the awful term – synergised crowd-sourced fundraising, TV advertising, activist mobilisation, and targeted campaigning.

Which, in a way, is why Messina’s is a puzzling hire. His campaigning strength lies in political organisation. To be blunt, the Conservatives haven’t got any. This is why, despite what sundry Labour MPs and Bubble wonks think, this is not a shit-the-bed situation.

If you pay more than lip service to the technologies of campaigning, the Tories may have bagged their ‘great man’; but Labour has a greater depth of experience. It too has its own technical whizzes – as well as party staff and volunteers that were seconded to Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns at all levels. Labour also has its infamous Contact Creator voter ID system, which is absolutely essential for any get out the vote operation and has very wide take-up in the party. The Tory equivalent – ‘Merlin‘ – is much more problematic. And do we need to mention that Labour had an activist-led social media presence way before anything approaching a strategy was developed?

Ah, that word. Activist. Not only is Tory membership plummeting, but the party’s average age is quite considerable. It’s 68 suggests this report, or 74 according to another. Labour’s is, based on a quick google search, anywhere between 47 and 60. Clearly, the latter has greater numbers of younger, fit people who can do the hard grind of leaflets, door knocking, stalls and stunts. Plus Labour has a culture of organising. Yes, there are constituency organisations that have – how shall se say – been at rest for extended periods, but doing things is in the party’s DNA.

While there are active Tories who do more than hold wine and cheese evenings, it simply cannot out-organise the Labour Party. And to rub it in, Labour are taking on more full and part-time organisers to work the marginals – the experience of 2010 showed that where there were organisers, Labour had a better chance of holding on. Quite how Jim Messina can work with the dilapidated Tory party remains to be seen – but he certainly cannot mobilise new generations of young people around vague notions of hope, or keeping the nasty party out. Labour on the other hand can reasonably expect to benefit from that effect.

But this is all very dry stuff. Labour has the medium, but does not have the message. Whereas the Tories already do. So as the long, long campaign settles in after the summer recess Labour has to get its finger out its arse and come up with policies that speak to the hope for something different, the need for people to feel security in their lives, and the desire to turn the country’s fortunes around. Once we have decent positions we can speak to, then Labour’s collective strength and strategic nous can fully make its weight felt.

This article first appeared at A Very Public Sociologist

3 Comments

  1. I do not understand the fuss that Jim Messina is going to be working for the Conservatives.

    Of course he is. They and the Democrats are sister parties.

    Labour has none in the United States. The Republicans have none in the United Kingdom.

    Britain is not America. And vice versa.

  2. Rod says:

    “Labour has to get its finger out its arse and come up with policies that speak to the hope for something different”

    But hasn’t Labour already nailed its colours to the mast?

    Labour’s Jim Murphy has outlined his plan for ‘humanitarian’ wars in resource rich Africa and for the spending of billions on renewing Trident.

    Liam Byrne has mercilessly laid into social security scroungers.

    Ed Miliband’s attack on Unite and Len McCluskey has already won the backing of Murdoch.

    And Chuka Umunna’s recently announced mission to help people make their first million will have the champagne corks popping blizzard-like in the Square Mile.

    But if this is the difference Labour is offering ordinary people then perhaps we’d be better off if Labour plugged its arse permanently.

  3. Rob the cripple says:

    We have a choice at the next election of Tory Lite or the real thing, my own feeling is people will chose the real thing.

    Today was interesting when Miliband talks about wages and the people getting poor.

    Was it not Miliband who stated labour would keep to the Tories spending plans and hold wages to the public sector to 1%.

    I see Hain has come out with an idea about Gibraltar , we should share the sovereignty with Spain, this was the same idea that he and his mate Blair came up with in 2002 and the people rejected in a referendum.

    Where is Blair today. right behind Miliband.

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