Comment: What exactly is David Axelrod doing for Labour?

By Richard Heller

Last spring Labour secured the services of David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s election strategist, for an undisclosed six-figure sum. This was hailed as a dramatic political coup, trumping the Tories' earlier capture of Axelrod's rival, Jim Messina. Labour's press release described his signing as the culmination of months of effort by the party's campaign co-ordinator, Douglas Alexander, who proclaimed that he had "the skills, the strengths and the values needed to make a huge contribution in the year ahead". He added: "This announcement is great news for Labour – and seriously bad news for the Conservatives."

John Prescott's son  David was so excited by the appointment that he compared it to a Real Madrid player signing for Hull City, thus managing to insult simultaneously his party and his father's football team.

A few moaning minnies wondered how much value the Labour party would get from him. Some of us queried Axelrod's alleged status as Obama's mastermind. While admitting the brilliant organisation of Obama's campaigns, we wondered how much they had influenced actual voter behaviour. Personally, after reporting both of Obama's victories, I believe that any Democratic nominee, even a dead gerbil, would have beaten any Republican nominee in 2008 and would have secured re-election against Mitt Romney in 2012.

Others accepted Axelrod as the architect of the Obama victories but wondered if he could work the same magic in Britain, with no experience of our politics, our society and the way we talk and relate to each other. Some suggested that Labour's leaders were unduly fascinated by American politics (both in fact and in televised fiction).

We moaning minnies were soon silenced. Axelrod himself told us he would help to transform Ed Miliband's cost-of-living campaign to match Obama's offer to create an economy which works for everybody.

Six months on, it is hard to trace any positive Axelrod impact on Labour’s fortunes.

In June, Labour’s local election results were disappointing and it lost the European elections to Ukip, after a campaign widely judged to be embarrassing and inept. The Scottish referendum demonstrated how much ground the party has lost in Scotland. Swathes of Scottish voters have lost faith in Labour as a party of government and see it as part of an English enemy. Labour's problems in Scotland are far from over and it is also threatened by an English backlash against the panicky concessions made to the Scots. Labour made a confused and clueless response to David Cameron's opportunistic but predictable promise of 'English votes for English laws'.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband's personal ratings have fallen to levels achieved by Michael Foot. In many respects, Labour is actually worse off than in Foot's time.  Foot inspired actual love within the party and respect for his courage and principle from voters who never dreamed of voting for him. Foot led a Labour party with a raft of ambitious policies.  Many were highly unpopular but voters knew what to expect from a Labour government and why it would be very different from Margaret Thatcher's. Above all, Labour had many alternatives to Foot as leader, had it ever assembled the collective nerve to depose him. Apart from the obvious choice of Denis Healey, I could think of six other members of Foot's shadow Cabinet who might have been capable leaders. In place of Healey we now have Harriet Harman (who is not a leadership contender) and no-one else in the present shadow Cabinet has staked any convincing claim to offer more to Labour than Miliband.

Ukip has grown into an existential threat to the Labour party, coming within an ace of snatching a safe Labour seat and surging to 25% in the most recent Survation poll, just six percentage points behind Labour and Conservatives, who are tied on a dismal 31%.

If Axelrod has given Labour any wise advice on how to deal with Ukip, from his experience of the American Tea Party, it is not apparent. Labour’s response to Ukip is again confused and clueless. Some Labour strategists still want to ignore it, because it does more damage to the Tories than themselves. Some want to attack it, some want to appease it: these evidently include Miliband, after his rushed promise to crack down on benefits for immigrants.

Despite Axelrod's expertise, Labour's cost-of-living campaign failed to gain any traction, and has been replaced by the NHS as the centrepiece of its appeal to voters. It is hard to see how any American can contribute much to a campaign to save 'socialised medicine', which is still box-office poison in American politics.

In fairness, Axelrod cannot be blamed for Labour's dismal party conference, since he did not show up for it. This was the party's last fullscale opportunity to showcase itself and deliver key messages to the British people, but he was busy back in the United States responding to the intruder in the White House and defending Obama's policy on Syria.

An online search reveals no sign of Axelrod's activity as a paid senior stategist to the Labour party since May, apart from a few suggestions that he helped to secure Miliband’s brief meeting (and photographs) with President Obama.

All Labour candidates, workers, supporters and contributors now deserve to know how much he is being paid – and for what.

It is entirely possible that he has supplied brilliant advice to the Labour party from afar, which would have forestalled its present problems and produced an election-winning strategy. If so, the whole party needs to hear that advice and discover why it was not implemented.

But if he turns out to have been an expensive trophy signing by a starstruck leadership, the party should do without him. The fees it saves could be spent on extra agents or organisers and other people who may not be famous or glamorous but know how to fight British elections.

Richard Heller is a former adviser to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. He has just published a novel based on the life of the eccentric man of letters, Luke Upward.

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