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Dylan Sharpe: Peter Oborne's "lessons" for Cameron from the US election are wide of the mark

Screen shot 2012-03-21 at 19.33.57Dylan Sharpe is a political PR consultant. He was the Head of Press for the NO to AV campaign and a press officer on Boris Johnson’s 2008 Mayoral campaign. Follow Dylan on Twitter.

Today Peter Oborne has used his Daily Telegraph column to extrapolate lessons for the Conservative Party from Barack Obama’s election success. A noted fan of David Cameron’s detoxification strategy, and never one to mince his words, Oborne proclaims that "victory for the Democrats is among the best news David Cameron has had since the formation of the Coalition more than two years ago". I contend that this, and the seven lessons he outlines in his piece, are wide of the mark.

"For the past two years, Conservative Right-wingers have been urging Mr Cameron to fight the next general election from a platform …involving a tough immigration policy, opposition to the European Union, a robust stance on law and order and a sharp shrinking of the state. Had the Republicans won, these Right-wingers would have claimed vindication."

Conservative right-wingers have indeed been arguing for greater focus on issues like the EU, immigration and crime, but not in isolation and more as a counterbalance for issues that are obvious turn offs for the electorate like Lords reform and international aid. You won’t find anyone serious arguing that David Cameron should abandon any talk of schools and hospitals. But polls show public opinion is in favour of stricter controls on immigration (which is indelibly linked to our membership of the European Union) and tougher attitudes to law and order.

"Mitt Romney had to pretend he was an ideological fanatic in order to win the Republicans’ support... This is exactly the dilemma David Cameron faces."

As above, I refute the idea that the vast majority of the Tory right is calling on the Prime Minister to start behaving like an "ideological fanatic". Focusing on the core issues to which public opinion and Party ideology are attuned is not only sensible policy, its sensible politics.

"Mitt Romney fought his losing campaign in dogged pursuit of the core vote… in many ways similar to the strategy adopted at the 2005 general election by…Michael Howard and Lynton Crosby. President Obama’s subsequent victory is a massive and humiliating blow to the (Karl) Rove/Crosby school of politics." 

There are two ways in which this is incorrect. Firstly, America’s social and demographic make-up made the Republican’s narrow focus on white voters a clear mistake, which early recriminations suggest they will not be making again. By contrast, the Conservative Party has been running outreach to ethnic minorities for several decades and boasts the most varied ethnic make-up of any of the parties in Parliament. Secondly, Peter conveniently omits that the so-called "Lynton Crosby school of politics" won London twice – the most ethnically diverse city on the planet which would ordinarily have had a comfortable 12% Labour majority – as the campaign manager for Boris. While Ken Livingstone’s campaign set about Balkanising the Capital into ethnic blocks, Crosby’s strategy focused on issues and "big tent" politics. Having had the pleasure of working with Lynton I can say with confidence that his real skill is in honing message and campaign in a manner that motivates staff and, as evidence shows, gets results.

"Both candidates relentlessly sought to vilify and demonise their opponent. This did not merely diminish politics: it backfired… Ed Miliband, like Mr Romney, is a decent human being. Tory attempts to trash him personally are likely to fail."

This is, yet again, a huge simplification of what it is Tory HQ want to do. There is a difference between the outright demonising of a candidate – which is what the Obama campaign did and it did not backfire, quite the opposite; it ended up defining the election – and playing on a candidate’s weaknesses. Two years in and 10 points down in the polls, David Cameron still leads Ed on "is a good leader" ratings. If your opponent doesn’t sound or look like a Prime Minister, the public won’t elect him to be one. The Conservatives are entirely correct in reminding people about this from time to time. 

"A superb political machine on the ground, accompanied by excellent motivation and creative use of the internet, were behind the big Democrat turnout. As of today, they (the Tories) do not have a clue how to do this. Stephen Gilbert, the Downing Street political secretary, is not the answer."

First of all, Stephen Gilbert is an excellent operator and was the man behind the surprise and superb by-election victories in Crewe and Norwich North in the last Parliament. Recent results, which are as much to do with the political conditions as anything else, should not take-away from previous achievements. Secondly, a GOTV operation requires money, huge amounts of money, and Britain is still emerging from recession. Donor’s pockets only fall so deep and all party HQs are struggling. If the cash were available, there wouldn’t be a party in the country that wouldn’t try to replicate the Democrat machine. 

"Mr Romney’s campaign at times looked like the product of the private agendas of a tiny corporate elite. Mr Obama, by contrast, could draw on a much wider circle of support. The Tories, too, need to take real care to show voters they are not merely the instrument of the rich and powerful."

This "lesson" crystalises what is, in essence, the difference between the left and right parties in every democracy in the world. One relies on a small number of wealthy trade unions, the other a small number of wealthy corporate donors. The banking crisis has made people suspicious of big business and this has rebounded onto parties that rely on donations from businesspeople. In the '80s, following the winter of discontent, people were opposed to trade unions and the Labour party suffered. The demise of political party membership, which used to be the primary source of party funding, is a crisis that afflicts both Britain and America, but not one that is isolated to the Conservatives.

"Ever since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a succession of presidents and prime ministers have been driven from office by the recession. Mr Obama’s victory, however, shows that an incumbent can win"

As his sole "useful" lesson I heartily agree and the Conservatives will take confidence from this. It should be noted, however, that Obama was lucky enough to enjoy a series of positive economic results in the months leading up to his re-election. David Cameron will need similar news if he is to hold onto his office.


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